Mallon: Can microtransit live up to the hype?
Morgan Hill recently launched a microtransit program. Photo by Monica Mallon.

    In September, Milpitas and Morgan Hill launched microtransit programs, often touted as the future of public transportation. But are they really worth the hype?

    Microtransit refers to services that operate like Uber and Lyft, but use minivans or large buses and often use apps to schedule point-to-point rides within a designated service area. Companies like RideCo, the vendor for Milpitas’ SMART and Morgan Hill’s MoGo, pitch microtransit as a cost-effective way to increase public transit access and provide first- and last-mile connections.

    However, despite many pilots nationwide, there have been few success stories.

    One of the earliest microtransit pilots in Santa Clara County was FLEX, a VTA-operated program in North San Jose in 2016. Riders used an app to request rides within the designated zone, and then the software would assign trip requests to drivers.

    Despite initial enthusiasm from leaders, VTA discontinued the FLEX service after the initial pilot because ridership was too low to justify the costs. According to VTA, riders took only 2,714 trips during the six-month pilot, which equals about 16 boardings per day.

    In other cities and counties, microtransit has had similar ridership challenges. Kansas City Metro’s Birdj only served 1,480 people during its six-month pilot. In LA, microtransit did slightly better, but ridership on LA Metro’s pilot only maxed out at 1,675 riders per week, which is less than the ridership most bus routes get in a day.

    While a lack of marketing may be partially to blame for low ridership, no amount of marketing can make up for the fact that door-to-door microtransit is inefficient. The vehicles are smaller, which means less capacity to carry passengers, and they pick up passengers at their doorstep, which means they travel further than a regular fixed route bus. Microtransit typically costs transportation agencies more and provides less value to residents than traditional public transit service.

    Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think elected officials who are interested in microtransit have bad intentions. From what I’ve seen in Santa Clara County, most of the interest comes from a place of wanting to provide service to residents in need. Many of these microtransit pilots are funded by grants that can’t be used for regular transit service—and as I described in a previous column, funding to run transit service is difficult to obtain. So, local leaders face tough choices and often look to microtransit as a solution when they can’t get funding to run more service in their jurisdictions.

    Despite these unfortunate realities, I don’t think it’s wise for us to view microtransit as the solution to our transit woes. It’s time to stop thinking it’s the solution to declining ridership and a lack of transit coverage. If we want transit to thrive, we need to stop looking for flashy tech solutions and get back to the basics.

    Solutions like transit signal priority, which is being implemented on the Monterey corridor in San Jose, and simply running more fixed route transit service to more places might be less flashy, but they have a much better track record of success.

    San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County, and founder of Turnout4Transit. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on Twitter.

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