Back in ye olden times, beckoning a ride with a phone tap was for the 1-ish percent. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick says he launched his world-shaking app back in 2009 so he could look über-rich and powerful. “We just wanted to push a button and get a ride, and we wanted to get a classy ride,” he later told Business Insider. “We wanted to be baller in San Francisco.”
Now, the sort of on-demand transit Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing companies have made so popular might finally make it to the masses—maybe even to those without smartphones or bank accounts. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority just announced it’s looking for a friend to help it build an on-demand transit program, which would supplement the services the agency already runs.
LA Metro calls it “microtransit,” something in between a big bus that follows a rigid route and a personal ride that takes you door to door. And by “friend”, of course, we mean a private company. Uber, maybe, or Lyft, or van services such as Ford-owned Chariot or New York-based Via. On Monday, the agency that serves 1.3 million daily riders issued a request for proposals, asking anyone interested to plan, design, implement, and eventually evaluate a microtransit pilot project.
Metro kept its demands vague in the interest of sparking creative solutions, but it does have a sense of the sort of experimental service it would like to roll out in 2018: You’d use a smartphone app or phone call to beckon a ride from a smaller vehicle, something between a sedan and a full-size bus, which you would share with other riders. That vehicle would run on the same kind of platform you’ll find on UberPOOL, or Lyft Line, dynamically creating routes based on where customers are and where they want to go. You might have to walk a block or two to an assigned pickup and drop-off point (a “virtual bus stop”), but the ride should come with a free transfer if your next move is a bus or train ride. You’d pay a subsidized, fixed-rate fee that’s competitive with today’s ride-sharing services, and would be able to take these vehicles wherever you want within the pilot’s service area.
Yes, on-demand service is finally coming to public transit, and it could reshape the way Americans get around. Just in time too. American cities are growing, traffic is getting worse, emissions are surging, and public transit systems are suffering from years of underfunding and neglect. (LA has poured money into improving its system but has seen a 16 percent drop in bus ridership in the past three years.) On-demand, shared microtransit might gift entire cities with faster, cost effective service and move drivers out of personal cars.
Or it could be the latest shiny object (oh hey, hyperloop) distracting from the time- and work-intensive solutions needed to fix city travel ills, such as better payment systems, upgraded trains and vehicles, more frequent service, and road pricing schemes.
LA thinks it’s worth a shot. “We can’t sit idly by and see new technologies come and go without trying to figure out how they fit into the public transit landscape,” says Joshua Schank, the chief innovation officer at LA Metro’s extraordinarily named Office of Extraordinary Innovation.
And yes, so many details are up in the air. The agency can’t say where the pilot will happen, though it will probably be confined to one part of the county. It doesn’t know how much an on-demand trip will cost or how much the agency will spend on the service. It wants unionized drivers to be behind the wheels of the vehicles, but it’s not committed to the idea. The pilot could run up to four years, or maybe fewer. LA Metro will say that if the experiment is a success—if it proves a cost-effective way to move many people around the city—it will think about making the service permanent all over the county.
Proponents see this type of public-private partnership as the key to a new kind of public transit service, where agencies are more like travel agents (remember those?) than airlines. “We want to see transit agencies become mobility conveners and brokers,” says Sharon Feigon, the executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, which promotes relationships between agencies and private mobility companies. “They should run the trains and buses as they always have and continue to improve and accelerate those by being a mobility convener. The idea is that they become the organizer of all that and ensure they’re all connected to each other.” For example: use your bus fare card to access the bikeshare docks near your stop; take a publicly subsidized Lyft ride to the closest carshare lot and climb inside.
But there are pitfalls, and we know about them because Los Angeles is not the first city to experiment with microtransit. In Kansas City, a one-year pilot program sent agency-owned vans driven by agency-employed drivers to pick up passengers along routes calculated on the fly. It canned the experiment in March, after just one year, since just 1,480 people tried it out of a city of 2 million. Public officials concluded they hadn’t advertised enough. In San Francisco, the private, Ford-owned van service Chariot has gotten into scrapes with local transit authorities because drivers idle in bus stops and in the middle of the street. If you’re going to have microtransit, you gotta find safe places for vehicles to park.
You have to teach your residents to use the services too. St. Petersburg, Florida’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is still running a pilot program that connects residents with Uber and taxi rides for bus-equivalent fares, but it discovered soon after it launched the program in February 2016 that it needed to do more than set up a few billboards. “Our ridership is transit-dependent, with minimum wage incomes, so they’re not familiar with Uber because they haven’t used it before,” Christopher Cochran, the senior planner who oversaw the project, told WIRED in April. (He has since left the agency.) “You need to educate the people on how to use Uber and why that’s the best choice.” His agency ended up creating leaflets that taught residents how to use the app.
Then there’s the money question. “Transit’s real strength is economies of scale, carrying large numbers of people in a very straight line from place to place,” says David Bragdon, the executive director of the think tank TransitCenter. “I think the caution of this proposal is, how could it possibly be economical?” On-demand paratranist, transit services that agencies must legally provide to disabled and senior riders, accounted for a whopping 12 percent of all American transit spending in 2013.
If ambitious private transportation companies believe they can get all sorts of people around traffic-choked LA County quickly and cheaply—well, this is the time to step up. LA Metro starts accepting proposals October 25.