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4 Black communities are building equity-focused transit with new technology

In honor of Black History Month, we are proud to highlight these Black communities that are transportation innovators — and seeing huge socioeconomic gains because of it.

Via Transportation •

As we celebrate Black History Month, let us reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community” — a space of social equity, belonging, and freedom from prejudice, as described by his eldest son, Martin Luther King III. At Via, we embrace that vision by partnering with communities to build equitable transportation. Black leaders have long understood the powerful role transportation plays in linking people to opportunities, and fought for freedom of movement throughout the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Innovative Black organizers found novel ways to use transportation — community carpooling in Montgomery, Ala ., community jitney services in Birmingham, Ala. — as a tool for social justice and equity. 

Now, American cities with substantial Black communities are once again leading the charge for innovative transit. We’re honored to work with leaders in Birmingham, Memphis, Detroit, St. Louis, and Indianapolis, to plan and deliver microtransit services that extend the reach of existing public transit and fill gaps in transit deserts. Read on to celebrate these cities’ achievements.


Combating transit gaps in Alabama.

“I love that six out of the seven days a week I’m able to use Birmingham On-Demand to go anywhere. It’s a game changer.” — Jeremy McNair, Birmingham On-Demand rider In Birmingham, city leaders have long faced an urban planning problem: large pockets of the city area have been historically underserved by public transit. But in Alabama, one of three states with no state-level transit funding, expanding transit access by traditional methods can be an uphill battle.

City leaders devised a novel solution: an on-demand transit service funded in part by a local nonprofit, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. In December 2019, Birmingham On-Demand began offering on-demand rides to areas of the city that are most in need. Rides are inexpensive — just $1.50 each — and wheelchair-accessible, to ensure everyone is included.  Before the launch of microtransit, only 10% of the city’s jobs were accessible by public transportation. Now, that number has increased to 90%. As Jeremy McNair, a Birmingham On-Demand rider puts it, “since I’ve been using Birmingham On-Demand, I’ve been able to get to work on time…. It’s a great reliable resource. It’s a game changer.” The service was so successful that in December 2022, local leadership agreed to use American Rescue Plan funds to expand the service hours and coverage area to 19 more neighborhoods, responding proactively to their communities’ needs.


Microtransit as a powerful alternative to private vehicles in Tennessee.

Though Memphis, Tenn., has a sprawling and robust transit network, most bus lines are concentrated in a well-served downtown area. In New Chicago, one of the oldest Black communities in North Memphis, transit ran sparingly along the outer edges of the neighborhood. For the 38% of households living under the poverty line who reside even further out, maintaining a private vehicle can be burdensome. To support affordable access to jobs, businesses, and medical services in Downtown Memphis without the need for a private vehicle, local leadership at Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), the Downtown Memphis Commission, and the Memphis Medical District Collaborative launched Groove On-Demand, an on-demand public transit service. Groove serves a mix of use cases that reflect its novel leadership structure: doctors and nurses commuting to jobs downtown, visitors using parking garages far from downtown, and residents of North Memphis neighborhoods, including New Chicago.

Click and drag the centerline in the slider below to see how fixed routes and on-demand services complement one another.

Existing fixed routes in Memphis, Tennessee
On-demand rides integrated in public transit
Using the on-demand transit data layer in Remix, Via’s transit-planning software, we built this tool to visualize the network before and after introducing Groove On-Demand. Now, residents living in the previous transit deserts have the freedom to get across town more conveniently.

This new service helps realize a ‘Downtown for Everyone’ vision for this Black-majority city, as described by Lauren Crabtree, transportation manager of Downtown Memphis Commission, by providing equitable transit options for seniors, students, commuters, riders with disabilities, and visitors alike.


Supporting first- and last-mile connectivity in Michigan.

Fixed route transit service is strong in downtown Detroit, Mich., America's largest Black-majority city. And for Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which operates transit systems in the Detroit metro area, fixed-route service is the network’s heart and soul. But the sprawling fixed routes were not serving many residents due to significant first- and last-mile gaps. Only 2% of people in the coverage area take transit to work, even though 11% of local residents are car-free, according to census data.

Click and drag the centerline in the slider below to see how fixed routes and on-demand services complement one another.

Existing fixed routes in southeast Michigan
On-demand rides integrated in public transit
Despite a sprawling fixed-route network in the Detroit metro area, it was not serving a sufficient number of residents. Transit within these four distinct service zones is difficult using existing fixed-route service, but on-demand travel patterns, visualized in Remix, show that SMART Flex has successfully filled these gaps. 

In March 2021, the agency introduced SMART Flex, an on-demand microtransit service, to offer more comprehensive service. SMART identified four service zones where popular destinations — many of them transit hubs and commercial buildings — are located, but can’t be easily reached by local buses or within reasonable walking distance for residents.

Since launch, SMART Flex has greatly expanded the catchment area of Detroit’s transit network, with over 70% of Flex riders starting or ending in commercial districts or buildings that were not covered by existing fixed routes. Twelve percent of rides connect to existing public transportation.


Expanding equity-focused transit in Missouri.

Metro Transit, the transit agency in St. Louis, Missouri, was recognized as a “Leader in Equity-focused Transit Expansion” in the inaugural set of Via Impact Awards, in recognition of the city’s commitment to facilitating convenient and equitable mobility options for their communities. Launched in June 2020, the microtransit service Via Metro STL was designed to meet evolving mobility needs brought by COVID-19. As the agency has experienced record ridership growth, the leadership team decided to extend this program and even expand its availability to more zones, with customized service designs that meet the unique needs of different communities.

In the North zone, Via Metro STL provides overnight service for shift workers who need rides during hours with limited fixed-route service. In the newly expanded West St. Louis County, the service adapts to the west-to-east commute pattern, making it easier to travel across the County.

“Without Via Metro STL in my area, I’d be walking everywhere because there are no buses or trains and I can’t afford cabs or Ubers.” – Via Metro STL rider Since launch, the service has offered convenient, low-wait time transportation for residents who need it most, now serving nearly 300K residents, a majority of whom identify as people of color, across 50 square miles. Ridership has continued to increase throughout 2022 — specifically, nearly tripled compared to 2021.

Inspired by technology, driven by local needs.

In a report published in September 2020, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation mentioned microtransit’s advantages including flexibility, improved rider experience and its ability to bridge service gaps as key factors in improving access. The report argues this emerging mobility option can especially help Black communities, which are underserved by conventional, fixed-route services, better adapt to post-pandemic transit needs. By reflecting on these innovative services brought by Black communities that have shaped our transit landscape today, we can learn from their successes and work toward making transportation more equitable — a vision we are committed to accomplishing with authorities all around the world.