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Microtransit myth: App-based transit means people without smartphones miss out

Not so fast. Some of the best microtransit services have web portals, call centers, and even physical kiosks to make booking a ride easy for virtually any passenger.

Via Transportation •

Welcome to our Microtransit Misconceptions series, where we use detailed data and real transit examples to debunk common myths about on-demand public transit. Let’s dive in:

MYTH: App-based transit risks leaving behind core users who don't have smartphones. 

REALITY: A sound technological platform ensures that anyone can take advantage of the system, including those without easy access to smartphones, the internet, or other technology.

It’s true: Building a public transportation system that solely relies on a smartphone won’t ensure its success. Cities today need systems that are built for flexibility and adaptability, so that operators can serve passengers’ very local needs.  In general, on-demand systems today can (and should) have a variety of booking options to maximize accessibility for any type of rider: 

  • An intuitive, easy-to-use smartphone app for all passengers (or their caretakers) that includes built-in accessibility features like voiceover technology, adaptive font size, and enhanced contrast.
  • A web portal for those who have internet access through a desktop computer.
  • Telephone, SMS, or email booking.
  • Optional ride booking kiosks at major transit hubs.

In the City of Wilson, North Carolina, which launched its new on-demand service in September 2020, riders have the option of using the Via app, logging onto a dedicated web portal, or calling a central booking line whenever they want to schedule a ride. The service also accepts prepaid debit cards to better serve the city’s unbanked population. 

Over in Newton, Massachusetts, the city’s on-demand service specifically caters to the community’s senior citizen population. Given the target passenger is not traditionally the most tech-savvy transit rider, more than half of seniors call to book their rides — seamlessly. 

It’s always easy to find a reason not to add technology to existing infrastructure, but when it comes to 21st-century public transportation, the status quo just isn’t working. Many of the worries around on-demand are rooted in myths and misconceptions that prevent the worldwide transportation community from making necessary progress. If we’re serious about connecting all households to the services they need, addressing COVID-19 challenges, mitigating climate change, and preventing massive congestion and pollution in our cities, now is the time for new ideas.   

This article is one of five data-driven stories debunking common misconceptions about microtransit: