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Microtransit myth: Cities have already tried on-demand transit, and it failed

Those looking back at Chariot, Bridj, or Slide may say microtransit is a failed experiment. The facts: Microtransit today is drastically different (and more successful) than it used to be.

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: There are so many microtransit attempts that failed. Why would this be any different? 

REALITY: When microtransit is put in place to address a real transportation challenge — and not just for innovation’s sake — it has proven very successful globally. 

The path of progress is rarely smooth, and it is easy to point to a number of microtransit services that have not survived (with the names Chariot, Bridj, and Slide frequently referenced). If you look at each of these projects, they tend to fall into one of three buckets:

  • The service wasn’t solving a real problem for consumers. It is true for any product or service: In order to succeed, it must fill a gap in the needs of its target market. It is not unreasonable to ask whether San Francisco needed a new, non-wheelchair-accessible, more expensive fixed route bus service when Leap launched (even if it was booked via an app).
  • It wasn’t set up to succeed. In advance of launching any service, it is vital to its longevity that a clear set of success metrics are agreed upon by all stakeholders. There are countless services that were set up with unrealistic goals, zero marketing efforts, or in cities that simply didn’t need that specific type of service. A true microtransit partner will work to develop a network that actually succeeds.
  • The service does meet a real need, but is poorly executed. Microtransit is an umbrella term that now covers a very broad and expanding set of services and technology. Inevitably, the term evokes a variety of capabilities and levels of quality — there are some very good services out there, and there are some that are not delivering value to the communities they serve.

To illustrate, Transport for New South Wales ran a trial with dozens of different operators and tech providers and found that the partner makes a big difference. The two projects using Via’s technology (Northern Beaches and Macquarie Park) outperformed the others in terms of ridership growth by more than 100% over the course of the trial. Global consulting group L.E.K. later named Cooee Busways, another Via-powered venture, in the Sydney suburbs “Australia’s most successful OnDemand deployment.” 

While some providers have hired a few engineers to pull together relatively simple technology, Via has a global team of 300+ engineers with experience operating microtransit services around the world. The engineering team — and, more importantly, the partner city — benefit from aggregate learnings applied across services over years of operation. In short, find yourself a partner who has a track record of success.

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: