Microtransit: A flexible, cost-effective, and sustainable mobility solution

Microtransit: A flexible, cost-effective, and sustainable mobility solution
By Emma Balsam and Kaylei Verrill
Nov 14, 2023

Microtransit is a relatively new solution for addressing a series of long-standing issues within the transportation sector. One of the greatest threats to our environment today is the production of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into our atmosphere. According to the EPA, transportation is the leading contributor of GHG emissions, making up 28% of all emissions in the U.S. The nation’s dependence on single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) is a major contributor to this staggering number.  

Our heavy reliance on SOVs can be explained by a variety of factors, including the lack of first and last mile (FLM) options for commuters to reach local public transport access points. This limited mobility leads to more vehicles on the road and more carbon emissions. Moreover, current land use patterns can make it difficult for frequent, fixed-route transit services to provide full network coverage. To address this contributor to climate change, developing tech-forward solutions like microtransit that make transit more equitable, accessible, sustainable, and can bridge network gaps could alleviate struggles for travelers and improve regional connectivity.  

Improving transit 

Many commuters face a series of challenges around getting to and from local train and bus stations. For larger train stations that have parking lots, parking congestion is a major problem. There is almost an expectation of needing to drive to and park by the nearest train station. Yet not everyone who uses the local train or bus to commute has access to a car, the ability to drive a car, or a driver’s license. The limited number of train stations or bus stops that exist in an area can also mean that commuters need to travel from their point of origin even farther to get to the nearest stop that has the route they need. This is just one of the many transportation challenges that microtransit can address.

Microtransit provides resources that are both economical and sustainable. Its development, implementation, and usage can allow individuals to reach their destinations with less stress, reduce the number of cars on the road, and yield a decrease in overall carbon emissions. The benefits of microtransit span across multiple aspects of society and include reductions in SOV congestion, improvements to air quality, greater mobility and transportation accessibility, and seamless integration with the existing transportation network.  

Environmentally, microtransit is significantly less harmful compared to the impacts from SOVs. Switching from driving alone in one’s car to microtransit reduces the number of vehicles on the road and vehicular pollution, which then improves regional air quality. Furthermore, implementing microtransit options that operate on clean fuels, such as electricity, can lead to further emissions savings. Any reduction in carbon emissions leads to better health outcomes for people, waterways, wildlife, and beyond.  

From a public health standpoint, microtransit can be groundbreaking. Lack of access to essential resources such as jobs, grocery stores, medical offices, and more can negatively impact the health levels of a community. Investing in a microtransit solution that allows community connectivity to these resources can significantly improve public health outcomes.  

Economically, microtransit is a helpful option for those looking to reduce their transportation costs. Owning and maintaining a personal vehicle is a hefty expense that many individuals cannot afford. Microtransit reduces that need by providing an often-affordable way of reaching one’s desired destination.  

Increasing flexibility 

Microtransit is set apart from traditional modes of transportation in that the inclusion of on-demand services appeals to the diverse needs and preferences of travelers. The figure below illustrates the difference between microtransit and traditional transportation through a comparison of advantages and disadvantages. The flexibility of on-demand services enables travelers to select routes, pick-up and drop-off locations, and schedules that can serve to reduce or eliminate common constraints associated with fixed route transportation options. 

Comparison of mobility alternatives illustrating the collective advantages of microtransitComparison of mobility alternatives illustrating the collective advantages of microtransit
By offering travelers flexible, cost-effective, and sustainable mobility solutions, microtransit is a rapidly emerging solution in the realm of FLM transportation. In addition to increased flexibility, microtransit services are often a more affordable mobility option as compared to SOVs, taxis, and rideshares. As a result, microtransit has risen to become a popular mobility alternative, providing travelers with a more customized, convenient, and cost-effective mobility option.  

Implementing microtransit solutions 

In recent years, several companies have begun to develop microtransit networks in communities across the United States, bringing more sophisticated transportation access to millions of people and paving the way to bring more equity into the mobility space. 

A notable example is the launch of Via shuttles in major U.S. cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York. Via’s on-demand service allows travelers to book rides through a mobile app and pool with other travelers moving in the same direction. According to the company’s recent data, Via’s microtransit services helped reduce carbon emissions by 35.2% in 2022, for a total reduction of 4,853 tons of carbon dioxide.  

Additionally, the company says that “40.8% of Via-powered microtransit rides replaced trips previously served by private vehicles in 2022,” suggesting that a large percentage of Via’s riders opt to use public transit over personal vehicles. This data is indicative of how impactful microtransit is on shaping commuters’ behavior and reducing our carbon footprint. Via’s approach to sustainable transportation has proven successful in providing urban travelers with a flexible and efficient mobility option. 

Another prominent microtransit provider is Circuit, which has been introduced in U.S. cities such as New York, Washington, D.C, West Palm Beach, and Miami. Circuit leverages electric shuttles that offer emission-free transportation that customers can hail using Circuit’s app. By deploying small electric shuttles and a service that supports route optimization, Circuit helps to reduce traffic congestion, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance mobility.  

Brightline is a passenger rail service provider in Florida that launched its own microtransit shuttle service to complement train offerings. In select service areas, Brightline+ customers can use the Brightline app to book a flexible and all-electric neighborhood shuttle service to enhance FLM connectivity to and from train stations. In Wilson, North Carolina, the fixed-route transit services were replaced by the VIA microtransit option, RIDE, which costs only $1.50 per ride within a designated service boundary. In partnership with the City of Wilson, VIA launched a full, turnkey service inclusive of software, drivers, and vehicles.  

These examples of microtransit adoption help to illustrate its increasing presence in the U.S. by aiding commuters in reaching transit hubs from their pick-up and drop-off points with greater ease.  

Looking ahead 

Although the concept of microtransit is fairly recent, there are several strategies and best practices that those contemplating microtransit implementation should keep in mind. Strategies that contribute to the affordability of microtransit include tech-driven route optimization and pooling passengers with similar travel itineraries in one vehicle to serve the most people in the best way possible.  

Best practices for microtransit implementation include establishing local relationships, leveraging technological advancements, and conducting on-going evaluations to adapt services to changing mobility needs. It’s important to establish relationships with local government stakeholders and regional transportation agencies to integrate as seamlessly as possible with the existing transportation network, navigate various laws and regulations, potentially utilize existing infrastructure, and share insights about changes in the transportation landscape. It is equally important to leverage technological advancements such as strong dispatch systems, real-time data, and algorithms. Finally, ongoing evaluations of services and adapting to the changing needs of travelers is critical to the success of microtransit projects. These strategies and best practices can lead to shorter wait times for travelers, greater transportation network accessibility, and improved service quality.  

The future of microtransit holds great promise in evolving transportation networks. By harnessing the potential of microtransit, we can create a future where transportation is seamless, inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. 

Meet the authors
  1. Emma Balsam, Sustainable Mobility Specialist
  2. Kaylei Verrill, Senior Sustainable Mobility Specialist

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