On Demand Transit and Microtransit: Where and Why Who has implemented microtransit Services
- Date: November 2, 2023
In rural and urban areas, agencies of different sizes operate microtransit services in the U.S. While the number and geographic range of microtransit services continue to grow, the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) 2021 review of mobility innovation highlighted 36 on-demand and microtransit programs across 18 states. Microtransit is being used to expand service into previously unserved or underserved areas and replace or add efficiencies to underperforming transit services. This chapter focuses on a set of ten U.S. transit agencies and highlights noteworthy practices and key takeaways.
Overview of Microtransit in the U.S.
The agencies profiled in this chapter, presented in Table 3, represent a variety of agency sizes and geographic contexts. The map shown in Figure 4 details the location of each agency or transit provider.
Figure 4: Microtransit Provider Agencies Profiled
Table 3: Microtransit Provider Agencies Profiled
|Agency||Location||Context||Service Name||Service Characteristics||Timeframe|
|Baldwin County Commission||Baldwin County, AL||Small Urban||BRATS||Microtransit is the only transportation option offered by the agency in a single microtransit zone.||Permanent microtransit service established in 2019.|
|Franklin Regional Transit Authority (FRTA)||Greenfield, MA||Rural||Access||With four microtransit zones, the service area is also served by fixed-route.||Piloted microtransit 2019-present.|
|Hall Area Transit||Hall County, GA||Small Urban||WeGo||Microtransit is the only transportation option offered by the agency (Service replaced Dial-A-Ride and Gainesville Connection services).||Permanent microtransit service established in 2020.|
|Gwinnett County Transit (GCT)||Lawrenceville, GA||Large Urban||GCT On-Demand Microtransit Pilot||Single-zone microtransit zone in Snellville, GA, an area with no local transit service before the microtransit pilot.||Piloted microtransit in 2018-2019.Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA)|
|Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA)||Kansas City, MO||Large Urban||IRIS On-Demand Transit||In 2016, the piloted service required riders to walk to a specified stop during peak hours. The 2019 pilot and later permanent service were updated to offer point-to-point trips not limited to peak hours in two zones.||Piloted microtransit in 2016 and 2019, permanent service established in 2020.|
|Montgomery County Transit Services (Ride On)||Montgomery County, MD||Large Urban||PT Runner||Providing FM/LM connections within two microtransit zones open to the general public and one designated for military personnel, the service is in partnership with MedStar.||Piloted microtransit starting in 2020.|
|Pierce County Public Transportation Benefit Area Authority||Pierce County, WA||Large Urban||PT Runner||Providing FM/LM connections within two microtransit zones open to the general public and one designated for military personnel, the service is in partnership with MedStar.||Piloted microtransit starting in 2020.|
|The Yolo County Transportation District||City of West Sacramento, CA||Large Urban||West Sacramento On-Demand: Via Rideshare||Microtransit is a city-wide point-to-point zone that complements existing transit by including bus and rail stops that provide connections to downtown Sacramento.||Piloted microtransit in 2018, permanent microtransit service established in 2019.|
|Utah Transit Authority (UTA)||Salt Lake City, UT||Large Urban||UTA On Demand||Service has replaced several Flex routes in the service area and provides FM/LM connections.||Piloted microtransit in 2019.|
|Wilson Transit System||Wilson County, NC||Rural||RIDE||Microtransit replaced Wilson’s fixed-route transit and operates in one city-wide zone.||Permanent microtransit service established in 2020.|
Based on a literature review and an interview with one agency, noteworthy practices were identified among the ten transit agencies and organized into key themes. In designing and deploying microtransit service, transit agencies implemented practices or addressed issues related to service area, fare and payment, funding, trip reservation, ADA accessibility, contracting, outreach and marketing, and data collection described in this section.
The service area of a microtransit service should be identified by considering many factors, including the transit agencies’ service goals. Microtransit service may be designed to be an extension of a regional transit network, replace an existing fixed-route or demand-response service, or fill a geographical gap in the existing transit service. Service area typologies include:
- City-Wide or Entire Service Area: Wilson is a small urban area located 40 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina. The City of Wilson’s RIDE service was designed to replace fixed-route service, so the zone covers the full city of 31 square miles.
- Multiple Distinct Zones within the Service Area: Montgomery County Transit Service’ Ride On Flex has two service zones. Riders can travel within a zone but not between zones. This service model can be used for achieving first and last-mile connections and extending a regional transit network.
- Multiple Connected Zones within the Service Area: FRTA’s service area is divided into four service zones, expanded from two at the beginning of the pilot project. The zones do not encompass the full-service area because FRTA serves 41 counties. Fares differ for travel within and between zones.
- Trips Outside the Service Area: BRATS offers daily trips from Baldwin County to Mobile, Alabama. Prospective riders can reserve a space in the vehicle using their smartphone app. There is also an option to select a recurring ride, a useful feature for commuters.
Beyond individual transit agencies’ service areas, some small urban and rural transit agencies have developed inter-jurisdictional coordination to provide microtransit service at a regional level. For example, in 2021, four transit agencies (Cimarron Transit, JAMM Transit, the KI BOIS Area Transit System, and Pelivan Transit), serving 21 counties in central and eastern Oklahoma, shown in Figure 5, partnered with the Grand Gateway Economic Development Association to launch a microtransit pilot. The pilot, which is currently underway, functions as an off-peak point-to-point microtransit service that allows riders to book shared-ride trips through the Uber app by selecting ‘PICK Transportation’ as the vehicle type. The transportation service also supplements transit services for tribal communities, including the Cherokee Nation, Miami, and Shawnee.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC5: The 21 Counties in Central and Eastern Oklahoma Served by PICK Transportation
Source: Shared-Use Mobility Center
Unlike fixed-route transit systems, in which routes, stop locations, and schedules are planned in advance, microtransit planning requires data on where and when one wishes to travel. This data-driven approach to providing transportation encourages agencies to track metrics beyond passenger trips, vehicle hours, and vehicle miles. Also, as an app-based platform, microtransit automatically generates data and may track a set of metrics, including passenger trip origin/destination location and time, wait times, trip length, number of unique riders, customer satisfaction, etc. Developing performance metrics related to ridership and customer experience, for example, is a best practice demonstrated by UTA. During its pilot program, the agency reported monthly performance data regarding:
- Average weekday ridership
- Utilization (average riders per hour per vehicle)
- Average wait time
- Average customer rating
- Cost per rider.
Additionally, agencies have found it useful to track data related to trip requests.
- During the Ride On Flex pilot program, Montgomery County Transit Services collected information regarding request categories. Trips were categorized as completed, canceled, no-showed, not accepted, other errors, out of the zone, and seat unavailable. Over the pilot period, the number of completed trips increased and the number of ‘other errors’ decreased.
- BRATS tracks the number of passengers who use the smartphone app to request trips. Since dispatcher staff time is required to manage call-in booking, collecting data on app usage enables an agency to assess whether its efforts to get more people to use the app (since it is less resource-intensive) are working. Managing the amount of staff time required to manage call-in bookings can be particularly important for small agencies with limited staff.
Transit agencies operating microtransit services have relied on diverse funding structures, including agency and private sector partnerships, federal, state, and local funds. Small urban and rural agencies typically use FTA Sections 5307 and 5311 funding to fund public transit, but additional FTA grant programs have played an important role in deploying microtransit service and pilot programs. Competitive FTA grants that have been used to transition and pilot microtransit service include:
- FTA’s MOD Sandbox Program Grant
- Awarded to Pierce County Public Transportation Benefit Area Authority $205,299 to pilot a program that helps people travel to and from transit with the use of on-demand rides through app-based technology.
- FTA’s Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) Grant
- Awarded the Baldwin County Commission $260,800 to “create a mobility-on-demand platform to automate routing, scheduling, and dispatching technology.”
- FTA’s AIM Grant
- Awarded The City of Wilson $250,000 to replace its existing fixed-route bus service with on-demand, rural microtransit.
Among the cases reviewed in this chapter, examples of state grants that have been used to fund microtransit include:
- Massachusetts Department of Transportation has a Regional Transit Agency Discretionary Grant Program that has used state funds to support microtransit pilots in the Commonwealth. This program funded FRTA’s Access pilot program.
- Kansas Department of Transportation’s Innovation and Technology Grant awarded KCATA $59,000 to integrate microtransit into RideKC’s official app.
Fare and Payment
Regional Fare Integration
Regional fare integration is important in areas where customers may transfer between services. One of the strengths of the ‘Ride On Flex’ pilot is the payment integration into the regional fare system in the Washington, D.C. area. Seventy percent of customers used their SmarTrip® cards to pay their microtransit fare, and 46 percent of the trips were linked to the regional transit network. Regional fare integration may benefit other services such as PT Runner, on-demand public transportation that serves Pierce County, Washington. Today, riders can show their ORCA card (the smart card used for public transportation in the Puget Sound region of Washington) as a flash pass when boarding microtransit vehicles, but no fare is collected since vehicles are not equipped with ORCA card-reader technology. It is anticipated that next-generation ORCA cards will have the capacity for integration.
Some transit agencies that operate fixed-route bus and microtransit services have set a premium microtransit fare, charging up to two times the fixed-route bus fare for microtransit services. This microtransit pricing structure is meant to incentivize riders to use fixed-route service for trips within the fixed-route coverage area. One such example is FRTA which fixed-route bus is free of charge through June 2022, while microtransit trips cost $3 or $4, depending on if the trip is within a designated zone or between zones.
Microtransit fares can also be impacted by zone size, as some agencies use distance-based pricing instead of fixed fares per trip. For example, Baldwin County’s BRATS microtransit service uses a distance-based approach, charging riders $2 for rides up to five miles and an additional 50 cents for each additional five miles.
Unbanked individuals do not use banks or financial institutions and thus may not have access to credit or bank debit cards. If cash is not accepted on board microtransit vehicles, transit providers accommodate unbanked individuals with vouchers and prepaid debit cards. Examples of such accommodations include:
- WeGo does not allow funds to be transferred on board. Riders can come into the office and purchase vouchers. Vouchers have a 10-digit code that can be entered into the phone.
- BRATS allows riders to purchase ride credits by sending payments in the form of cash or check to the BRATS office. The agency also allows customers to purchase prepaid debit cards using cash at local retail stores that they can use to log into the system.
Microtransit providers who receive federal funding must comply with federal requirements regarding civil rights and nondiscrimination. More information is available on the FTA website.
Microtransit service requires scheduling software, vehicles, drivers, operations management, maintenance, and insurance. Transit agencies typically contract with technology companies that provide scheduling software that enables trips to be booked with a mobile app, as well as internal vehicle routing and dispatch functions. There are many ways agencies have configured their services, shown in Table 4. As discussed in Chapter 1: Service Delivery Models, agencies may opt to use their own vehicles and drivers or contract out service to the technology company or an alternate third party. They can also bring in non-dedicated service providers. Reasons transit agencies might consider contracting include:
- Where state law or local decision-makers require contracting for all or a portion of their services.
- Where state or local law allows pilot projects to be undertaken without a need to seek competitive bids.
- When there are clear cost savings (due primarily to lower labor costs).
- When the contractors have substantial experience in providing demand–response service.
- When a private contractor provides greater ability to modify service on short notice than what would be possible under the transit agency’s collective bargaining agreement.
- When a private contractor already provides ADA demand–response service for the transit agency.
- When a transit agency has insufficient space to accommodate the vehicles for the microtransit service.
Table 4: Example Transit Agency Contract Configurations
|Agency Name or Provider(s)||Service Name||Organization and Service Delivered|
|Baldwin Regional Area Transit System (BRATS)||BRATS||
|Gwinnett County Transit (GCT)||GCT On-Demand Microtransit Pilot||
|Utah Transit Authority (UTA)||UTA On Demand||
Outreach and Marketing
Outreach and marketing are required to spread awareness about a new microtransit service. “Transit agencies have found that considerable effort is required to properly market and promote general public demand response transit service.” Teaching the public how to use a new service, particularly the mobile app-based booking that is a key feature of microtransit, can be a challenge.
Educational outreach should involve coordination with community-based organizations (social services agencies, senior centers, etc.) and existing riders. Precise marketing strategies are dependent on the local context and project type. For the Ride On Flex pilot program, the initial marketing effort “aimed to spread information about the service concept and create some ‘buzz’ for the pilot.” While the transit provider made a significant marketing effort, the feedback they received led them to attribute the success of the pilot to word-of-mouth.
Implementing a microtransit service can pose challenges such as navigating ridership growth, quantifying wait time, administrative time, and limited cell coverage. This section highlights some lessons learned by agencies that have implemented microtransit services.
Microtransit Can Meet Latent Demand
People in small-urban and rural areas may lack transportation alternatives such as taxis, rideshare services (e.g., Uber and Lyft), or other forms of public transportation. A user survey conducted among The City of West Sacramento’s microtransit riders suggested that the service helped meet latent demand among the youngest and oldest community members, who are more likely to be dependent upon public transit services. When asked how they would have made a trip if ridership was unavailable, this rider group was most likely to respond that they would “not have taken the trip at all.”
Performance Measures Should be Established for Microtransit Programs
Although rural and small-urban transit agencies may have limited staff time to devote to data management, developing and tracking performance measures is a worthwhile endeavor. Performance measures allow transit providers to quantify how well they are meeting the goals of their pilot or ongoing service goals, make informed data-driven decisions, and, most importantly, collect data that will help them modify parameters and make the financial case for the microtransit service. Performance measures are valuable for all transit services, but particularly for microtransit. Microtransit performance metrics should reflect the program’s goal and focus less on traditional metrics, such as productivity.
COVID-19 disrupted new microtransit service and pilot programs. The health crisis suppressed ridership and passenger vehicle capacity as transit agencies implemented social distancing measures. One such example is UTA On Demand, which reduced its active fleet to align with decreased demand and achieve cost savings, meanwhile reducing the number of passengers allowed on vehicles from six to three. Average weekday ridership, average riders per vehicle hour, and cost per rider failed to meet pre-COVID targets.
Ridership Growth Can Pose Challenges
Many agencies have experienced microtransit ridership growth beyond expectations or extreme ridership fluctuations. For example, Ride On Flex experienced a 214 percent and 297 percent ridership increase in its zones throughout its six-month pilot. In the City of Wilson, weekday fixed-route ridership was 275 riders per day pre-COVID. As of December 2020, the average daily ridership of RIDE, which replaced fixed-route service, was 322 riders per day. Although ridership growth can be positive, accommodating an influx of new riders and working with limited vehicle capacity can pose challenges.
WeGo’s systemwide ridership increased when it adopted a microtransit service. In this context, microtransit was replacing both the fixed-route and paratransit services. After the new microtransit service was implemented, not only were there more individual riders, but existing riders also began using the service more often. BRATS has also seen an increase in new riders, averaging over 100 new passenger accounts each month since the service launched.
Demand for FRTA’s Access pilot grew so rapidly that it exceeded the system capacity. Advanced reservations were limited to specific eligible individuals, including older adults, veterans, and nursing home residents to manage demand.
Ridership beyond the planned capacity also has the potential to increase wait times and discourage customers from using the service. Also, depending on how scheduling software is configured, it can be difficult to determine wait time. As BRATS’s Director of Transportation explained, if there is no vehicle available at the time the customer requests, their app suggests an alternate time, and if the user schedules a trip at an alternate time, the un-fulfilled trip request is not counted as a trip denial.
Administrative Time is Still Required to Manage Trip-Booking
Although providing a phone number as an alternative booking method is important from an equity and accessibility perspective, at least two agencies noted receiving a large number of calls requires a significant amount of staff time. This could be an issue for rural and small urban transit agencies with limited staff. Even if they own a smartphone, not all customers are using the app to book trips. Fifty-eight percent of BRATS customers are calling in to make reservations over the phone.
Limited Internet and Cell Coverage is a Challenge in Rural Areas
One issue that may arise in rural areas is limited internet and cell coverage. BRATS drivers initially used tablets in their microtransit vehicles but migrated to smartphone dues to connectivity issues. After working with the technology company, the local cell provider, and polling its drivers, the agency decided smartphones would be able to provide more reliable service. Microtransit routes are not fixed; they dynamically change. Stops can be added or deleted, and drivers need adequate coverage to receive the most up-to-date routing.
Microtransit Pilots are an Important Tool for Testing the Viability of Permanent Service
Pilot programs provide agencies with the opportunity to experiment with new service models, make a financial case for microtransit service, and start a conversation about alternative transportation services in the community. Many agencies reviewed in this chapter have conducted pilot programs before installing implementing permanent service. RideKC conducted two microtransit pilots; before installing its permanent service, their 2016 pilot resulted in lessons learned for the agency, which included:
- The service needs to operate for longer hours to attract a critical mass.
- The service area coverage needs to be expanded to include non-work-related trips.
- Special attention should be given to the medical center since employees work specific shifts.
- Better real-time information regarding passenger number and routing demands should be provided to drivers.
Funding Microtransit Service Remains a Challenge
Many microtransit pilots have been conducted that did not result in permanent service. Despite the relative availability of funding for pilot programs, funding permanent service remains a challenge. Without adequate federal or state grants to sustain service, transit agencies must rely on local funds.
Despite being deemed a highly successful pilot by the transit agency, Gwinnett County Transit has not yet implemented a permanent on-demand microtransit service. When the pilot ended, the microtransit service stopped. The transit agency is currently seeking funding, and there is hope that microtransit service will be re-instated permanently in the future.
Key Questions to Ask
As agencies across the U.S. are increasingly exploring microtransit, key factors to consider identified through the noteworthy practices at agencies reviewed in this chapter include:
- Service Area
- What area(s) my organization’s microtransit zone(s) is(are) likely to cover?
- Fare and Payment
- Would regional fares be integrated?
- How would microtransit fares compare to fares charged for other transit modes available?
- Would fares be fixed or distance-based?
- How would the service accommodate unbanked populations?
- Has my organization considered FTA or state grant programs?
- Has my organization considered any partnerships with other entities
- Trip Reservation
- Would my organization’s service accommodate phone reservations and provide multiple booking methods and advanced reservation options?
- ADA Accessibility
- Which vehicles would provide ADA-compliant trips?
- Would vehicles be owned by my organization?
- Would drivers be employees of my organization?
- Outreach and Marketing
- How would outreach involve coordination with community organizations, senior centers, and existing riders?
- How will we effectively market the service (i.e. vehicle wrap, website, advertisement, etc.)?
- Data Collection
- Based on the anticipated microtransit service goals, which performance metrics would my organization track?