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The age of microtransit

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On Nov. 19, 2019, the City of Edmonton announced it would be cutting 100 bus routes out of the Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) network, leaving many Edmontonians in inner suburbs with much longer walks to their nearest bus stop, and some more without reasonable access to the service at all.

It took mere hours after the announcement for companies such as Pacific Western Transportation (PWT) to propose replacing the lost services with what is called “on-demand transit.”

Just under a year later, on Sept. 23, the City took up this offer, and announced it would be awarding a $20-million contract over two years to PWT and New York-based technology company Via Transportation to fill the gaps with shuttles, at least partially.

“On Demand shuttle service will be available at select times, in select neighbourhoods, when the new bus network launches in mid-2021,” said Rowan Anderson, a communications advisor with the City, in an email.

On-demand transit, known more widely as “microtransit,” describes services that do not operate on a fixed schedule or route, like rideshares but typically with vans or small buses instead of personal vehicles. The idea is that these shuttles will be integrated into the transit network by taking you to the nearest bus or train station, as opposed to directly to your destination. This concept has grown massively in popularity over the past five years, both with new companies dedicated to the concept such as PWT opening up, and with rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft jumping on board. With increased popularity and the growth of the companies behind them, municipalities across Canada and the United States have sought out these services, often under the guise of something like “creative transportation solutions,” as was said by ETS Branch Manager Eddie Robar on Sep. 23.

Edmonton has been considering such a partnership, at first with Uber, since at least as early as 2017. A shuttle service in Calgary, also by PWT, started operating very recently, on October 13. The provincial government of Ontario handed out four different $1.5 million grants in 2019, and went even further by, as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, placing a condition on releasing transit funds to municipalities, saying they must conduct a review of their bus services to see if microtransit is a viable replacement before they get any money at all.

To Carter Gorzitza, an organizer with the advocacy group Free Transit Edmonton, at least part of this shift is ideological.

“This kind of privatization is a by-product of the way cities seem to be managing themselves more and more,” he says. “It comes from a deep commitment to free markets, and the idea that money is an inherently good way of judging something — so if it’s making money and growing the economy then it’s good for the city, whether people have good transit service or not.”

There are a few problems with microtransit, mechanically speaking: because it responds to individual requests as opposed to running on a fixed route with multiple stops, each vehicle carries much fewer people than city buses, leading to more vehicles on the road, potentially undermining both the carbon emissions-mitigating and traffic-alleviating effects of traditional mass transit. Also, the typical model the companies implement to order rides — including for Edmonton’s upcoming shuttle service — can exclude some from using them.

“These services require you to have a cell phone and a credit card and all these things to use them,” Gorzitza says. “You’re cutting out a very real and existing portion of the population that doesn’t have access to those.

“Those are the people who need public transportation the most. If you can’t afford a cell phone, you likely can’t afford a car or to use Uber.”

Even on the business end, it doesn’t always work. Almost all of the microtransit companies carrying out pilot projects in the U.S. over the past few years have either failed to fulfil their supposed function, or have gone bankrupt. The much-hyped Bridj, once said to have the potential to “bring public transportation into the 21st century,” in Smithsonian Magazine, shut down its pilot project in Kansas City after just one year, and folded entirely a few weeks later.

But to Free Transit Edmonton, which not only advocates for free transit but transit that is “reliable, efficient, and accessible,” says the website, the problem is not necessarily with microtransit as a concept. Gorzitza says that, in theory, a publicly run microtransit system has potential. Mark Tetterington, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, also said at the time the bus route cuts were announced that he believed public, union-run shuttle service would be amenable as a replacement.

“In St. Albert, where they’ve had on-demand services in the evenings, it’s interesting because it’s publicly run, uses union drivers, and makes sense for the relatively low ridership in the evenings…. In my experience it works fairly well,” Gorzitza says. St. Albert’s “Dial-a-Bus” service started operating on July 26, 2020.

The big problem is that, at present, microtransit services are almost exclusively run by private enterprises, which undermines the traditionally public service of mass transportation, Gorzitza says.

“What happens with any kind of corporate influence on public transit, is you start thinking about things like revenues and costsharing and cost-cutting, but in the end, the task of transportation itself is so large that it requires the economies of scale that cities can offer.”

Essentially, properly administered transit tends not to be very profitable, especially if you ascribe to the idea promoted by groups like Free Transit Edmonton of “mobility as an essential human right,” as it’s put on the website, and therefore transit should be, well, free. When it is looked at as a profitable venture instead, the tendency is toward large, cost-prohibitive fares, increasing public subsidies in the form of grants and contracts that could be going towards public services anyway, and relatively poor service that focuses solely on high-traffic areas around peak times, since that is where and when the customers are. For example, Leap Transit, another much-hyped startup in California, charged users “nearly three times as much as the cost of riding a city bus,” to get around select areas of San Francisco, reported The New York Times, before the company folded after just a few months of operating.

As longtime critic of rideshares and other private transit “solutions” James Wilt writes in Passage, one of the best examples of the failures of private microtransit is in Innisfil, Ont., where a partnership between the municipality and Uber resulted in $4 fares, caps on how many rides users could take per month, and public subsidies that “skyrocketed” from $150,000 when the service launched in 2017, to $846,000 in 2019.

While Anderson says that “during the two-year pilot won’t pay to board an on-demand transit vehicle,” what the fares will look like in the long term is anybody’s guess. Besides, PWT still has a bottom line to take care of, essentially meaning the City of Edmonton is fronting the entire operating costs of the pilot within the $20-million contract.

Prior to the announcement of the 100 routes being cut, ETS was being subtly underfunded for years. Wilt, this time in The Walrus, reports that “support for the system’s operating budget increas(ed) by only 7.87 per cent between 2015 and 2019 — barely keeping up with inflation, let alone population growth,” which also corresponded with multiple fare increases. Some version of this pattern — public transit being underfunded, leading to declining services, leading to cities looking for private “solutions” — is what is being repeated in many places that have sought out microtransit, and this has only been accelerating in the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, since transit ridership has been declining across the board.

In Ontario for example, Ford’s announcement of the microtransit conditions and grants came after the transit service in the province’s capital suffered a $92 million decline in monthly revenue as ridership dropped off a cliff, and laid off 450 workers as a “cost-savings” measure, the Toronto Transit Commission said in a May 24 press release.

This pattern is ironic, since Gorzitza says a public system that is not dependent on subsidies or fares would actually be more resilient in situations such as these.

“If the city of Edmonton had a completely corporately owned transit system, what is occurring right now would be putting them so deep in the bucket that it could cause them to go bankrupt,” he says. “On the other end, if we devised the city economics in such a way that transit costs are accounted for and free transit is guaranteed, then when something hits like coronavirus, we are in a less precarious position because the finances are already figured out.”

Even outside of a pandemic, the fact that fully funded public transit — whether in the form of shuttles, city buses, or trains — can operate independently of fluctuating demand means it tends to do a much better job of ensuring transportation is always accessible to anyone who needs it. As long as the focus is on revenues, however, there is always a chance of services being cut, and profit-oriented companies, which have thus far offered nothing but worse services, to take their place.

“Not being dependent on sales to fund the system itself — it makes it far more resilient to all kinds of different changes,” says Gorzitza. “It makes it a strong and stable system, which we then can focus on investing in and building out and making faster and better, for more people.”

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