Sacramento's microtransit experiment (and why it may be worth copying)

Thu, 2018-01-18 14:44 -- Kevin Ebi

Over the past few years, ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber have stolen some riders from transit — and they’re stealing more as they wade into ride-pooling services. But now Sacramento is trying to win those riders back.

As you’ll read below, Sacramento Regional Transit is launching its own “microtransit” service. For right now, it’s just a couple of vehicles and for only a few months, but if everything goes OK, the city says this could be how it eventually provides most, if not all, of its neighborhood service.

So why do what the private sector is already doing? The answer is equity. Microtransit is useful for a wide range of people. Without a city’s support, however, those benefits will be exclusively for profitable riders. Those riders aren’t necessarily those who have the greatest need. — Kevin Ebi

Some commuters in Sacramento soon won’t have to wait for the bus. They won’t even have to walk to it. And here’s the best part for riders: this service won’t cost any more than a regular transit trip.

Sacramento Regional Transit is about to launch a microtransit trial that in many ways competes with the on-demand, app-based ride-hailing services from the likes of Uber and Lyft. And the idea is to eventually turn this from a six-month pilot project into the primary way it provides neighborhood service.

How it works
The trial project essentially makes Sacramento’s dial-a-ride service much more convenient for riders. In the area served under the pilot project, people will be able to request a ride. A shuttle will pick them up wherever they are and drop them off wherever they want to go. And they don’t have to plan ahead.

A rider probably won’t be the only passenger. Vehicles in the pilot project could seat a dozen or so passengers and two wheelchairs.The driver will use an iPad running special software to plot the optimal trip to get each of the riders to their destinations as fast as possible.

It’s likely to be a bit slower than an Uber or Lyft trip, but it’s much cheaper: Riders will pay only the $2.75 they would have taken to ride the bus or light rail.

Serving the under-served
Sacramento had already offered custom trips, but found the dial-a-ride operation didn’t really work for it or its riders. Riders had to plan their trips a day in advance, which doesn’t work for those with unanticipated needs. For its part, the city found juggling the reservations cumbersome.

But it found a great need for people who need flexible transit, but who really can’t afford the app-based services. Seniors are one big group. Fixed routes tend to be built around those who use transit to go to a job. Its suburban sprawl, meantime, sometimes requires long walks to a bus stop.

Why it may take a city
In some cities, flexible transit is vanishing as fast as it popped up. Bridj shuttered after a disappointing trial in Kansas City. In six month, it provided only 600 rides. The prediction was for 200 a day. Leap and Loup, two other mini-bus services, came and went in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

Despite the failures, the need remains. In the case of Bridj, the public liked the idea, but potential riders complained they didn’t hear about the service until it was too late. Others complained the routes were inconvenient.

And businesses need to make money, although Council Associate Partner Ford says it’s not giving up on its Chariot service.

“No one in the history of the world has created a profitable mass transit service,” Chariot CEO Ali Vahabzadeh told The Verge. “That’s our mission.”

But cities have a different goal. And Sacramento says depending on the results of the trial, it’s open to replacing buses with on-demand shuttles.