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Micro-Transit Movement Looks to Improve Transportation Access for All

Written by Amanda Maher

“Crowd-sourced pop-up micro-transit” is a mouthful, so companies aren’t exactly billing it as such. But the concept is clear: companies are using crowd-sourced data to understand where there are gaps in public transit service and, based on demand, are launching pop-up bus service to help get urban dwellers from place to place.

Anyone who lives in Cambridge’s populous Harvard Square, for instance, knows how difficult it can be to get to Boston’s Longwood Medical Area, where some of Boston’s largest hospitals and universities are located. One option would be to take the MBTA Red Line to the Green Line, a trolley system known for its slow service and frequent delays. Another option would be taking an MBTA bus between the two locations, which can be a long process. A multitude of stops and heavy commuter traffic leaves riders clamoring for more efficient travel.

Enter Bridj. The Boston-based startup company launched in 2014 and has since gained popularity. The company analyzed traffic data to understand Boston commuters’ travel patterns, and has created a mobile app that allows users to input additional data regarding trip preferences. Based on demand, Bridj began offering four nonstop commuter routes between the municipalities of Brookline, Boston and Cambridge. Its 14- to 18-person shuttles run as frequently as every ten minutes during peak hours.

“Instead of funneling people into traditional categories of public transit, we’re reinventing public transit to match where people are,” Bridj founder and CEO Matthew George told the Boston Globe.

Bridj rides cost anywhere from $5 to $8 now, which is more than double the average MBTA fare ($2.00 to $2.40). George expects that as more people use the system, the price will come down to somewhere between $3 and $4 per trip. And as more people use Bridj, the “smarter” the system will become—allowing the company to better analyze commuter patterns and offer pop-up routes accordingly.

“What if you could redesign a system that has been relatively stagnant and hasn’t changed in 100 years? If you look at Boston bus lines, they’re still following trolley tracks,” George noted. “It’s pretty nuts.” According to the company, their routes typically cut travel time by more than half compared to travel via public transit.

For notoriously cash-strapped public transit agencies, a strong dose of innovation and new technology may provide viable solutions for improving regional transit systems. Take paratransit, for instance. Public transit agencies are required to provide qualified residents (such as the elderly and those with disabilities) with door-to-door service. But these paratransit services are bankrupting transit agencies. In New York, a single paratransit ride averages $71.89, in Seattle, $52.72. Yet the public transit agency cannot charge more than twice the system’s lowest-cost fare; the agencies pick up the tab for the rest. Is there a way to provide this same service with a platform similar to Lyft, an on-demand cab service? It could very well be more cost effective and provide riders with better service.

The micro-transit movement is important for a number of reasons. In addition to what CityLab called their role in changing urban mobility, these more flexible transit alternatives may be able to provide affordable, reliable transit in underserved neighborhoods. Urban neighborhoods cut off from quality public transportation are overwhelmingly inner city communities.

A recent report found that Boston’s disinvestment in certain bus routes has led to longer commuter times for residents in low-income communities and communities of colors. For example, among the city’s bus commuters, black residents spent an average of 80 minutes more per week commuting to work—largely due to unpredictable service and multiple transfers. Similarly, the bus system serving New Orleans’ inner city still hasn’t been restored post-Hurricane Katrina. And Nashville’s $175 million investment in bus rapid transit has been criticized for being a boon for the wealthy, white neighborhoods it will service, but leaving poorer neighborhoods like North Nashville behind.

To be sure, micro-transit and public transit aren’t necessarily at odds. Micro-transit could serve as a feeder to the public transit system, especially if it serves less densely populated neighborhoods or those on the fringes of the public system.

Time will tell how this plays out, but one idea is undisputable: These services must be accessible to all people. “We’d be adamant as the system evolves that there be accessibility, and that mobility is not auctioned to the highest bidder,” declared Arthur Guzzetti, Vice President of Policy for the American Public Transportation Association. “Mobility has to be available for all.”

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