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Is the On-Demand Model Foundational to the Future of Transit?

On-demand transit projects, like Metro Micro in Los Angeles, are proving instructive to how larger fixed-route services can evolve to be more convenient, flexible and equitable forms of mobility.

A person in a wheelchair boarding a Metro Micro van.
To see the future of public transit, look to the on-demand “micro” services cropping up across a number of agencies.

It’s not that these will replace fleets of buses and trains — those will likely remain the workhorses they have always been — but on-demand transit seems to embody so many of the larger trends to emerge in transit, particularly since the COVID-19 crisis. On-demand is nimble, flexible and easily modified. It is guided by data with operators having a deeper understanding of users and where they are headed. Also, these projects are almost always built out of public-private partnerships.

“I just think that these types of services — flexible, on-demand types of services — they’re here to stay,” said Shaun Miller, a transportation planner in L.A. Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation, during a panel discussion at the CoMotion LA conference in Los Angeles Nov. 17.

“But the reason they’re here to stay is because they increase connections to our transit system. They increase destinations that people can reach, they are cost-effective and they are able to serve trips that our fixed-route cannot necessarily always serve. They belong in the suite of services that a transportation agency ought to be providing,” he added.

Nearly a year ago Metro launched Metro Micro, an on-demand shared-ride service now available in eight zones across the region with a ninth soon to be available. In less than a year, the program has provided some 130,000 rides. Micro is entering its second year of a three-year pilot. The project grew out of a prior mobility-on-demand (MOD) shared-ride demonstration project begun in 2019, in partnership with Via. During the first year of the Via project the service provided about 12,000 rides across three zones, connecting riders with the larger Metro fixed-route system.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020 the service immediately pivoted and allowed for point-to-point rides. It was no longer a shared service, which meant riders could only ride with other members of their household, increasing its safety. It also became a vehicle for launching a grocery delivery service, helping vulnerable residents in the crucial concern around food insecurity. Also key was maintaining the 10-minutes-or-less wait times.

For these reasons and others, ridership on the MOD service declined only about 30 percent during the height of the pandemic, say Metro officials. This compares to declines of about 70 percent on the fixed-route system.

“For the most part, people were still using the service to get to work, and to run their necessary daily errands,” said Miller. “And I think the fact that it was still just really convenient and flexible.”

Transit agencies have come to realize their role in society reaches far beyond running a bus or a train. Armed with the lessons of COVID-19, or the unprecedented largesse to come from the newly signed infrastructure law, agencies are anxious to redefine themselves, reorient their bearings and think seriously about concepts like public-private partnerships, flexibility, social and digital equity, convenience and other characteristics which — accidentally or not — have come to define on-demand transit.

“To put it simply, we are in a state of rebuilding. Rebuilding our ridership, strengthening our reputation as a service provider, and as an economic partner. Essentially, we are reimagining L.A. Metro,” is the way Stephanie Wiggins, CEO of L.A. Metro, put it in some of her opening remarks at the CoMotion LA conference last week.

COVID-19, said Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, “busted a lot of myths.” Some of those myths revolved around funding and the need to structure service around peak travel times. The pandemic displayed the need for more diverse sources of funding, beyond the fare box. It also revealed the many other trips we all take beyond just the commute to work.

“There are so many short trips that are happening all throughout the day that can be served by transit,” said Reynolds. “And I think that’s an opportunity.”

Neighborhood-based, nimble, convenient and socially responsive are all central themes of on-demand transit. And these are the kinds of philosophies trickling into the larger transit ecosystem.

“The pandemic really challenged our traditional way of thinking around what does transportation mean, what does mobility mean, and how does it serve the neighborhoods that need it the most,” said Eulois Cleckley, CEO of the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works, speaking on a panel titled “Urban Mobility at an Inflection Point.”

“The pandemic changed government a little bit to think outside of the box, be more nimble, and react much more quickly than we otherwise would have,” he added.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.