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Study: Small Electric Shuttles Ideal for Last-Mile Transit

Three pilot projects using small electric shuttles in Austin, Texas, neighborhoods demonstrated various uses for the vehicles, which can provide last-mile service to transit as well as make transportation more equitable.

An on-demand Pickup bus in Austin, Texas.
Small electric shuttles forming the “last mile” transit link can help expand transportation options and services in neighborhoods with little impact on traffic and air quality.

A study by Pecan Street, a nonprofit research and development organization in Austin, Texas, examined the application of three micro-transit pilots in the Texas capital to understand how they can be most effective at expanding transportation opportunities, reducing car use and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“The small, electric shuttles worked really well as a first- and last-mile solution and should definitely be considered when launching on-demand services, although depending on the use case and needs of the community, a medium to large electric vehicle might be the better option,” said Rachel Jenkins, director of operations at Pecan Street.

The three pilots were done in partnership with Capital Metro, the transit agency serving the Austin region. Pecan Street received a U.S. Department of Energy grant and took the lead on developing routes, community engagement, data collection, vendor selection and other aspects of the project. The study unfolded over two years, with the findings released in November 2021.

Routes were designed as neighborhood-friendly and kept to about three miles in length on streets of 35 mph or less. Two vehicles served each route, with a vehicle arriving every 15 minutes. The project contracted with Electric Cab of North America (eCab), with the Polaris GEM e6 used on all three routes.

“Charging the vehicles at each route was not a struggle, as we had dedicated charging stations for the vehicles that were within each of the communities,” said Jenkins. “However, a lack of vehicle charging infrastructure in some areas did initially rule out some neighborhoods where the piloted routes could’ve occurred.”

The study showed that most shuttle trips replaced vehicle trips, even when the rider was not using the shuttle to connect to transit. In a number of cases, riders used the shuttles to travel to other neighborhood destinations like shopping areas. Ride-hailing shuttle operations had more riders than fixed-route shuttles.

The pilots had a clear aim to examine how small electric shuttle programs can reduce overall carbon emissions by replacing car trips. If only 45 percent of the shuttle miles prevented internal combustion engine car miles, the program prevented more than 5.8 tons of CO2 from being released into the Austin air, according to the report.

Microtransit, particularly when structured as an on-demand service, like ride-hailing, has been expanding across a number of transit agencies and has seen relative success. Los Angeles launched Metro Micro just over a year ago. Metro Micro serves seven zones in the Los Angeles region, with an eighth soon to come. And other cities like Sacramento and Jacksonville, Fla., have also launched small micro-transit services using electric vehicles.

And because these services generally make it easier for residents to move around in their communities, they’re seen as expanding transportation equity, said observers.

“When you offer these types of services, you’re reconsidering what the key metric is,” said Shaun Miller, a senior transportation planner in LA Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation, at the CoMotion LA conference in November. “You’re growing ridership by increasing access.”

Back in Austin, the insights learned from the three pilots led Capital Metro to develop Pickup by Metro, an on-demand, app-based service available in 11 zones.
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 Sacramento.