Will the Pandemic Open Opportunities for Micro-Transit?

If running big buses on fixed routes and fixed schedules was a money-loser already, the COVID-19 pandemic may provide the tipping point for public transport as a whole.

Cash-strapped transit authorities have been understandably wary of innovation and budget-conscious but now that they’re collectively bleeding billions of dollars, what have they got to lose? Transit operators are finding that it’s not as difficult as they thought it was to revamp their services.

A case in point is ViaVan’s partnership with UK bus and coach operator Stagecoach to launch a service to transport health workers in just two weeks. The Stagecoach Connect service launched with one Nottinghamshire hospital, bringing hospital staff to and from their shifts in the morning and evening.

The Abu Dhabi Healthcare Link, another ViaVan service, covers 37 local hospitals and clinics, offering door-to-door on-demand free rides to and from the local healthcare facilities. “COVID-19 has accelerated the decline in ridership,” says ViaVan CEO Chris Snyder. “The pandemic increases the opportunity to redesign the network.”

This was evident in a project by Spare, provider of SaaS for mobility on demand, and EMT, a Spanish municipal transport company, in Mallorca. Spare and EMT replaced existing fixed-route services that have experienced low ridership owing to the pandemic with a mix of buses and taxis. The service actually expanded the level of transit for communities served.

The service was designed in just forty-eight hours, according to Spare. Still, there are a lot of moving parts to coordinate, explains Niklas Mey, Spare’s sustainability manager. While the technology could launch in minutes, he says: “What determines the time is to decide on the service configuration the required or desired testing, rider education, promotions, driver training, vehicle procurement, etc.”

Sharon Feigon, executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, a public-interest, non-profit organization that advocates for reducing private vehicle use, says: “The breakdown in our systems does give us a moment where people are able to think about doing things differently, because they have to do things differently. This is a good time to look to some of these new methods and try them out.”

Employer-provided options

Many people don’t have the option of driving to work, so micro-transit may be a good solution for them. Those who do have access to personal vehicles and parking may be loathe to get on shared transport.

“We expect in that in the next few months, public transport will not be the preferred option; and we expect that to last for one to two years,” says Mathieu de Lophem, CEO of Skipr. This company provides a B2B service to let employers provide micro-transit options to their employees. Its app, launched in Belgium, integrates public transport schedules, availability and payments with free-floating, shared cars, scooters and bikes. It includes a dashboard for companies to tailor and monitor the solution. De Lophem sees an incentive for European employers beyond helping workers get to the office safely: reducing their overall CO2 emissions.

Pandemic and beyond

Capacity planning is important to specifically address transport during the pandemic: limiting the total number of riders, as well as limiting a vehicle’s passengers to a particular subgroup, whether that’s employees of one company, healthcare workers or people most at risk.

This same capability could serve transit operators well when normal operations resume, allowing them to provide the right service at the right time to the right ridership. Moreover, the mere perception that smaller vehicles are cleaner, more comfortable or safer could encourage those who are used to using personal cars for commuting to give public transport a try.

Where’s the money?

Spare’s Mey says pilots in Lubbock, Texas and Lincoln, Nebraska, have shown that public transit operators can actually reduce costs with on-demand and micro-transit service. With a set budget, “..the more people use on-demand micro-transit, the smaller cost-per-ride you get,” he says.

Feigon points out that there are funding and business-model issues to be addressed, for example, what revenue streams can feed into public systems. For example, medical rides and social services transportation are typically not provided by public transit operators. If smaller, on-demand vehicles operated by the transit authority are used, is there a way for public agencies to capture that? The same thing holds true if these public assets become used for food deliveries, as ViaVan is doing with the London Borough of Sutton.

Will change come?

Skipr’s de Lophem foresees an ugly September 2020, when some schools open and more people head back to the office. Fear of infection on public transport combined with reduced schedules and limited capacities on trains could create dreadful traffic jams.

“Some people will adapt more quickly than others,” he predicts. “Slowly but surely, people will realize the alternative is better, and they will change how they move.”

The question is, will transit operators also adapt and change how they serve the public?

Transit agencies are being forced to rethink their operations due to changes in budget and/or ridership, Snyder points out, while cities that never had transit systems are looking at on-demand systems as an attractive alternative to traditional fixed routes. “We think technology has a big role to play in helping public transport build back better,” Snyder says.

As transit operators have scrambled to adapt, old barriers have broken down, Feigon believes. “A positive in the COVID period is you have cross-agency and company collaborations happening as everyone looks toward the future and recovery,” she says. “There is some bringing people together that might not otherwise have happened.”

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