Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for May 3rd, 2017

Is MicroTransit the answer?

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Regular readers of this blog will recognize a long running idea of mine, that we need something that is “better than a bus but cheaper than a taxi”. Now back when I was actually working in the industry we had not yet got the sort of systems that we have now that would make this sort of thing possible. But one thing has stuck with me, and that first entered my mind in 1988. I was new in town (Toronto) and writing a proposal for the TTC in response to an RfP on what they called WheelTrans.

TTC Wheel Trans Orion II off


They used these Orion II vans for the specialised dial a ride transit service (“paratransit”) offered by the TTC to those who need door to door transit. Of course, wheelchair users are a minority among those whose disabilities make conventional transit difficult or even impossible. But also the number of rides they could actually offer, and the ability to match routes of the vans to potential riders, was very limited. The company I worked for was at the leading edge of demand forecasting, so my proposal was that we would come up with better ride matching software. We did not get the job because the people reviewing the proposals simply did not understand what I was proposing. You have to bear in mind that in 1988 cell phones were a novelty and most people did not have a PC on their desk.

It seems that even though we now have much better hardware and software, there is still a big issue: transit needs subsidy. The recent closure of Bridj in Boston shows that.

Transit depends on subsidies, and if microtransit really is an answer to underused, oversized public buses traveling along 30-year-old routes, then at least some of its backing should come from taxpayers, without the expectation of turning profits.

In this region, the oversized buses have been taken away to run on the overcrowded routes. Some routes now run as Community Shuttles, which have somewhat lower costs (due to a different union agreement) but still run on fixed routes.

Community Shuttle S534

The HandyDART service has a different vehicle – the lift is at the back not on the side – and operates on routes which are based on prior bookings.

HandyDART T710 Tsawwassen BC 2009_0121

There have long been complaints that this service is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of those who cannot use conventional transit, and while some changes have been made, and Translink is looking at more, the cost per ride of this service is much greater than conventional transit – or even taxi services. One advocate even suggested at one time that taxis be used as the contractor for all these trips – but I think he was out of touch with both basic economics and the expectations of most HandyDART users.

DART by the way is the acronym for “dial a ride transit”. But you can’t just call for a ride like you do for a taxi. First you must be qualified, and second you must book in advance. And currently trip bookings are allocated by priority – work/school, medical, other. Unsurprisingly, given the demographics of users it is the second one which accounts for most of the trips. To allow for some spontaneous trip making, registered HandyDART users can buy taxisavers to make subsidized taxi trips.

It seems to me that microtransit has the potential to solve a number of issues.

Havana Bus

What Bridj offered was nothing new, really: services like jitneys and dollar vans act as informal, quasi-public shuttle transport all over the world, and plenty of agencies serve paratransit needs this way. What Bridj brought (and others bring) to the table is super-smart software that formulates routes and spits out pick-up spots in real time, based on demand, for any type of rider.

Pick up variation

The idea I had back in 1988 – and still think might work – is that we could use some super-smart software to provide better door to door transit for all. It should be accessible to everyone. And to make sure that people with disabilities get first dibs we come up with a booking system that works like the dedicated seating on conventional transit. People who can use conventional transit would have to give up their seat if someone who needs it more wants it. If the software is smart enough that can be done without bumping. This ought to make transit much more attractive – after all fixed routes take you from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to be. So if you are saving some walking you ought to be prepared to pay more for that  convenience: people who can’t walk, wouldn’t have to pay that premium.

Both need subsidy, but it ought to be less than the current dedicated system, and it will also be cheaper than running a big bus nearly empty. It will also remove whatever stigma is associated with a specialised service. As the US Supreme Court famously noted “separate isn’t equal” (Brown vs Board of Education).

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 3.40.03 PM

Source: Translink Accountability Centre

A number of things need to happen to get this to work. Firstly, the current contracted out HandyDART has to be brought back in house. Secondly the legislation that governs ride sharing in BC needs to be revised. It also needs to recognize that it is quite legitimate for existing taxi operators to expect some protection from predators like Uber and Lyft. While they are currently aiming at getting a monopoly of taxi like services, it is clear that transit is also in their long term strategy. And some politicians of the “anti-subsidy except for my favourite corporations” parties want to facilitate that. So a public service obligation has to be baked in with provision of subsidies.

But most importantly, transit planning for the future has to be for everyone and not just for those who can run up and down stairs. Transportation planning also has to be for everyone and not just those who want to drive or ride in a single occupant vehicle.

UPDATE November 6 2017

Another microtransit company recently went bust – mostly because it could not meet even the most basic requirements of driver qualifications (holding the right kind of driver’s license) or insurance. This article in CityLab explains – and shows that the companies involved were not doing what I envisaged in the post above. They were simply poaching traffic from public transit on their most used routes. Not extending the reach of transit into low density areas ill served by fixed route transit, no matter what size the vehicle.

Incidentally the pattern shows remarkable parallels with what happened in Britain when buses were deregulated and privatised. The private companies are only interested in running profitable services, and local government was even prohibited from subsidising essential services. The result is widespread social isolation and reduced mobility of the workforce. Not one we should wish to emulate.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm


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Rattle Snake

This is a rattlesnake. “Look out! This week’s challenge is about the unexpected thrill of danger.” So yes the sight of this beautiful creature was indeed unexpected and did carry a thrill. But actually not dangerous really, as long as you don’t do something really stupid. Like pick up a short stick and poke it. Or stray off the path and walk in the long grass. Treading on a rattlesnake is not going to bring you anything but grief.

We did show the picture to a park ranger and she confirmed that this was a rattlesnake. The location was Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, and of course the park warns people about the dangers of the wildlife in the park.

Actually the humans are the real danger. So please indulge me a little and read some more. Because the following was neither unexpected nor a thrill. But no-one got hurt either.

This is a picture of some people enjoying the surf on the beach at Varadero, Cuba.

Playing in the breakers probably seemed like fun. What these people had not seen – or not understood – was this red flag.


Yes, well, that seems understandable. It is not a large flag, nor is it immediately obvious that it is meant to be a warning. And, yes there was a lifeguard.


He did blow his whistle and wave at them. But you will also note that when they looked back at the guy whistling at them he seemed to be wearing a plain white T shirt. He also did nothing more than that. When they did not respond to him, he simply went on his way.
I happened to be walking on the beach (fully dressed and shod) and I noticed all of this and decided to do something. I did not, of course, have a whistle, and I did not know if these people actually spoke English, so I tried yelling “Attention” (in a French accent) and making a clear arm length gesture beckoning them closer. I established that two of them did speak English and they did understand when I said “Come closer please, I need to tell you something.” (There were a lot of people from Quebec in our resort, but also lots of Europeans.)

When they got closer I asked them if they understood the term “undertow“.  They thought it meant “current”.

The beach has a steep slope. The strong winds, that had been blowing even stronger the previous night, were pushing water up this slope, but gravity was pulling an equal amount back – and that could only travel under the waves. Anyone losing their footing in the soft, waterlogged sand would find their foot, leg and then themselves, dragged by this flow, under the waves. They had not understood the little red flag – not even noticed it – or understood why the guy was whistling at them. The other couple they did not know, but they noticed me, and came in too. I went through the same routine.

There was no-one else paddling. I felt suddenly very tired. I told the second couple that if they had been knocked over by a wave I would not have gone in after them. I also told them about the search we had seen conducted a couple of days earlier on the same beach. Uniformed Coast Guards, a motor boat and guys in wet suits looking for someone. Not asylum seekers, as I had presumed at the time, but someone who had also ignored the red flag. I never heard if they recovered the body.

So the people in the first picture were in real danger, and blithely unaware of it.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 3, 2017 at 11:35 am

Posted in photography

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