Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Bridj

Is MicroTransit the answer?

with one comment

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


with 3 comments

Sorry about the shouty headline: the UVic Press Release uses all caps and my WP editor lacks a ‘change case’ key. This actually came to me from a tweet. You do follow me on twitter don’t you? There’s now a handy widget over there on the top right if you need it. Some of the tweets do get repeated by facebook, but not many of the retweets. And quite a lot of stuff that I see does not get blogged these days, especially since Twitter changed the way retweets are done that now can include commentary. Today, for the first time, I was able to retweet something with the terse comment “Horseshit!” – something, I now realize, I have wanted to do for a long time.

Climate research – and the long list of projects – is all very worthy, but I am afraid I am very much unimpressed. And I am also a bit inspired by a post in the Tyee which sets out the progressive manifesto 0f what needs to be done once we have got rid of Stephen Harper. So while the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) is doing its five year research project here are some things that we need to be doing right away. That is because action on climate change is now urgent. Like The Man said “We don’t have time for a meeting with the Flat Earth Society“. We do actually know what needs to be done and, sadly, these things seem to have slipped through the PICS net.

First note that they are hung up on gee whiz technology. We don’t actually need any of that. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we know about, familiar technologies and techniques that are held back simply by a combination of out of date policies and inertia. BC Transit was forced to waste money on hydrogen buses (whatever happened to them? I asked BCT but they have yet to reply) when we knew plenty about trolleybuses and extended range hybrid dual powered buses too. Nothing was learned from that five year demonstration project other than it is possible to truck hydrogen across the continent and convince yourself that you are helping the environment.

Transportation and the Built Environment are treated in the research list as two separate programmes. I wonder if the researchers will talk to each other over lunch sometimes? Because we all know that land use and transportation are two sides of the same coin. The best transportation plan is a good land use plan. The best way to save energy from transportation is to cut the need to make motorised trips. Community Energy Planning should have become mandatory fifteen years ago, but Glen Clark shut down the Energy Efficiency Branch of MEMPR – and forgot all about the BC Greenhouse Gas Reduction Program. Most of the advances that we are going to see in the field of transportation will come from a combination of information technology and deregulation. (See Bridj below) There’s a great deal we can do to make better use of what we have but the rules and regs get in the way. Like bike helmets, for instance. By the way did you know that the researchers who did the study that supports BC’s current helmet law have themselves repudiated that study? Protected bike lanes work better to both save lives and encourage bike use – and they are amazingly simple to introduce. As The Lady said, if you want to see change, do it quickly. The Burrard Bridge case is as convincing as any that chaos will not ensue.

Most of the change we need will start happening once we stop subsidizing fossil fuels. Indeed it is quite remarkable how much change is already under way, despite billions of dollars propping up what will soon be a dying industry. The tar sands are already uneconomic, and unnecessary, just as LNG export is a really stupid proposition in the present market. So stop throwing money at oil and gas, and you not only free up some fiscal headroom for sensible policies, but you also give the market the sort of signals it would have got if you had stuck to your guns over carbon tax. Ditch revenue neutral as a policy objective there, keep jacking up the carbon price and spend the proceeds on public transportation – local transit and high speed electric trains for longer distances. Electrify the main corridors straight away (Toronto – Ottawa – Montreal, Edmonton – Calgary) and then start building new high speed railways as cancelling freeway expansions permit. Maybe by then the Americans will have started to catch up with the rest of the world, and we can talk about Vancouver – Seattle – Portland.

What I do see as problematic is that we will probably be better at civilizing the suburbs than getting real change in urban areas, where many more people live in multifamily buildings. It’s pretty easy to put up your own solar panel, and put both a Tesla car and a home battery in your own garage. If you can afford it. It is going to be much harder to get equivalent changes in condos, though co-ops seem to be doing better with things like bike storage. Public housing, of course, has to go back on the agenda. It is not enough to make the existing housing stock more efficient when so much of it is out of range of the middle class, let alone the people who struggle on unlivable wages and such welfare assistance as survives. I do not see any work being done by PICS on environmental justice. But make no mistake, we do have to tackle the issue of the lack of jobs in range of affordable housing in transit deprived areas. We do need to think about how our energy policies can be used to create better employment prospects for our own population rather than simply looking to exploit export markets for barely transformed raw materials. “Researchers will also identify opportunities to substitute timber products for carbon-intensive steel, concrete or plastics used in many sectors, including the building industry.” Start first by banning the export of raw logs to ensure that there will be some local industry to produce these wonderful things.

I am really against spending so much on building technologies – where the potential savings in fossil fuels in BC are limited – when you have no plan to tackle the major user of liquid fuels – personal transportation. Again, we know that old fashioned ideas like trolleybuses, trams and interurbans – even diesel buses, for goodness sake – produce far less ghg per passenger kilometre than single occupant internal combustion engine cars and trucks. So we really do not need any more research on  “the distribution potential of alternative fuels including compressed (CNG), liquefied (LNG) and renewable (RNG) natural gas.” Even if every car could be electric, zero emission at a wave of a magic wand we would still have all the present problems of traffic, road deaths and urban sprawl. There is even less saving in ghg in having a carbon zero or even positive reduction in CO2 building if it is stuck out in the middle of nowhere – and everybody is driving to and from it! On the other hand, increasing bus service frequency and reliability – mostly by paint on the streets – is a well established technique for increasing transit use – and it doesn’t all come from cannibalising walking and cycling. Much of it comes from unpaid chauffeuring.

The article on Bridj really got me thinking. First note that this service is actually delivering something slower in downtown DC than can be achieved on a bike. But then this guy is also wasting time “20 minutes to shower and change” after his ride. Imagine someone from Copenhagen or Amsterdam writing that. Bridj could be a serious challenge to transit – much more than Uber and Lyft which are aimed at the taxi market. Or it could be a very useful supplement, and work much better than Community Shuttle service does in the suburbs. Indeed, when you look at how it works, isn’t that a good description of what HandyDART was supposed to do? And how about we simply abandon (once again) the old “separate but equal” philosophy, and instead of having a segregated service for people with disabilities – which actually does not work very well at all – but have a service which anyone can use. But is cheaper to deliver because you separate out the paying for it from using it. $5 for a ride on a profit making service? If the math is right, that is cheaper than most Community Shuttles, and much less than HandyDART. The driver, of course, would continue to help those who need assistance for door to door movement. As I have always said, in the low density areas (which includes most of Vancouver south of 12th Avenue) we need something better than a bus but cheaper than a taxi. Bridj isn’t going to attract people who can use really good transit. But then we don’t actually have that in much of the region, and it is not at all clear that we will turn out to be ready to pay for more of that yet. Oh, and before I forget, we would also need to sort out a much more equitable transit tariff, based on ability to pay, but that is a subject for another day.