What Is Microtransit and What Is Its Role In Our Future?

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What Is Microtransit and What Is Its Role In Our Future?

Published May 4, 2021

Updated May 4, 2021

Mobility has always played a key part in our lives. We have needs - food, companionship, entertainment - and in an ideal world, everything that we require would be at our finger tips. Yet that is not how our world has manifested. Take any large city - you will be able to identify hubs that serve different purposes: industrial or downtown areas that are packed with factories, plants, or offices, or suburban areas where people live their lives in homes or apartments. Urban centers have formed where, for numerous reasons (e.g. housing costs), many people cannot live where they work. While there are benefits to such an organization of land the problem of mobility remains.

To understand what microtransit is I think it is helpful to compare it to our understanding of transit, or macrotransit. One solution to this mobility problem is to equip everyone with an adequate personal means of transportation. However due to typical distances that need to be covered in a short amount of time (along with other conditions) cost-effective methods such as bicycles or scooters will not do, leaving the solution to large automobiles. Despite the issues with affordability, anyone that has been stuck in a congested city street know that a personal vehicle for everyone is not tenable. The solution we've come to accept is macrotransit, the organization of planned, publicly funded transit such as buses, seabus, trains, and subways has worked well. While these too have costs associated with them, by placing transit stops at key-locations (places where people need to go), cities have enabled cost-effective means of mobility for many.

However trains and large buses cannot stop at every city block. Those who live further away from these key-locations may not be able to access these services. This is where microtransit comes into play. Typically macrotransit is well-planned; stops are located in areas where there are a large number of users and only a relative few people cannot access them. As such smaller, more efficient vehicles such as vans or even personal cars can be used to connect these people the short distance to macrotransit. Yet there are even more benefits to microtransit. In contrast to macrotransit, which has a planned schedule of stops, microtransit can be employed when needed (e.g. during commute hours or large events) and lay dormant during off-hours. Further those that cannot use macrotransit may use their own vehicles to commute. If, say, six people were to pool together and use a single microtransit vehicle to a macrotransit stop this would bring six vehicles off of the road, decreasing congestion on our streets.

What is its role in our future?

Microtransit is not a new thing. Essentially it is the sharing of a resource (effective mobility) and the distribution of the corresponding costs. Services such as car pooling have existed for years: growing up in a rural community, parents would take turns taking us kids to and from sporting events. What is new is our ability to process real-time demand of such services and the ability to communicate with complete strangers that are seeking the same thing: the access to mobility and to share its costs. Whether microtransit is realized through the public, private, or a mix of both sectors, microtransit will address serious problems our society will face.

First by removing vehicles from the road, or at least moving more people with the same number of vehicles, we will decrease or limit our greenhouse emissions. Indeed the transportation industry in Canada and the United States contribute between 25% to 30% of total emissions. Additionally by reducing the number of vehicles on our streets we can reduce traffic congestion leading to less time in traffic and safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Second as cities grow by both population and land use, more people will need to access an already taxed transit system. By utilizing microtransit we can continue to ensure those located far from macrotransit services can still access them, but also rely on microtransit to serve the temporary role of macrotransit if the latter ever fails. Finally as energy cost increase, along with expenses related to vehicle ownership, access to mobility for lower income individuals becomes tougher and tougher to achieve. By employing microtransit today we can see where it thrives and where it fails in action. Such experience will be beneficial when designing the transit systems of the future that will address these problems.

The problem of accessible mobility for everyone is a problem I'm quite interested in. From a computer scientist's perspective it is a topic rich with real-world problems to solve. However, on a larger scale, mobility across Canada is something everyone should have access to. We are a large, beautiful country with a rich diversity of people, terrains, and adventures. Be sure to check back as I plan on continuing discussing the topic of mobility, addressing things such as what companies are currently working on solutions and what are those that have failed, what demographics of our society will most benefit from microtransit, how ride-sharing fits into addressing mobility, issues and downsides of microtransit services and even implementing my own solutions to these problems!


Photo credit: istockphoto.com

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