James Davenport Transportion (Past, Present and Future)


Does Microtransit Have a Role in the Future of Public Transit?

I must admit, I am a bit concerned about future mobility for the elderly and disabled, especially in sprawling jurisdictions where there are so few options to get anywhere without an automobile. How are they supposed to get around if they are unable to get into a car and drive to a doctor’s appointment, the grocery store, the drug store, their place of employment-if they work, and other necessary destinations? Transit agencies with fixed routes may not be able to get to some of these individuals and transport them to their needed destination.

I’ve often wondered how it would work if transit agencies in large suburban counties partnered with transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, to get such individuals either to where they need to be or to a sheltered bus or transit station. Then I came across a webinar a few weeks ago conducted by the Eno Center for Transportation that focused on “microtransit.”

Microtransit was defined as a new on-demand, shared, and dynamically routed service model to augment traditional fixed-route bus and train services. It is enabled by technology like the mobile smartphone applications pioneered by privately operated TNCs.

The purpose of the webinar was to promote a paper recently published by Eno, “Uprooted: Exploring Microtransit in the United States.” The report examined three pilot projects which were implemented by public transit agencies, one in Kansas City and two in California. Though the U.S. Federal Highway Administration refers to microtransit as “a privately owned and operated shared transportation system,” these three case studies presented examples of public transit agencies overseeing the operation and hiring of private companies or contractors to design and implement a more flexible service to augment or replace established fixed bus routes.

Credit: shuttlemenc.com

Each of the case studies began approximately in late 2015, early 2016. Two of the pilots were discontinued since ridership was low, and expenses were high. While, in general, public transportation is not expected to experience full cost recovery, these two pilots were unable to meet even modest financial goals to justify the continuation of the service. In the third example, agency staff recommended to its Board the continuation of microtransit service permanently into regular service. If the Board approves the recommendation, implementation of the permanent service is estimated to officially begin in March of 2019.

This is really the first time that such a pilot study has been conducted, and it isn’t surprising that the results weren’t as strong as the project planners may have hoped. In fact, it is noted in the summary of the report that the parameters themselves, to measure success and failure, may need to be evaluated. The success of microtransit operation shouldn’t be solely based on the number of riders and the cost of the operations. Though that is what elected officials and the public will probably first look at, it is important to note other qualities of the service.

It is clear from the examples that these early experiments illustrate that ridership does not always capture the full story. Other benefits such as improved mobility, increased safety, and enhanced customer experience are not evaluated by measuring only ridership and cost. To ensure that a service is meeting the needs of riders, clear goals should be stated in the service contract and performance measures should be established and based specifically on meeting those measurable goals.

Since these types of projects are very new, especially to public agencies, it may be wise for any upcoming pilot project to enable increased flexibility in the contract stipulations during the pilot project.  This would allow the agency to make any necessary changes during the pilot without compromising the requirements of the contract.


Credit: Carpenterbus.com

For example, in one of the case studies it became clear after initiating the pilot that the service area needed to be adjusted to more appropriately meet the customers’ needs. Because the program was subject to standard labor protocols, staff was unable to adjust the service area quickly and instead had to go through a specified board process. Additionally, the contract did not allow the agency to adjust staffing in response to actual need.

As on-demand dynamic route technology seems to be the up and coming thing, many transit agencies may be pressured to deploy these technologies to help demonstrate to their funding agencies that they are able to innovate but also save money. The problem is, if the main goal is to demonstrate the latest technology as fast and efficient, it still may not meet the needs of the riders, especially those with moderate to low income, disabled or elderly. Regardless of technology, customers are not very likely to use a service that does not meet their specific transportation needs. One of the main conclusions from the paper is that the agencies that start implementing technology in their transit service will be successful only if they have a clear goal specified in the service contract and a specific list of challenges the technology will adequately address. As the paper states, the agency needs to ask the tough questions very early in the planning process.

Results of these pilots were somewhat mixed. It is an approach that should be considered as our population gets older and access to a car may not be practical or even safe for many individuals. To me, the key point of the paper is that glitzy technology should not dictate the service to the rider, but the needs of the rider should drive the technology. How can transit agencies serve the rider in an advancing age of technology when many of those individuals don’t have smart phones and do not have, or want, the use of credits cards?

Again, what are you trying to solve? As I said in the beginning, I am worried about individuals who live in a large county or city and may not be able to get around because they are unable to drive. I see a clear goal of microtransit as addressing those needs, not replacing the current bus or transit service but to complement it. Use the service to address first mile-last mile access to transit for those who may not live near a bus or transit stop. Services that address this need may not appear to be financially successful because the initial costs may be high and initial ridership may be low. But if people who were once unable to use a transit service, now can do so, that is a success. And if that service is adequately marketed and allowed to operate over a certain period, ridership numbers may then show success as well.

Credit: clipartix.com

Though we see many examples of privately run paratransit service, on-demand, such as Uber or Lyft, the jury is still out whether this type of service can provide public transit entities with the ability to broaden its ridership and make it more accessible to those who are difficult to reach. I believe that is where microtransit could have a key role in the future of public transit. With all the technology that is available now, if microtransit cannot improve existing paratransit service to make it more effective and efficient or help transit agencies serve those who are not being served right now, then it is not worth pursuing.


It Suddenly got More Interesting

We just heard late last week that there are a few more projects that could be funded through tolls being collected on the new Express Lanes Inside the Beltway (ITB). These two projects are game changing projects and have been proposed as addressing critical transportation bottlenecks in the northern Virginia region. These projects include building a new station or platform at the Rosslyn Metro and the widening of Long Bridge. On one hand I applaud allocating funds for two much needed projects. On the other, I question if ITB Express Toll lanes is an appropriate source of funds for such projects.

It was reported last week that state leaders are proposing changes to the use of toll revenue from Interstate 66 ITB. These potential plans could include allowing part of the money to support a public-private partnership to build a new Rosslyn Metro station or to construct a new, wider Long Bridge that carries CSX, Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express trains over the Potomac between Arlington and D.C.

Long Bridge
Credit - railfanguides.us

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) manages and allocates  toll revenues generated from the I-66 ITB Express Lanes. The NVTC is scheduled to take up the proposal next month that would allow the toll money to cover debt service or other payments for the CSX bridge and/or improvements at the Rosslyn Metro station. By including those two projects in the agreement, the projects could qualify for better bond ratings than if the money were to be allocated later.

I imagine there will concerns  regarding the raising of funding in one major corridor and funneling those revenues for improvements in another corridor.  There may also be concerns over funds being used for improvements to infrastructure that extends beyond the I-66 ITB corridor. State leaders stress that, with this new proposal, the toll revenues would continue to fund the transit programs inside the I-66 corridor. Under the revised toll-revenue agreement, Virginia would promise a minimum of $10 million per year for the transit options, increasing by 2.5 percent each year to account for inflation. The two projects would be next in line for funding. If there are additional toll revenues over what NVTC is promised, then that money could be used to issue bonds. One of the issues is that bonding on toll revenue involves risk and risk cost money. This may limit the terms of the bonds.

According to NVTC staff, the two projects do have some link to I-66 in that they could improve rail service parallel to the I-66 corridor. This would serve the corridor by reducing the number of vehicles on I-66. Regarding the high tolls, the facility will eventually change from HOT-2 to HOT-3 and there will be an additional east-bound lane from the toll road to Fairfax Drive exit. This should add capacity, especially in the east-bound lanes, and as a result reduce the toll.

The challenge is that it is easy for many to get excited about supporting new transit service across the region.  However, the benefit of these facilities will be limited unless a continuous-dedicated level of funding is allocated for the operation of the new service. I am encouraged to hear that under the new amendment to the 40-year toll-revenue agreement, revenue dedicated to these new transit improvements would be allowed to pay for operating costs in addition to capital costs.

These two projects had been identified as priorities in the past. You don’t believe me? These two projects were part of Transportation Planning Board (TPB) Long Range Task Force’s original list of Game Changer initiatives  (those without identified funding source(s) but deemed worthy of investment to reduce congestion and improve accessibility and reliability. The task force identified approximately 6-10 initiatives (projects, policies, or programs) that would improve the performance of the region’s transportation system compared to the TPB’s current Constrained Long-Range Plan.

Rosslyn Metro Station
Credit - Phosaturday.wordpress.com

The Task Force has narrowed down the list to five initiatives. Tomorrow, the TPB Board will consider the Task Force’s recommendation for the five initiatives for final approval. One of them includes adding a second Rosslyn station and a new rail line across the Potomac River.

State Transportation officials and VDOT will probably hear from I-66 ITB commuters of their concerns in this proposal, they should be prepared for this. However, I believe the benefits of this investment will far outweigh any concerns regarding any perceived transfer of funds.


Not Lexus Lanes, They’re Lamborghini Lanes

That was a statement from Loudoun County Supervisor Mathew Letourneau on Kojo Nnamdi’s show this afternoon. If you hadn’t guessed it, he was responding to the toll being charged to use the HOT lanes on I-66 Inside the Beltway (ITB). The post reported yesterday that on the first day of the HOT Lanes during morning rush hour, the toll got as high as $34.50 for the 10-mile route.

As I have reported before, the tolls on the new HOT lanes on I-66, like I-95 and I-495, are variable and will fluctuate based on the demand of the facility.  As congestion increases in the lanes, the higher the toll to be charged on the HOT lanes, or Express Lanes. They call this dynamic tolling. VDOT reported in the article that the toll was also in the low $20 range, as the toll changes every six minutes. Still, $20 seems high to me if you plan to use the facility every day. And that is just one way.

Credit: Virginia Department of Transportation

The big questions leading up to the grand opening on Monday was how much will be the toll be. Well, now we know, and it can’t be good news for VDOT right now. My reaction when I first read the article headline was “oh my god that is high.” Sorry to be so dramatic but that is expensive. By the way, the toll reached as high as $40 today.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne was also on Kojo’s show. He explained how the tolls work and the fact that there is not a ceiling to the toll that can be charged. I didn’t hear a reason for this. There is anticipated revenue from the tolls that will be used to cover various multi-modal project improvements along I-66 ITB corridor. In my previous posting, I noted that the Commonwealth of Virginia has allocated $10 million to improve public transportation for the ITB project, which includes new bus routes that will take commuters from as far as Gainesville to the Pentagon via I-66, and from Fairfax to Foggy Bottom. It is hoped these investments will boost capacity to carry an additional 5,000 people on transit through the corridor when tolling begins. I presume there is no ceiling to better certify that these toll revenues will continue to cover both operating and capital costs five-ten-twenty years down the road.

The problem is, if the tolls continue to be as high as they were on Monday, drivers and commuters simply will not use the Express Lanes. They will choose to drive on adjacent roads which will further add to the congestion of the primary and some secondary roads. In addition, those anticipated revenues to cover the improvements along the corridor may not be covered as soon as the Commonwealth had planned. I know the idea is to get people out of their cars and into trains and buses, and maybe bikes. And that would be a good thing. But for those commuters who will drive no matter what, it is important that they use these Express Lanes for the Commonwealth to meet its projected revenues on time. And they won’t use them is the tolls continue to be $34.50.