Over the last several months a handful of startups have dropped hundreds or thousands of electric scooters on the sidewalks in cities like San Francisco, Austin, and San Diego, allowing anyone who downloads an app to unlock and ride them across town for a small fee. It’s a radical – and controversial – experiment in urban mobility. But scooters could be just the beginning.
Declines in public transit ridership are pushing transportation agencies around the country, including in the District, to pursue partnerships with tech companies to incorporate on-demand, dynamic shared rides into their services.
Proponents of “microtransit” say they could increase the reach of public transportation by extending travel options to underserved areas and into off-hour travel times when bus service is infrequent or nonexistent. Cities also are betting that subsidized microtransit could potentially lure back riders lost to popular app-based services, such as Uber and Lyft. They view it as a creative way to meet growing needs and balance costs.
“We can’t continue to spend huge sums of money on local bus service if it’s not being utilized as well as it should,” said Gabe Klein, a former transportation chief in the District and Chicago. “So how do you enhance local bus service to make it more useful to people in the age of on-demand modes? That is where microtransit comes in.”
In Los Angeles, the number of bus and rail trips taken last year was the lowestin more than a decade. Over just the last five years, transit ridership has declined 15 percent.
What’s behind the huge drops?
Cars. More specifically, the fact that a lot more people who might otherwise ride the bus or train now own cars.
Mass transit agencies across the country have been having a hell of a time paying for their creaky and often ill-used bus and light rail lines. A couple of cities have come up with a novel solution: tax the transportation services that riders have been using instead.