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Microtransit Innovation: How the US surpasses Europe in revolutionising urban mobility

Zag industry expert Vivian Myrtetus examines the mark that microtransit is leaving in the US and why the on-demand transport solution is worth bringing to Europe

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Ten years ago, using your smartphone to beckon a stranger in a private car for grocery runs, work commutes, or even a first date seemed unimaginable. In numerous U.S. communities, lacking a car or the means to afford ride-sharing services often meant relying on public transportation, which, regrettably, was not always dependable. However, in recent years, cities throughout the U.S. have begun offering microtransit as an alternative mobility option, catering to the needs of both residents and visitors within their communities. While very popular in the U.S., this all-electric microtransit option has yet to cross the pond.

What exactly is microtransit?

Microtransit services have transformed transportation by offering on-demand transit solutions. They allow passengers to quickly request shuttles via a smartphone app for pickups at or near their homes or designated locations. Typically overseen by local governments or public transit agencies, these services are commonly managed by third-party companies that receive subsidies to operate this alternative mode of transportation, similar to some bike share schemes. 

Over recent years, microtransit services have steadily increased throughout the U.S., offering flexible and personalised transit options to address evolving mobility needs. One of the largest microtransit operators in the U.S. is Circuit, serving more than 40 communities nationwide with all electric tech-enabled shuttle services since 2011.

Logan McLeod, Vice President of National Business Development for Circuit, told Zag Daily: “Microtransit allows you alternative transportation options that are frictionless and seamless. The shared rides provided by Circuit help reduce Vehicle Miles Travelled and the number of Single Occupancy Vehicles on the road, contributing to less traffic, time saved, and improved quality of life.”

Certain microtransit systems provide door-to-door or curb-to-curb services, while others require riders to walk to a designated ‘stop’ nearby to be picked up at their scheduled time. In some cases, there is no cost to the rider, while other times there may be a nominal charge of a few dollars. The central characteristic of microtransit lies in its flexible routes, a departure from the fixed paths followed by buses and trains.

Filling in the Gaps

The benefit of microtransit is evident in expansive regions that lack adequate traditional transit services. However, even densely populated areas are exploring and experimenting with microtransit options.

Addressing short-distance travel can create significant connections in the larger picture and provide greater access while reducing emissions. Cities in the U.S., such as Dallas and Fort Lauderdale, are embracing the new transportation alternative and there is evidence that the service is very popular.

Milos Majstorovic, Deputy Director of Transportation and Mobility for the City of Fort Lauderdale, tells Zag Daily that the service has benefited its residents and visitors. 

“The Fort Lauderdale-Circuit partnership has created a more sustainable, efficient, and greener city. Circuit helps visitors and residents get around to some of Fort Lauderdale’s biggest attractions and destinations while also helping close the transportation gap.

“The City is pursuing expansion of the program to more underserved communities, leading to better connectivity for all.”

The LauderGO! Micro Mover program, in partnership with Circuit, helps the City avoid more than 15 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions monthly. 

According to a recent survey, riders primarily choose the service to save time on parking.

In many areas, transit options are limited, leaving some job opportunities out of reach. To better serve the Fort Lauderdale community, the city has extended its services to encompass some of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in the area. First and last-mile solutions play a crucial role in improving equity and access and close the gap, making transit hubs—and the jobs they connect to—more reachable and housing more accessible. 

McLeod shared that in 2023 Circuit moved over 1.5 million riders across the country and connected riders to their communities with affordable and eco-friendly services. The top five pick-up and drop-off spots were grocery stores, transit, recreational areas, retail and restaurants, and offices. 

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA): “Every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns.” These investments create jobs, stimulate local economies, and have lasting impacts on GDP.  

In Fort Lauderdale, the microtransit service contributes approximately $628,000 per month to the local economy, prevents the burning of 1,350 gallons of gas monthly, and has created over 50 jobs.

Is the investment worth it?

Microtransit can offer benefits such as improved accessibility, flexible service, and filling gaps in transit networks. However, evaluating its worth requires assessing ridership demand, cost-effectiveness, environmental impact, and the community’s needs.

Public transit has always been heavily subsidised, and many officials say it’s worth investing in alternative options for people who don’t live near bus and train lines because they provide better access, and shared mobility also reduces traffic since fewer cars are on the road.  

According to a study conducted by INRIX Research, the average American commuter spends 17 hours per year looking for parking, costing $345 per driver in wasted time, fuel, and emissions. Those costs jump in major metropolitan areas: Drivers in New York spend 107 hours and $2,243 annually.

McLeod adds: “35% of trips in the US are actually under one mile. So those short distances contribute to parking issues, and this service can alleviate that.”

This report also notes that UK drivers spend an average of 44 hours looking for parking, costing the UK economy more than £23.3 billion annually in wasted time, fuel and emissions.  

With the high adoption of electric vehicles in Europe and limited parking, Circuit’s McLeod believes microtransit would be a natural fit. 

“Adoption overseas would be reasonably easy. We would work with city and government partners to establish service goals and objectives and then work closely with them to outline steps to launch those operations. 

“From an electric vehicle OEM perspective, it would be exciting to partner to create community programs to alleviate traffic and congestion while promoting sustainability.”

It begs the question, should the UK and the rest of Europe take a closer look at microtransit operations?

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