On-Demand Microtransit Can’t Escape This Big Problem

It’s not hard to get people excited about microtransit, the public transportation service that promises taxi-like on-demand mobility for the cost of a regular bus.

Take Wilson, North Carolina: In 2021 this town of just under 50,000 launched a service called RIDE, which is operated by the mobility company Via. Instead of trudging to a bus stop, RIDE users can pick up their smartphone, open the Via app, and request a van to come pick them up. The van will then whisk them to their destination (perhaps with a slight detour, depending on other passengers’ itineraries), dropping them off exactly where they want to be…

But like other microtransit programs — which have mushroomed across small cities like Montpelier, Vermont and Smithfield, North Carolina as well as bigger ones like Seattle and Denver (where it typically augments traditional bus service) — Wilson’s van service relies upon massive subsidies: Government funding covers the bulk of an average journey’s $11 cost. And unlike fixed-route bus service, microtransit’s efficiency and service quality do not naturally improve as ridership grows. The more passengers it draws, the more costly it becomes.

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