Post #407: Microtransit

This was discussed for about an hour, at the end the 9/30/2019 Town Council meeting.  This is my brief review, based on watching the video recording.  There was a presentation, with materials provided to Town Council members, but those materials are not posted on the Town website.

The Director of Public Works provided a brief presentation on mictrotransit.  More or less, microtransit is an Uber-like service using small buses or vans.

As with Uber, you would use a smartphone app to call up a ride.

Unlike Uber, though:

  • This would not be one-passenger-at-a-time transport.  It’s more akin to Uberpool.
  • It would not come directly to your door.
  • Software would aggregate calls for transport, for all individuals near you who requested a ride around the time you did.
  • You would be given a pickup time at a “virtual bus stop” (a street corner a block or two from your house)
  • All the people who wanted rides would meet at that “virtual bus stop”.
  • In theory, this provides for greater efficiency.
  • Origin and destination of your trip would be in and around Vienna (e.g., as far as the Metro station).
  • The transport vehicle would likely be a van or small bus.
  • It should be cheaper than Uber, possibly a few dollars, possibly free.
  • It would be subsidized by tax dollars, just like other forms of public transit.

Because this is a new concept, there is not much data yet to assess how well microtransit works, or in what situations it works.  The Director of Public Works mentioned pilot projects that are starting in targeted areas of Washington DC, Montgomery County, MD, and Fredericksburg, VA.

Several tax- or toll-funded organizations were mentioned as possible sources of (most of) the money needed to do this, at least initially.   Possible funding sources included the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit (DRPT), and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG).

Eventually, Vienna would have to pay the cost of running this.  The very approximate estimate for having a third party provide turn-key operation of a system like this, for an area the size of Vienna, was given as $200,000 to $400,000 per year.  (It was not clear if that was gross cost, or net cost after offsetting revenues from fares).  Councilman Majdi noted that the cost would depend strongly on what you ask for — 24/7 on-demand service anywhere in Town, say, versus a few limited routes offered for a more limited time period.

There was a lengthy comment period, and a motion (subsequently withdrawn) to get staff started on applying for grants.  Comments were mostly about how to go about getting seed money (grant funding), and putting this in the context of the other transportation recommendations from the Town’s multimodal transportation study (see Post #359, Post #362, Post #358 ).

In the end, Councilman Noble’s view won out that it would make more sense to see what Kimley-Horn recommends in terms of the overall transit picture, and then (if warranted) pursue a package of options, rather than begin to look at this option in isolation.  At some point in the near future, Kimley-Horn will present the findings of the Town’s “multimodal” transportation study in front of Town Council.

A few comments and one calculation.

In a nutshell, microtransit is a cheaper version of Uberpool, using a few vans instead of many cars, without door-to-door service, subsidized by taxes or tolls. 

Councilmember Noble pointed out that the key to any of this is demand.  Will people demand (use) this service, enough to justify the expense?  Could this take away demand for the existing bus service in and around Vienna (Post #225)?  I think that’s the key issue, and one where Town Council would be well-advised to get their hands on whatever hard data is available before making a commitment.  (See Uber/Lyft suggestion below.)  I have already noted that the stunningly nice local Connector bus service goes largely unused (Post #225).

I will take issue with a statement by Councilmember Patel, that this would reduce our carbon footprint.  I think that’s plausible, but not proven, and would certainly depend on the demand.  A typical vehicle for this type of service (Sprinter van) gets around 17 MPG.  And as I learned with my analysis of electric scooters, a lot of things can affect carbon footprint that would surprise you (last section, Post #338).  In particular, short-range transport may function more as a faster substitute for walking and biking, rather than passenger car trips.  The substitution of motorized transport for walking or biking will increase carbon footprint.

It’s also worthwhile to note that traditional citybus service is only modestly better than the average new car, due to generally low load factors.  For example, US city buses on average emit 300 grams C02 per passenger mile, not hugely different from the average 360 grams emitted by the average new US passenger car (Wikipedia reference is here).  Both of those are worse than a solo driver in an efficient vehicle.  For example, a solo driver in a new Prius (at 54 mpg) emits about 165 grams per mile.  (These figures are for fuel only and are not life-cycle energy costs for the vehicles.)  For a Sprinter van, you’d need three passengers at all times to get the same fuel efficient per passenger mile as a solo driver in a Prius.

Now I’m going to do some simple calculations.  If this service will actually cost $400,000 per year, how many Uber trips could that buy, in and around the Town of Vienna?

Here’s what it costs to go from the center of Vienna to the Vienna Metro.  This probably longer than the median trip within the Town of Vienna.  So, at $7 per trip, that’s likely an over-estimate of the typical Uber fare within the proposed mictrotransit service area.

The answer is ($400,000/$7 =) ~57,000 Uber trips. 

If the microtransit runs 365 days per year, 8 hours per day, then at what point will microtransit make more than 57,000 trips per year.  Answer:  about 20 trips per hour, every hour, 8 hours per day, 365 days per year.

Finally, just for fun, how does that 57,000 trips compare to the number of trips on Maple Avenue?  (Fully realizing that a) not every microtransit trip would involve Maple, and b) the van itself would be a vehicle on Maple, so the reduction in vehicles on Maple would be less than 57,000 in any case.)  Total annual transports on Maple amount to (33,000 cars/day x 365 days = ) about 12 million vehicle trips per year.  So the theoretical break-even-vs-Uber 57,000 would amount to 0.4% of Maple Avenue traffic.

(Just to emphasize that I have not run this into the ground, note that the  calculation above assumes that the Town would pay the full Uber fare for you.  But if the Town just goes halfsies with you, then that $400K cost of microtransit would subsidize 114,000 half-price Uber rides.  And yeah, the money isn’t the only thing at issue here.  And Uber likely increases traffic congestion.  But still, that’s a lot of cheap rides.)

None of this is to say “don’t do this”.  All of this is to say, do some arithmetic and think hard before committing the Town to do this.  Even if, at first, we’re going to spending Somebody Else’s Money.

Fully acknowledging that we are spending Somebody Else’s Money, what we’re talking about is a service that is, for all intents and purposes, an inconvenient form of Uberpool.  (Albeit cheaper).  By far, the first thing I would want to know is how many transports Uber and Lyft provide annually, in and around Vienna.  (Uber does make such data available to city governments, but Vienna is just outside the zone for which data are publicly available for the DC area.)  If it isn’t on-order-of 57,000 and up, … the Town really needs to think hard about this.

Finally, just by way of illustration of what can happen if ridership does not materialize, I’ll point you to the Tyson’s Capital Bikeshare racks.  The extremely low ridership results in a $25 per-one-mile-bike-trip average cost.  See this post for calculation.

Finally (and I really mean it this time), if you think I’m kidding about high average cost if ridership does not materialize, read this, and find this line:  ” … for a jaw-dropping subsidy of more than $1,000 per ride.

But who am I kidding?  Some days, I just get tired of talking to myself.  As long as it’s Somebody Else’s Money, I doubt that stories of even truly spectacular failures, as above, will dissuade anyone.