Sacramento’s Regional Transit agency is about to launch an experiment that many say could open a dramatic new future for mass transportation – one that doesn’t involve walking to a bus stop and wondering when the next bus will arrive.
It’s called “microtransit,” a service similar to the rideshare model popularized by Uber but reliant on shuttle buses or vans that riders request via smartphone. The shuttles pick riders up wherever they are and drop them off where they want to go.
The microtransit service has popped up in the last year in cities around the country, sometimes offered by mass transit agencies, sometimes by private startups, sometimes partnerships of the two.
“It’s brand new,” UC Davis transportation expert Dan Sperling said. And it’s uncertain whether riders will go for it and whether it is financially viable long-term. “The reality is there is very little experience with this.”
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SacRT plans to test the concept beginning in February in Citrus Heights.
Unlike Uber, microtransit buses will carry a handful of riders at a time, SacRT officials said. The driver will have an iPad on the dashboard showing the shortest route to get passengers to their individual destinations.
SacRT officials and public transit officials elsewhere say they hope they can keep costs lower than rideshare. Currently, SacRT charges $2.75 per bus or light rail ride, with lower rates for students and seniors. Their plan is to charge that same amount for all neighborhood-based microtransit rides.
“We believe this type of service could be the future for all our neighborhood service,” SacRT spokeswoman Devra Selenis said.
SacRT chose Citrus Heights for a six-month pilot program because the agency already has two local shuttles there that pick up passengers at their doorsteps. But those dial-a-ride buses currently require phone reservations a day in advance and have proven to be cumbersome to manage. They also don’t work for people used to instant service.
Citrus Heights Mayor Steve Miller said a lot of people in spread-out suburban neighborhoods don’t use SacRT’s regular “fixed-route” bus system either – especially older people less willing or able to walk long distances to a bus stop.
If the initial experiment shows promise, SacRT officials say they may expand next to Orangevale and allow people to request the shuttle take them to the old town Folsom light rail station, where riders can take trains downtown.
The pilot program will cost about $25,000 for software programs to run the project, agency officials said. The cost of the two shuttle buses and drivers is already in SacRT’s 2018 budget.
Ultimately, SacRT officials envision using microtransit service in neighborhoods throughout the region. Some would ride to light rail or to larger buses that continue to run on main routes to key population-dense areas, such as downtown.
“We’re trying to make transit easy and convenient,” Miller said. “It seems like this could be used throughout the region in cities like Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove” where traditional bus routes are used by only a few people.
Agency operations chief Mark Lonergan said if the microtransit concept catches on, it could lead to major alterations of the agency’s regular bus routes – perhaps fewer bus routes.
The transit agency already has launched a yearlong analysis of how to modernize its bus service and will use what it learns from the Citrus Heights experiment.
Nationally, microtransit has been a hot new mobility experiment in dozens of cities, much of it led by private companies, like Via, Lyft Shuttle and Chariot. Early returns are mixed. A number of pioneering companies have gone out of business after running into regulatory or financial problems.
The city of West Sacramento is planning to launch a similar system, using vans, in cooperation with Via.
A new national study by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies finds that rideshare companies have taken about 6 percent of public transit agency ridership, with much of that decline attributed to people in their 20s and 30s living in urban areas.
Sperling, author of an upcoming book, “Three Revolutions,” about America’s transportation future, said he thinks microtransit has the potential to transform legacy transit agencies into modern “demand responsive” companies.
“A lot of people want to be chauffeured around,” Sperling said. “Uber and Lyft have shown that.”
But he said it’s uncertain whether agencies like SacRT, which has little technological expertise and nimbleness, can beat out private upstarts. “It is a challenge for transit agencies to be agile, like Uber. Uber and Lyft have pioneered getting to know their customer very well.”
To help it manage its efforts, SacRT has contracted with a private company, Transloc, a North Carolina-based transportation company with expertise in “demand response” transit.