Using Flexible Transit and Micro Transit To Plug Holes in Our Transit System

Rapid growth has left Montgomery County with aging, fixed transit systems the do not meet the needs of many commuters.  The proposed Bus Rapid Transit system may be a helpful addition to our transit needs but it is also an expensive, fixed route system that will inevitably leave gaps in service that are always difficult to fill in a large urban/suburban community.

Many communities have experimented with flexible transit services.  Over 50 communities have tailored various types of flexible transit.  Since each flexible service is unique they can provide solutions to a variety of transit problems.  Flexible transit services can adjust their stops and routes based on reservations by commuters.  This sort of service can work in lower density communities where demand would not justify fixed transit systems.  In Montgomery County, Clarksburg has struggled for years with rapid population growth that brought severe congestion but has not been able to get significant transit service because the demand did not justify it.  Adopting a flexible transit service could provide much needed relief.

Flexible transit is most commonly used in limited hard-to-serve areas where the flexible service is the only transit service offered.  However it can also replace fixed route service during night time, early morning or weekend hours when demand for fixed route service is not sufficient.  (As a side note, studies have shown the the most fuel efficient mode of transportation is a full bus, but the most inefficient mode of transportation is a nearly empty bus.)

Flexible service can be an effective method of connecting all potential points of interest regardless of demand.  They can reduce or eliminate the expense of separate service for people with disabilities, and they can respond to changing community preferences and geography.

More recently, the rise of ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft have opened the way for creative new forms of micro transit that can fill gaps in service by public transit systems.  These services are private or public/private partnerships. The most prominent recent entry into the field has been has been Ford Motor Company’s Chariot service.  Presently operating in San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Chariot plans on expanding to Manhattan and Brooklyn later this year.

Chariot is an app-based communal bus service.  Since it is backed by Ford, once it gets a critical mass of demand for a particular route it can launch service within a week, a major benefit over public transit.  As of now Chariot is a third more expensive than bus fare, and the need for credit cards, bank accounts and smartphones limits use by poorer residents, but Chariot is working on pilot projects that would explore ways to bring these customers into the system.

In recent years, Montgomery County has grown more rapidly than it’s ability to provide transit service, school classroom space, and other basic infrastructure needs–primarily because of poorly planed development decisions.  If we are to address our transit needs going forward we are going to have to get out of the twentieth century mentality that focused entirely on fixed route transit systems, and seriously explore the range of flexible transit that other communities around the country have been experimenting with.

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