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On-demand microtransit could cut city traffic by 30 per cent

A new study highlights the benefits demonstrated by on-demand microtransit in four cities and finds that it could help cities reduce traffic by 15 to 30 per cent if deployed at scale and with the right regulatory framework.


“On-demand transit services work.” This is the conclusion of a new study from Boston Consulting Group (BCG).


Over the course of a year, BCG researchers studied services operated by Via in Arlington, Texas; Seattle; West Sacramento, California; and Berlin in Germany. New-York-based Via operates all four services under contracts with public authorities and local transport agencies. Via did not sponsor or pay for the report.


Convenience and flexibility


On-demand transit provides a dynamically routed, multi-passenger shuttle service which BCG says could prove a much-needed ’middle way’ between mass transit and private cars.


“In the right regulatory context, with lower per-passenger subsidies than those provided to comparable public services, these initiatives can benefit passengers and cities alike,” the researchers say.


“Their convenience and flexibility improve the user experience over fixed-route mass transit while bringing good jobs within reach of neighbourhoods poorly served by the status quo. They also generate less congestion and pollution than solo passenger travel.”


BCG analysts evaluated metrics such as the quality and efficiency of the service, whether the transit network competed with or complemented existing public transportation, and if it decreased traffic congestion and pollution.


Complementing public transport


BCG notes that ride-hailing services can compete with mass transit, citing a study which found that more than 40 per cent of passengers would have taken public transit if a ride-hailing service had not been available, and 12 per cent would have walked or biked.


“On-demand transit services, on the other hand, can improve mass-transit usage when operators and local authorities work together,” wrote the researchers.


In Arlington, 27 per cent of the trips have been to or from the regional commuter rail station.


They noted that services dedicated to the first and last mile, such as Seattle’s Via to Transit service and a similar pilot in Los Angeles, provide rides to and from public transit stations.

“Even the more generic zonal on-demand transit services, meant to provide better transportation coverage, are helping to feed passengers to mass transit,” the report said.


In Arlington, 27 per cent of the trips have been to or from the regional commuter rail station.


Reducing pollution

Transportation accounts for 29 per cent of US greenhouse gas emissions, with cars and vans generating 59 per cent of emissions within transport.


The report finds: “The fight against climate change will not be won without removing gas-powered cars from the streets and without a strong push toward green, shared modes of transportation. On-demand transit can be a powerful ally in this effort.”


Despite using gas-powered vans, the West Sacramento and Arlington services studied were estimated to save between 60 and 150 tons of CO2 emissions per year, respectively, by aggregating passengers into shared vehicles and eliminating solo trips.

Further, Via’s 18 vans cover only 25 square miles of the vast 9,000-square-mile Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington area. Operating in just 0.28 per cent of the region, Via was responsible for 0.45 per cent of regional emission reductions, making it nearly twice as effective as other efforts.

“With a larger fleet, on-demand transit could probably have a significant impact on emissions reduction,” the authors say.


Decreasing congestion


Congestion is a common problem in large cities. New York City, for instance, is imposing congestion pricing on vehicles in parts of Manhattan and taking steps to reduce the time that for-hire cars spend cruising for passengers.


In the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington area, drivers are stuck in traffic an average of 45 hours a year.


By pooling passengers, on-demand transit services can go a long way toward reducing the number of vehicle miles travelled, the researchers conclude.


In the Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington area, drivers are stuck in traffic an average of 45 hours a year.


In Arlington, for example, the researchers calculate that the service helped eliminate nearly 400,000 miles of travel that would have occurred if the passengers had driven solo, corresponding to a reduction of 36 per cent of total vehicle miles travelled.

In addition, these services are used more during rush hours, so they do the most good during the most congested parts of the day. At rush hour, for example, the Arlington service averages seven passengers an hour; Berlin, nine; and Seattle, 14 far higher than the overall average of about four passengers an hour. At rush hour in Berlin, just three per cent of Via’s vans have only a single passenger.


“Through a massive expansion in large cities and sharp regulatory changes to discourage personal ownership of cars, on-demand transit could help cities reduce traffic by 15 to 30 per cent,” the report says.


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