Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Where's the revolution?: Bridj microtransit service shuts down (a/k/a "Mobility as a Service")

(Apologies to Depeche Mode: "Where's the Revolution?")

Yesterday, the Boston Globe reported ("Boston-based startup Bridj is shutting down after 3 years of operation") that the microtransit service Bridj is going out of business, after failing to land an agreement with a major auto company.

DC was one of the markets in which the firm operated (somewhere I have a couple photos from seeing their vehicles on 3rd Street NW).

Microtransit.  Services like Bridj have been touted as a revolution in transit.

Uber and Lyft have also been active in this market (e.g., UberPool), and last September Ford Motor Company bought Chariot, a firm similar to Bridj, based in the San Francisco region ("Ford Motor Company as a transportation company not a "car" company: bike share and small scale transit").

The reality is that such services aren't revolutionary, and build on forms that have been around for decades (Operational Experiences with Flexible Transit Services, Transit Cooperative Research Program, 2004), as shared taxi services (taxi collectif) such as in "exurban" Montreal, or shuttles, jitneys or van pools.

What's happened is that cloud computing and wireless communications systems make providing this kind of service a bit cheaper and easier, including making it easier to "recruit" riders, called "ride matching," just as similar technologies have enabled car sharing systems like Zipcar and Car2Go.

-- Shared Mobility: Definitions, Industry Developments, and Early Understanding, Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center
-- New Mobility Discussion Paper, Metrolinx, Toronto

In my transit network model ("The Meta Regional Transit Network") and concept of the mobility shed/sustainable mobility platform, such services can be either secondary longer distance options (like van pools, such as vRide) or "tertiary" transit, providing service within sub-districts of an area, using a transit station as a hub.

Bridj.  The company received lots of publicity for working with the Kansas City transit agency to provide a kind of fixed route "micro" transit service, but the agreement didn't last ("How Bridj's failed experiment in Kansas City Could Still Be the Future of Public Transit," Wired Magazine). From the article:
BRINGING BRIDJ TO Kansas City seemed like a no-brainer to transit officials. For just $1.50, anyone could use an app to summon a ride downtown in van that would follow a route calculated on the fly by an algorithm. No one within the service area was ever more than a 10 minute walk from a stop, and as an added incentive, your first 10 rides were free.

It flopped. Just 1,480 people rode on a Bridj van, a laughably small figure in a city of 2 million people. The city launched the program with the Boston mobility startup in March 2016, and in the past six months just one-third of riders took more than 10 rides. The one-year, $1.3 million project ended Friday. You might call it a failure.

Government officials and transit researchers call it a success. “I’ll be honest: The ridership was not the top priority,” says Jameson Auten, who leads the innovation division of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “The top priority for us was learning who uses on demand. Really, the big goal for us was learning itself.”
I'd call what they were doing in Kansas City an intra-district transit service ("Intra-neighborhood (tertiary) transit revisited because of new San Diego service").

There, it seemed most users thought of the service somewhat like a taxi, and they were younger than typical transit riders.  But at $1.50 per ride it wasn't economically sound. And while the transit agency learned stuff it could have learned by reading some reports and talking to other transit agencies providing similar services, in this case it was at Bridj's expense, and ultimately at the expense of the firms funding the company.

(Via is another firm providing fixed route intra-district services, in NYC, Chicago, and DC.  The DC fare is $2.95. The DC Department of For Hire Vehicles is subsidizing a similar service, at $3.50 per ride, in certain neighborhoods with a high number of seniors or people on limited incomes, called Neighborhood Ride Service by Taxi.)

Innovation theories.  The way I think about new technologies and services, such as Uber and other taxi services, car sharing, or driverless cars, is in terms of theories about innovation adoption using the diffusion of innovation theory of Everett Rogers (while not really credited, this is the theoretical basis of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, where Gladwell extends theory is in discussing how to advance innovation more quickly) or the disruptive innovation concept by Clayton Christensen:
A disruptive innovation is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leading firms, products and alliances.
Creating new markets or tinkering with existing markets.  The reality is that mobility services like Uber and Lyft are taxi services, reliant on people who need work and already have access to cars that are underutilized, connected by a digital application.  Other than the ability to use venture capital to subsidize the cost of a ride (and "surge pricing") there is no fundamental difference between "transportation network companies" and taxi companies.  Similarly, Bridj was and Chariot is the equivalent of a shuttle bus service.

"The Learning."  I don't think it takes a lot of analysis to figure out that microtransit isn't likely to be profitable because the market segments are small, labor is comparatively expensive, and vehicles cost money to purchase and maintain.

IT and telecommunications and "crowdsourcing" routes may have helped these services generate more ridership and gross revenue compared to previous service iterations, but the services still require subsidy.

That's why such trips are typically captured by higher priced services--taxis, or covered by institutions providing the service (shuttles) because of transportation demand management requirements.  Similarly, a long distance van pool doesn't pay the driver directly, other than covering their cost of the vehicle and expenses.

When the graphical World Wide Web was introduced, most people started calling "interactive" anything using graphics, even when there was nothing two-way or interactive about it.  What they meant was that the webpage was "multimedia," no longer static text.

Similarly, adding IT and telecommunications capabilities to tertiary transit network services are "evolutionary" not revolutionary, and not enough in and of themselves to create a market.

Whether or not the firms entering the transportation/mobility space can last long term is still an open question.  Vehicles and labor are expensive.  How much people are willing to pay for a trip is comparatively low.

How much they want to be able to multitask (read, using computer/wireless communication device) instead of drive and how much they are willing to pay for this is key to the long term success of such services.

Mobility or Transportation as a Service/Sustainable Mobility Platform.  There is a lot of discussion about what is called "mobility as a service" (The rise of mobility as a service: Reshaping how urbanites get around," Deloitte). Basically it's about people getting around without owning or operating a car, with various types of interconnected services.

The problem is that mass transit makes economic sense at large numbers, and "mobility as a service" is hard to provide cheaply, especially without subsidy.

One example is car sharing.  It works because it costs $9 to $15/hour to use, and the "member" is the vehicle operator.  Even so, it's not likely to capture the bulk of mobility market, but it can be an important component.  How profitable it will be for the private sector is an open question.

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