The arrival of market disrupters Uber and Lyft has spawned many think pieces on the future of transportation. While we may think technology will solve our transportation problems, instead of focusing on new technology, state and local governments should invest in making our public transportation systems more efficient.
Recently, my colleague David Petersen discussed how Uber and Lyft are making traffic worse, in part by luring riders away from public transportation. Since that blog post, New York City has taken measures to limit the number of Uber and Lyft drivers on the road to help relieve its traffic crisis.
One might be tempted to argue that we should focus resources on developing higher volume point-to-point services (such as Uber's Express Pool and Lyft's Shuttle, which offer point-to-point services, but with more passengers in each vehicle), believing that people prefer to take point-to-point services over a bus or train line that doesn't drop you off directly at your destination. Transportation professionals refer to these types of services as "micro-transit" since they are usually smaller than typical bus lines, but can serve more people than ride sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and taxis.
However, recent studies indicate that even the most successful micro-transit cannot come close to the volume of riders that can be transported using traditional public transportation. In the studies, the most successful micro-transit pilots were performing at a rate of 3-4 riders per service hour. In comparison, a poorly performing bus line averages 10-15 riders per service hour, while a frequent service bus line averages 40-100.
That isn't to say that micro-transit doesn't have a place in the transportation mix. The difference is whether you wish to focus on coverage or on ridership. Micro-transit lines are much more nimble in changing routes and destinations as their ridership requires, and may be just what is needed in areas outside of the city core. But if you really want to address congestion, you need to focus on the method that will move the most people, and make it as efficient and easy to use as possible.
Undoubtedly, our TriMet system could use some help in the efficiency department. It is hard to lure bus riders when the bus is stuck in traffic just like everyone else. One way to make the bus more attractive is to implement dedicated bus lanes, similar to those on the bus mall in downtown Portland. On June 20, 2018, the Portland City Council took a step in that direction by adopting the Enhanced Transit Corridor Plan. In partnership with TriMet, the plan identifies areas on the Frequent Service Network for enhanced access and priority treatments, like dedicated bus lanes. Of course, the plan is just the first step, but it is a good first step in making our public transportation system more efficient.