Plugging Transportation Gaps: Microtransit Can Fill in Where Public Transit and Ride-Hailing Fail

Cities and community leaders are investing in new kinds of public transportation, making it more convenient for older adults to maintain their independence.

For many older adults, walking a mile to the bus stop just to go grocery shopping or climbing three flights of stairs at the train station because it has no elevator, is simply not an option. Nor is paying $40 for an Uber or taxi to meet up with friends.

The vast majority of older adults prefer to “age in place," but a lack of accessible transportation makes this difficult. More than 50 percent of non-driving older adults don’t leave home at all most days, often due to a lack of transit options. And while it’s no secret that rural communities continue to face the most challenges in accessing public transportation, even the world’s biggest cities like New York are still confronted with transit deserts—pockets of neighborhoods underserved by the city’s bus and subway network.

Designing transportation that meets the needs of all residents, including older adults, requires a thoughtful and integrated approach. This means ample sidewalks with appropriate curb cuts, fixed route buses and trains arriving at useful times and frequencies (and in the right locations), first-and-last mile connections to mass transit (from home to station and back), and door-to-door transit for those who require it.

The Era of Better Public Transit

Recent advances in transit technology have generated innovative systems that can deliver a high-quality experience for older adults at an affordable cost to the community. Cities with an existing on-demand transit network—or those considering investing in one—can customize this service to more readily serve a diverse set of transportation needs.

Described as a mix between traditional fixed route bus service and an Uber- or Lyft-type ride-hailing service, on-demand public transit (also known as microtransit) allows travelers to request a shared shuttle via an app that picks them up in just a few minutes. Vehicles are then dynamically routed to the final destination, picking up other travelers along the way who are heading in the same direction for efficient, shared rides. No routes, no schedules, and entirely flexible. Microtransit can facilitate direct first-and-last mile connection to the wider network, or plug the gaps between locations that aren’t easily accessible within the existing fixed route infrastructure.

For older adults without access to nearby transit, requesting an accessible ride directly to their location in real time can be a lifeline—restoring freedom for the price of a bus ticket and, in many cities, even less.

As one SacRT rider from West Sacramento, Calif., said, “I really hope that a lot of dial-a-ride services go this route. On-demand service just changes peoples’ lives. It’s hard to have an equal social opportunity when you don’t have on-demand transportation.”

One city leading the pack when it comes to putting older adults first is Newton, Mass. In June, 2019, the city launched NewMo, an on-demand transit service available exclusively to older adults. The service was designed to replace the city’s previous “dial-a-ride” program, which required riders to book trips 72 hours in advance. Now, any resident age 60 or older can book an on-demand trip wherever they need to go throughout all 14 villages that make up the Newton area.

‘More than 50 percent of non-driving older adults don’t leave home at all most days, often due to a lack of transit options.’

Because it was designed for older adults, NewMo includes several distinct features. While NewMo supports ride booking through an app, it also allows riders to book by phone. All phone operators receive older-adult sensitivity training, and bilingual customer support staff are available for the large number of locals who speak Russian.

NewMo offers curb-to-curb and door-to-door service with a fleet that includes wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Plus, all drivers are trained in high-touch support, so they know to open the sliding van door as riders walk up, as well as proactively assist riders with bags.

As Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said, “Reliable, safe, affordable transportation is a key to giving people options for staying involved in their community as they phase out driving. This is a ground-breaking program that I really think can be a game-changer.”

NewMo has proven so popular with local older adults that other residents and city planners are taking notice. Due to demand for more accessible and flexible public transportation for all riders, the City of Newton expanded NewMo’s scope, adding additional microtransit services for the general population.

And Newton isn’t alone; there are cities across the country that are building new on-demand transit networks and catering specifically to aging adults.

In Wilson, NC, the city put older adults at the forefront of its efforts in transitioning their existing fixed-route network into an entirely on-demand service, called RIDE. An outbound call campaign formed part of the city’s community outreach strategy, ensuring older riders had one-to-one support in getting set up and help becoming familiar with the new service. Qualifying older adults also receive special discounted pricing and door-to-door shuttle service to eliminate the need to walk to meet the vehicle.

Added Value for Cities and Agencies

While microtransit brings a clear value in terms of quality of service for riders, operating microtransit can also be a cost-effective solution for cities, taxpayers and riders.

Older adults with limited mobility who are in need of public transit often turn to ADA paratransit. But public agencies have historically struggled to provide paratransit services at a sustainable cost: the average cost for transit operators in the United States to provide a fixed-route bus trip is $5, compared to $60–$90 per trip for many paratransit services. Launching a microtransit service, on the other hand, is often a much more attractive option.

One microtransit user said she can finally buy ice cream again. Previous bus trips had taken so long it would melt before she got home.

In Seattle, King County Metro (KCM) introduced its “Access” program, which offers point-to-point microtransit rides in accessible vehicles for qualifying riders, including older adults with mobility challenges. Riders contact KCM to establish eligibility for the program, and are given a unique promo code for the city’s Via To Transit microtransit project. Riders can then book on-demand trips, either through an app or over the phone, and a wheelchair-accessible vehicle will pick them up at their door and take them to their destination.

According to data from the Eno Center for Transportation, KCM spent on average $11.90 per wheelchair-accessible ride in the Via to Transit program, significantly less than the $55.75 average cost per ride on the region’s paratransit service.

Giving Older Adults Freedom

Introducing dynamic and flexible transportation solutions like microtransit is a great way to ensure that communities are building transit that serves the diverse needs of their communities.

An older adult user of a microtransit service in West Sacramento, Calif., noted she is finally able to buy ice cream again. Before the on-demand option was available, she had to take the bus to the store, and the trip was so time-consuming that the ice cream would melt before she got home.

This may seem to be a small detail, but it’s an important one. It encapsulates the public transit reality for many communities—long waits and too few choices—and a solution that can help more older adults age in place, engage with their community and remain independent for as long as possible.

Aparna Paladugu is a member of the Policy and Government Affairs team and Gabrielle McCaig is vice president of Communications at Via Transportation Inc.

Photo: Courtesy Via Transportation Inc.