Transit in Flex: Examining Service Fragmentation of New App-Based, On-Demand Transit Services

The transportation industry may be on the verge of its largest technological revolution in a century, with new forms of on-demand transportation capitalizing on innovations like the global positioning system (GPS) chips in smart phones to develop app-based, on-demand transportation, connecting user and driver, known alternatively as ridesourcing, ride-hailing, Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). As TNCs like Lyft, Uber, Didi and many others spring up, along with a number of other app-based, on-demand models like ridesplitting, microtransit and E-Hail, among others, a growing number of cities are considering whether they could shed the high cost and unprofitability of running fixed route transit services through conversion to app-based, on-demand systems. Fixed route public transit has traditionally been hampered by political fragmentation, manifested in numerous geographical service gaps created by a failure of local transit agencies to plan for cross-jurisdictional services. Fragmentation can create equity concerns for residents of transit deserts, unable to access key services across the city or county line. For example, the Detroit man James Robertson spent several hours commuting to work because his job was located in a city that did not join the transit system, and his route crossed two counties—each with its own bus system. This required an untimed transfer, and a long walk (Laitner, 2015). Similarly, the Dallas Fort Worth metro region suffers from large service gaps, with Arlington and Grand Prairie both sitting outside the region’s large transit systems. While another CTEDD study, already underway, will analyze the full scale of the problem, the proposed project examines how this problem could change, or perhaps be overcome, by the onset of new app-based, on-demand transportation technology. Since jurisdictional fragmentation is a problem rooted in excessive local government autonomy (Weinreich, Skuzinski, 2018), conceivably, this could be overcome by private services, when funded by private sources, and regulated by states and regional governments, rather than locally (Gavin, 2017). As local governments consider harnessing app-based, on-demand technology to operate their public transit systems, often in partnership with private companies, it remains to be seen whether these new services will be designed in such a way that they can overcome the jurisdictional fragmentation seen in previous fixed route services. Furthermore, as more local governments consider ways to incorporate on-demand transit services into their existing transit systems, they will need to know how governance structures could be designed in order to avoid fragmentation. The proposed study also lays the groundwork for other equity studies to follow. This project identifies local governments that are considering app-based, on-demand services as either a replacement or a compliment to their fixed route services. Researchers interview public officials about what they have/have not done to ensure the new services overcome jurisdictional fragmentation and cross-jurisdictional lines, and what they think can be done to make cross-jurisdictional public transportation more robust. This study will provide a strong understanding of the governance structure underlying the development of such services, which may be leading to equity challenges. A natural follow-up to this study would analyze the services that have been provided, examining their success at catering to passengers with disabilities, those without bank accounts or smart phones, and senior citizens (Part 2). While the second part is not part of the current proposal, it will likely be proposed in a later cycle, when more of the app-based services have been implemented, and are ready for analysis.. The proposed study offers a first examination of the choices local elected officials are making that will shape their transit systems for decades to come. The Texas planning environment, with its high interest in using on-demand technology as a cost-saving alternative to fixed route transit service, offers a strong test case. This study will survey public officials across a range of medium to large local governments and the transit agencies that serve them, revealing which ones are in the process of “uberizing” their transit systems; what steps they have/have not taken to overcome fragmentation from the past; and what policy solutions regional leaders think could be implemented to provide services more favorable to cross-jurisdictional trips.