SEPTA on Demand? How the Uber Model Can Save Bus Transit

Dynamic routes; pick-up and drop-off where you want, when you want. Is this the future of big city busing?


Bus stops are so 19th Century. | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

The first urban bus route was created in London in 1829. Four horse-drawn coaches would make the 4.5 mile trip from Paddington to Bank Junction daily, picking up passengers and dropping them off at pre-determined points. Within 50 years, horse-drawn bus services were common in Europe. As technology developed, the buses switched to steam power, then fossil fuels, and, increasingly, biodiesel or natural gas. But the basic urban busing model — big vehicles, fixed routes, waiting passengers — that hasn’t changed a bit, really.

Which is a bigger problem for the nation’s transit agencies than they seem to realize.

A growing number of Uber-inspired transportation startups are popping up in a handful of cities across the country, offering transit-like services, albeit, for now, on a far, far smaller scale than traditional transit agencies. Bridj, in Boston and Washington D.C., uses luxurious shuttles and data-driven routing, and charges $6 a ride. The easily-ridiculed Leap Transit in San Francisco offers much the same, plus wi-fi and irritatingly hip snacks. Lyft now has Lyft Line, Uber has Uberpool. The sector even has its first flop — a ride-sharing service in Las Vegas called Shift went belly-up early this month — and a new, appropriately wonky moniker: microtransit, which seeks to fill the gap between individual cars and big old trains or full-sized buses. It’s surely only a matter of time before a similar service pops up in Philadelphia.

Uber has emerged as a massive competitive threat to the taxi industry. Could these new startups threaten mass transit?

The agencies don’t seem to think so—yet. Asked about Bridj, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spokesman told City Lab, “It’s like saying that Disney World competes with a traveling carnival.” Closer to home, SEPTA’s director of strategic planning, Byron Comati, acknowledged that some competition was possible, around the margins. “Could be, in certain niches… As we get closer and closer to 8:30 at night, the peak is long gone, a lot of vehicles go out of service, frequencies get wider and wider on the bus in particular. So maybe there’s a market niche in there somewhere in the non-peak where ridership typically drops and our level of service commensurately drops.”

To be sure, these services, where they exist at all, remain infinitesimally small compared to transit agencies, and that’s likely to be the case for a long, long time. But these startups don’t need to compete on scale to present a serious threat to transit. If they grow enough to skim a good chunk of middle and upper class riders — riders who can afford the premium of $6 fares — that’s bad news for the agencies not just because of the loss of fares, but because it will further marginalize mass transit busing as a service principally for the poor. There’s already an unfortunate classist stigma associated with riding the bus, and while more Americans took transit last year that ever before, bus ridership actually declined by 60.2 million trips, a little more than one percent.

Alternative bus services, targeted at better-off riders, could absolutely further marginalize big transit busing. Marginalization leads to declining political support, which can lead to less public subsidy, which very much presents a problem for transit agencies.

So what can SEPTA and other transit agencies do about this? One option could be to explore an altogether different approach to busing, one that leverages its single biggest advantage over rail — flexibility — and experiment with Uber-esque busing services. It would work something like this: riders would hail a bus using a smartphone, get picked up at or near their locations, and then get dropped off at or near their final destination. As with Uber, riders would see how long they have to wait before their bus arrives, and how long it will take before they reach their destination. In other words, out with the old model of 100 percent fixed routes, and in with a new model of dynamic routing.

The upsides for transit riders are obvious: door-to-door (or something close to it) service, at a price point way below that of a cab or an Uber. No more waiting for a bus outside in the rain. No more “last mile” problem; that long walk after getting off the nearest stop to your destination.

The obstacles are, obviously, large. Rolling out a service like this on large-scale would create significant capital, operational and political challenges for any transit agency that wee to try (more on all of that in a moment). But this seems like an idea more than worthy of experimentation. And there are signs that the technology — principally the software — needed to power a system like this could be coming soon.

“Software is eating the world. Software has not eaten public transit yet,” says Josh Cohen, director of strategy and partnerships for a company called TransLoc, which develops transit software. (Full disclosure here: Josh is an old friend. He piqued my interest in this topic in a casual conversation a few months back.) “If you look at SEPTA, they have all kinds of technology. They have the new fare system. They’ve got some stuff so you can see when the next bus is coming. They have tech that helps them create schedules. But it doesn’t all talk to each other. It doesn’t connect.”

City Lab, which recently wrote about TransLoc, described a software-powered transit system this way:

[TransLoc CEO Doug] Kaufman offers this (sadly reasonable) hypothetical example: you’d love not to have to drive to work, but your commute takes 20 minutes by car versus an hour by bus. The new TransLoc platform might offer you a more flexible option. Open an app, punch in your origin, destination, and arrival time, and the dynamic system could search for others in your area going the same way to help lower the cost. The system would then schedule a pick-up (maybe at a nearby corner) and send a right-size vehicle (maybe a van or a 10-passenger bus) to serve the flex-route.

In the ideal situation, your new commute time would be closer to driving than riding the bus, but your new commute cost would be closer to a transit fare than a cab fare.

When I ran this notion by SEPTA’s Comati, he is mildly intrigued, but skeptical.

“I don’t rule it out. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t rule it out entirely. I’m just thinking it’s hugely complex to schedule multiple people to go on one vehicle and have that trip be meaningful in the sense that it’s timely on its pickup and also on its delivery,” Comati says. “I think what we tend to do is concentrate on what we do best, which is our core bus service.”

Nobody is suggesting SEPTA embrace an untested technology on a massive scale. On-demand transit would have to start small. Even if, over time, on-demand buses were to become relatively ubiquitous, fixed-routes would still make sense on a lot of city streets, particularly at peak hours.

Admittedly, even a modest rollout of something so dramatically different would present a lot of challenges for SEPTA. Comati ticks off a bunch, including:

  • The capital cost of smaller buses, which are probably more fitting for a service like this.
  • Labor rules, which give bus operators the ability to pick routes based on seniority.
  • Potential neighborhood opposition — particularly on those narrow blocks where big 40-foot buses don’t reach — to new SEPTA vehicles on the road.
  • Cannibalizing SEPTA’s fixed-route ridership.
  • Rider resistance, particularly among older SEPTA customers, to a new system.
  • Equity issues raised by the need to own a smartphone and the higher fare such a service would likely require.
  • Likely higher operational costs.

Those are all very real obstacles, and it’s hardly as though SEPTA is behind the curve on this. No big U.S. transit agency is experimenting with this sort of on-demand service in a meaningful way, and there’s not even a lot of international examples to point to (Helsinki rolled out a limited on-demand shuttle in concert with a private firm in 2013).

But I’d wager if transit agencies don’t find a way to overcome these obstacles, or figure out another way to make bus service more attractive for riders, private sector competitors will start to nibble away at their market share. Standing pat on a model that’s going on 200 years old may not cut it much longer. “That’s public transit operating like a monopoly,” Cohen says, “and I guess part of what I’m arguing is that’s not true anymore.”