Don’t Dismiss Transportation Pilot Projects: We Need More Wild Ideas

In Tri Delta Transit's current pilot project, riders can schedule a shuttle pick-up using a smartphone app. Image courtesy Tri Delta Transit.

Unprecedented change in the transportation system, most of it emerging from the private market, has caught the public sector flatfooted. In response, many cities and transit agencies are starting to pilot new kinds of services, testing a variety of ideas for giving people better ways to get around. In a number of cases, the early ridership results from these pilot programs are not strong, which has led many to dismiss the new ideas — and the agencies for trying them.

But this skepticism undermines the intended purpose of pilots: to test and refine the opportunity to extend the transportation system and get people out of their cars. Rather than looking down on pilots, we should embrace experimentation as a chance to learn and to improve transportation outcomes.

Take LA Metro. The agency is six months into a pilot with Via (a shared ride provider similar to Uber or Lyft) to offer on-demand rides to and from three Metro stations. The goals of the pilot are to extend the benefits of on-demand services to a wider audience and to make it easier for riders to connect with a growing Metro system. Total ridership for the pilot is low — around 1,675 rides per week — and that includes a ridership boost after LA Metro started offering the rides for free.

With disappointing ridership numbers, the pilot was deemed an “expensive flop” in the transportation press, another foray into the “money losing fad” of micro-transit — small-scale, on-demand transit services. LA Metro’s pilot isn’t the first micro-transit pilot to get the side-eye: micro-transit has been called an illogical investment and a consistent, dismal failure because it struggles to scale up to the point where it can serve the large volumes of people traveling in a city. Many have dismissed micro-transit as a distraction from investments in what they see as “real transit”: buses and rail.

The Purpose of Pilots

The number of riders, and the capacity of the project to scale up to serve more people, are important to consider, but they’re not the only metrics of success. These two variables have been overinflated to the point that the purpose of pilots — to test, iterate and learn — has been lost. When it comes to pilots, we need to shift our expectations and not think in terms of success vs. failure. (And we should question whether it’s even possible to determine that in six months or even a year.) The goal should be to capture, consider and debate what was learned and to iterate from there: Did the pilot improve mobility? What lessons are there about customer experience, contracting, marketing and flexibility?

Like many American metro regions, the Bay Area has fallen behind on experimenting with what the future of the transportation system should look like. In other places, cities and transit agencies have piloted small ferry boats, bundled mobility options, mobile tolling, the list goes on. In 2016, Transport for New South Wales, the public agency responsible for managing transportation services in New South Wales, Australia, launched 12 different simultaneous micro-transit pilots in different markets using different technology. Feeling at risk from disruption and change, the agency reasoned that simply doing what it had been doing — tweaking and improving service — was no longer good enough and would not deliver a fundamentally better transportation system.

In the Bay Area, our experiments have been much more modest. Several transit agencies have run their own micro-transit pilots, including SamTrans, Marin Transit and Tri Delta Transit. The latter, which provides bus service for the eastern part of Contra Costa County, launched a 6-month on-demand shuttle to connect people to BART and local shopping centers. The agency’s executive director called it the “wildest" thing they've done since they started service in 1977.

We’ve missed too many opportunities to challenge long-held beliefs and try new ideas, and our transportation system has suffered as a result. We need more — not fewer — wild ideas.

What’s at Stake

Passenger vehicles are the single greatest source of carbon emissions produced in the Bay Area and California. In 2019, pedestrian fatalities on U.S. roads hit almost 30-year high. The amount of people who actually use transit is problematically low: transit currently carries about 3 percent of all trips and 12 percent of work trips in the region. Our transportation system continues to fall short of producing the outcomes that we want. To change this, we need to consistently ask ourselves how we can make things better. Pilots that explore new spaces for transit and opportunities for major shifts in transit modes are not only appropriate — they are essential.

In corridors with high demand where transit can work well, we know what transit needs in order to succeed: direct routes, high-frequency service, long hours of service and priority. But there are many places in the Bay Area and beyond where traditional transit does not work well and likely never will. Similarly, people have a variety of needs and experience transit in diverse ways. Just because the bus is reliable and frequent doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Can we design a bus that’s stroller or grocery friendly? Can we create safer environments for parents waiting at bus stops with their children? In places and situations that resist traditional transit solutions, people still deserve better options than driving alone. These are areas ripe for experimentation.

Building Better Pilots

There are all sorts of things we stand to learn about how to improve and enhance the transportation system and provide better mobility. For example, pilots could be designed to:

  • understand what services and technologies are out there and how much they cost to deliver
  • experiment with different infrastructure choices, such as how to manage curb space in a way that is more equitable and efficient
  • see if we can direct current levels of public subsidy in a way that delivers better outcomes
  • identify how to refine and develop new contracting models
  • identity ways to improve inequitable outcomes in access and social mobility
  • explore future transportation service that the public sector might invest in

To be clear, that’s not to say pilots should be haphazard or designed at random. How we build our cities and what we give priority to on our streets has a tremendous impact on mobility, safety and livability. Transit agencies and cities should think through where new things might fit and how they might address underserved customer needs, then set up pilots to test their hypotheses. Pilots should have clear learning objectives and evaluation metrics and allow for ongoing refinement, iteration and dissemination of results. Well-designed pilots can help identify which markets and customers traditional transit can serve well. They can point to new ways to serve new markets and to opportunities to better serve existing customers. One need not — and should not — come at the expense of the other.

To allow cities and transit agencies to really pursue new ideas, we have to remove the constraints that make it challenging for them to innovate. Transportation regulations at all levels of government need to be rethought to support public as well as private innovation — and to give options other than the car a shot at succeeding. In the Bay Area, regionally supported innovation teams could help cities and transit agencies to: build the competency to understand and measure people, their activities, needs and preferences; deliver pilots; and collect and share the lessons learned. We may even need to consider new public organizations or models that can deliver transportation outcomes in the public interest.

Transit doesn’t have to stay exactly as it is today. The world has changed in ways that should impact transit design: Virtually every person has a device that shares their location in real time. This alone begs for innovation and experimentation in the transit sector. We need to embrace a larger view of what transportation is for and who it serves. We should be designing cities for people not cars, and buses and rail provide some of the most efficient ways of doing so. But we can think even bigger by looking at all the places where we can leverage technology and new ideas. Cities should be investing in and improving public transit infrastructure — and also thinking beyond the frame of existing systems. With well-designed pilots, we have the opportunity to learn how technology can help us achieve increasingly better outcomes for mobility, safety, equity and sustainability.