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A growing number of agencies have turned to microtransit, also known as on-demand or demand-responsive transit. On-demand transit, which agencies often contract from private platforms or operators, provides point-to-point or zone-to-zone service in places where fixed-route transit isn't a good option. While recent interest was driven in large part by drastic fluctuations in ridership during the pandemic, there are also longstanding motivations, like reducing operating costs, enhancing service quality for riders, or facilitating better first- and last-mile connections to fixed-route service.
Unfortunately, microtransit has a long history of failed experiments. Many pilots, launched with great fanfare, have failed to deliver on their promise due to low ridership and high fixed costs. One challenge is that these new services, often available only in limited zones or at certain times of day, can be difficult for riders to discover, understand, plan, and purchase.
One reason is that, unlike fixed-route transit or bikeshare, on-demand services did not have a GTFS-like data standard to provide basic information to riders. Microtransit simply wasn’t available through apps like Google Maps or Transit, and during the first wave of microtransit experimentation a few years ago, transit agencies did not have an expectation that this new technology would connect with existing fixed-route services through trip planning apps.
During the pandemic, those expectations have begun to change. Transit has spent the past year working with a range of transit agencies and microtransit partners to make on-demand transit available alongside fixed-route service in our app. For now, each integration is built using proprietary APIs from each microtransit provider, to unique specifications agreed upon with each transit agency. These integrations are helping riders see all of their transit options and plan multimodal trips, delivering on the promise of microtransit as an interconnected part of an agency’s public transit service. These integrations are also helping agencies clearly communicate with riders about new on-demand transit options, especially when on-demand deployments are accompanied by major changes to fixed-route service.
While these innovative integration projects show the value of open, interconnected mobility, implementation typically requires access to private APIs, which creates hurdles for all parties. An open data standard would smooth the road ahead and allow on-demand transit integrations to proliferate not just in Transit but also in other apps, benefiting riders, agencies, and microtransit providers alike.
Fortunately, there is progress on this front. MobilityData, the not-for-profit managing mobility data standards like GTFS, has launched a working group of government agencies, not-for-profits, microtransit providers, and apps — including Transit— to create an open data standard for on-demand services: the General On-Demand Feed Specification, or GOFS.
With an open data standard in place for on-demand providers to share real-time information about their services, agencies will be able to require public data feeds to facilitate these kinds of integrations as a baseline expectation when launching microtransit programs. That would allow apps like Transit to display service information to users, such as zones, ETAs, pricing, and even the ability to make a pick-up request. Most importantly, GOFS will make it easy to combine on-demand transit with other services like fixed-route transit, or even bikeshare and scooters. That, in turn, will help ensure that every public dollar invested in microtransit promotes robust ridership and helps riders connect available services together for multimodal trips.
The possibilities for GOFS go far beyond microtransit and, in the not-too-distant future, can extend to other demand-responsive services, such as paratransit. Transit is already contributing to efforts led by the California Association for Coordinated Transportation and US DOT’s ITS Joint Program Office to ensure that the benefits of digital on-demand standards extend to all communities, including users of paratransit, older adults, rural residents, and other traditionally underserved populations.
Guidance for public agencies
- Ask potential microtransit vendors to provide their APIs, and share them for evaluation by apps that have integrated similar services in the past. We’re not the only company in this category, but you can use our requirements to get you started.
- If your agency is putting out a Request for Proposals, score providers on their proven ability to work with third parties, not just their willingness to do it.
- Agencies, cities, apps, and on-demand providers alike can get involved in conversations around GOFS, and become an early adopter of this new open data standard.
RFP and contract examples
This page will be regularly updated with new RFP and contract examples, especially as GOFS continues to gain momentum.
Given that the idea of integrating an on-demand service into trip planning apps like Transit is new, many of the contract examples here specify integrating with Transit by name. While of course we’re happy to be referenced directly, and it’s not a bad idea to specifically request an integration with your app provider (whether Transit or someone else), other approaches are possible. For instance, agencies should consider encouraging microtransit operators to comply with the emerging GOFS data standard, and require it more explicitly once it is formally released later in 2021.
Because integration is still a complex task requiring development work from multiple parties, contracting agencies should make allowances for operators to subcontract with integrators and/or consider commissioning a separate contract for integration of microtransit services.
St. Albert Transit (Alberta), May 2021: Included “Proven and demonstrable compatibility with the TransitApp through API or General On-Demand Feed Specification (GOFS)” as a desired attribute for microtransit vendors. (see bottom of page 21 of RFP)
VIA Metropolitan Transit (San Antonio, TX), February 2021: “VIA is also rolling out a new mobility payment platform in 2021 with Masabi and Transit app and is seeking a tightly integrated payment experience in selected partner’s Mobility on Demand app, utilizing the Masabi fare payment engine. Additionally, since Transit app will be utilizing the same Masabi fare payment engine, the Contractor shall work with Transit app to allow trip planning across fixed and Mobility on Demand routes right within Transit app. The whole trip could be planned, booked, and paid right within Transit app.” (see page 19 of RFP) and "VIA seeks to have provider directly integrate MOD trip planning within Transit app, where VIA customers can trip plan MOD journeys, bus travel, or combined bus and MOD journeys. Ideally, provider would allow full booking of the trip on the Transit app platform as well, but if not, the provider shall work with Transit app to link to the provider’s MOD app for booking." (see page 25 of RFP)