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Data proves that on-demand transit is essential for equity

New research backs it up. Let's start with Jersey City, NJ.

Illustration of an urban transit map.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have brought much-needed attention to inequitable structures in our society, including how our transportation systems and cities have been designed. At Via, we’re committed to doing our part to increase access to jobs, educational opportunities, grocery stores, health care and other critical services. That’s why we’re working closely with cities to improve and expand public transit, especially for underserved communities.

There’s no question that low-income individuals rely more heavily on public transportation than those who are wealthier. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), nearly 70 percent of all Americans who depend on the bus make less than $50,000 per year. Many transit agencies and cities across the country have turned to on-demand microtransit over the last couple of years to improve public transportation options for low-income residents. Those who have lower incomes often can’t afford to own a car and have been systemically underserved by traditional transit networks.

When COVID-19 hit, those in higher income brackets started working from home and using their personal vehicles for necessary travel, while millions of lower-income Americans, including a disproportionate number of people of color, don’t have that luxury and have struggled to make ends meet.

Dynamic, on-demand public transit has proven to be a mobility lifeline for those in low-income areas during this crisis.

In the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns, on-demand transit has begun serving specific community needs, such as food delivery to vulnerable populations and transporting hospital workers in the overnight hours. Further, data shows that dynamic, on-demand public transit has proven to be a mobility lifeline for those in low-income areas during this crisis. How’d we find this? We started by choosing three partner cities that have launched on-demand public transit solutions: Arlington, Texas, one of our longest-running services; Jersey City, New Jersey, one of our newest; and Los Angeles, where we recently celebrated our one-year anniversary. Then, we analyzed how COVID-19’s impact on rider demand related to income levels throughout each city.

Jersey City On-Demand

Let’s start with Jersey City, where our recently launched on-demand microtransit service fills critical gaps in the existing public transit system. New services are providing a much-needed mobility option to and from a centralized zone, including the downtown area, as well as within the north and southwest sections of the city.

Map of ridership in Jersey City.

The line graph shows ridership demand peaking around early March, and hitting a low later that month, mirroring trends throughout the transit industry. And yet, the rate of this decrease (the steepness of the line) in demand in areas with average income under $40,000 a year is less extreme than that of the $40,000-$80,000 bracket and, even more markedly, than that of the brackets above $80,000. It’s also clear that the under-$40,000 group and the $40,000-$80,000 group have experienced a steady recovery, turning back to microtransit, since early April.

Translation: Riders in lower-income areas were not nearly as quick to move away from microtransit during COVID-19, and, looking at data from early April onwards, they have come back to the on-demand service at a stable rate.

Via in Arlington

Next up, we have Arlington. In Arlington, we entirely replaced a single-route bus service with shared, dynamically routed, on-demand rides servicing much of the city.

Ridership map of Arlington, TX

Our line graph shows a consistently higher relative demand among the less-than-$40,000 and $40,000-$80,000 brackets, compared to the $40,000-$120,000 bracket. We also see the same trend of lower-income areas experiencing a far slower rate of decline during the pandemic than higher-income areas. Another point on the equitable mobility scoreboard for on-demand transit.

Arlington will be a particularly fascinating case to keep a close eye on in the coming months, given that this on-demand service comprises the city’s entire public transit system.

Via in Los Angeles

Finally, let’s take a look at Los Angeles and our on-demand shared transit service implemented in partnership with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (LA Metro) to provide first- and last-mile service to and from Metro stations in North Hollywood, El Monte and Compton.

Ridership map of Los Angeles

As expected, all income levels saw steep drops in demand immediately after COVID-19 hit. The rebounds we’ve seen for the $40,000-$80,000 and $80,000 and up brackets have been impressive, with both rising to about 75 percent of their pre-COVID peak by late May, and the latter group matching its highest demand of 2020 the following month. But take a look at the under-$40,000 group. Wildly surpassing all expectations, this segment achieved its highest ridership for all of 2020 in June; around 140 percent of its pre-COVID peak, and demand is continuing to grow.

You might also notice that, in addition to that remarkable recovery, demand for the under-$40,000 group in L.A. only dropped a marginal amount after COVID-19 hit. We believe this is largely due to key changes made to the service by LA Metro and Via, including

  1. An extension in service hours that coincided with the beginning of the pandemic
  2. A transition from offering first-and-last mile to end-to-end trips
  3. Adding essential locations, such as hospitals, to areas of service, in response to the crisis

So, what does this all mean? That the service is functioning exactly as L.A. intended. LA Metro’s on-demand network is acting as a lifeline for riders who still need reliable transit during this time, especially for lower-income residents.

Riding into the future, with everyone onboard

The data we’ve gathered from these three U.S. partner cities suggests that microtransit has been a vital public resource for lower-income communities during the coronavirus pandemic. Looking ahead, the long term socioeconomic reverberations of COVID-19 mean that affordable, convenient public transportation will remain absolutely critical.

Now is the time for cities to meet a 21st century challenge with a 21st century solution. By joining the microtransit movement and integrating on-demand options into existing public transit infrastructure, municipalities across the country can better serve their communities and foster economic mobility for all.

This story first appeared on:

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