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With this article, correspondent Jason Tchir begins a series on urban mobility subjects. The second annual Drive Summit on urban mobility and related technology takes place on Tuesday, Feb. 12, during the afternoon, at the Globe and Mail conference centre. To attend, free of charge, register here: Spaces are limited.

Two new Calgary neighbourhoods don’t have enough people yet for a regular bus route, so the city’s thinking smaller.

“They’re very close to a major transit hub but they’re far enough away that you can’t walk,” said Jyoti Gondek, city councillor for Calgary’s Ward 3, where the city is looking at proposals for its first microtransit pilot. “It doesn’t make economic sense to put on a full bus route until there’s a critical mass of people, so we’re asking what can we do to get people that last mile.”

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Cities such as Los Angeles and Austin, Tex., are looking to microtransit – what has, so far, mostly been private companies running app-based, on-demand shuttle services – to reach people in areas where buses don’t go often enough, or at all.

“It’s not cost-effective for us to provide traditional routes providing fixed-schedule bus service through low-density areas,” said Eric Miller, director of the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute. “We do it, but we don’t do it with the frequency of service that people need – the only people on these buses are people who have no choice. We spend a lot of money for poor service.”

The basic idea behind microtransit is that people can use an app to request a bus. Think Uber or Lyft, but for buses. The idea isn’t new – but apps and computing power are finally making it possible to deliver on-demand transit without making users wait forever.

“On-demand transit as a concept has been around since the late sixties but nobody could make it work,” Miller said. “It became para-transit services for disabled people – the reason they worked, to be frank, is because someone in a wheelchair had limited [transportation] opportunities, so they waited a little longer because they had no other choice.”

The next big thing?

A flurry of microtransit startups first launched in 2013 and 2014 mostly as an alternative to public transit and private vehicles. They promised a better transit experience, with less waiting and comfier, private buses – at a lower price than a taxi or transportation network company (TNC) such as Uber or Lyft.

Ford-owned Chariot, a shuttle-van service which ran in cities including San Francisco, New York and London, is shutting down at the end of the month, joining other microtransit startups that couldn’t make it.

Chariot worked mostly like a traditional bus service – users would go to a specific address along a set route and use the app to hail the next van. But the 14-seater vans were, reportedly, often nearly empty.

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“Frankly, asking ‘Does microtransit work?’ is like asking ‘Does capitalism work?’ – it depends on the practitioner,” said Chris Snyder, senior vice-president of expansion for Via, a microtransit platform.

Via doesn’t use a fixed bus route – instead, the stops change. It takes requests from users going in the same direction, calculates a route and directs the users to a location where the next vehicle will stop.

While Via runs a private service in a few cities, including New York, it has mostly partnered with local transit agencies in cities such as Sydney, Auckland and Singapore. So far, it has one Canadian pilot in Longueuil, Que.

The concept is still evolving and agencies are realizing that microtransit doesn’t always have to be an actual shuttle bus.

“If we think about microtransit as on-demand mobility more broadly, maybe it’s a sedan, maybe it’s a taxi, maybe it’s a TNC," said Susan Shaheen, a co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Will people use it?

For microtransit to work, it has to be affordable and seamless. For instance, should users have to pay extra for the service or does it count as a transfer, the way a bus transfer would? And will users pay $4, say, on top of their regular transit fare?

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“If you’re making separate payments, that’s just not good,” Miller said. “The total cost of the whole trip has to be reasonable and competitive with the cost of taking a car.”

Toronto said it hasn’t made any decisions on adopting microtransit. In British Columbia’s lower mainland, TransLink is running a microtransit pilot on Bowen Island that will pair an app with its existing shuttle buses.

And whatever the microtransit service ends up looking like in Calgary, it will be a temporary solution until enough people move in to justify a full bus route, Calgary councillor Gondek said. And, it will give the city data – such as where and when people are calling for a ride – that will help them plan that route.

“You typically take a guess when you put up a bus route,” Gondek said. “So, here, when we do have that transit line, it will be based on people’s actual behaviour patterns.”

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