Cities Struggle To Boost Ridership With ‘Uber for Transit’ Schemes

Helsinki, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Singapore, and other metros have been experimenting with on-demand buses — and not seeing a lot of success. From a report: Since September, commuters using Shanghai’s Number 9 bus route have had a new way of catching a ride. Rather than stand at a designated stop, they open a smartphone app and book a ride to wherever they’re going. The service, provided by Alibaba, takes those reservations into account and calculates where the bus should go, using the company’s artificial intelligence to customize the route. The idea is to boost ridership — and curb traffic –by making public transit more convenient. Shanghai is just the latest city to give this sort of scheme a try. From Helsinki, Finland, to Sydney, cities around the world have spent the past few years trying to implement AI-fueled, on-demand bus services. Few have succeeded. Earlier this year, Singapore decided against renewing a pilot for on-demand buses. In Germany, microtransit company CleverShuttle — which bills itself as more of a ride-pooling service than a bus — pulled out of three of the eight cities it was operating in, citing economic and bureaucratic hurdles.

In a pilot project with shared rides company Via, bringing underserved residents to public transit nodes, Los Angeles Metro is spending $14.50 per trip — twice what it spends on a regular bus trip. On-demand buses have been a thing for decades. Public transit agencies often call them demand-responsive buses, and deploy them to serve users who lack easy access to standard routes because they live especially far away, or may have special needs. Because they reach relatively few people, they’re expensive to operate. They’re inefficient too, often making riders wait undetermined amounts of time for a ride. So cities must strike a balance between making public transit accessible to the largest number of residents, and meeting their budget goals.

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