Mass, micro, or both? Here’s why transit system recovery hinges on this question

Kristoffer Vik Hansen, CEO of Spare

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted mobility patterns around the world. In some major Canadian cities, such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Winnipeg, public transit ridership has decreased by up to 90% since shelter in place orders came into effect in March. In response, and to help salvage the bottom line, transit systems have slashed service and staff.

Yet, transit is more important now than ever. According to U.S. census data, 30 percent of regular transit riders are essential workers. As lockdowns ease and economies begin to re-open, authorities must figure out how to deliver cost-effective solutions that meet riders’ needs and physical distancing requirements.

Traditionally, public transportation has been predicated on the idea of mass mobility (i.e. transporting the largest amount of people possible using a single bus or train). However, this model doesn’t account for our new collective reality. So, if not mass, then what? As an on-demand transit software provider, Spare is helping agencies around the world answer this question. By supplying transit agencies with data-driven planning tools and pooled micro transit solutions, they can re-focus on safely transporting riders while safeguarding their operations at the same time.

Iterating, intervening and implementing: where good decision-making happens

If transit systems make decisions in a vacuum without considering all factors, the consequences could be detrimental to both their financial health and overall service. In the coming weeks, we’ll be introducing Spare Realize Essentials — a free resource to help transit systems design a recovery roadmap from COVID-19. By leveraging information on current ridership declines and the frequency of fixed-route bus lines, planners can quickly explore whether to maintain pre-crisis itineraries, reduce coverage and complement, or replace service with on-demand micro transit. Spare Realize Essentials also estimates the potential cost savings associated with these different choices, giving authorities valuable insight that can help guide their path toward financial recovery.

Spare’s suite of transit planner essentials will be available online, and are part of our highly- customizable simulation tool called Spare Realize. With Spare Realize, we can assess and recommend a variety of operational models based on a transit system’s unique needs. In Quebec, for example, Spare Realize is being leveraged to help a major metropolitan area’s transit provider simulate scenarios for six zones in their coverage area, including solutions to tackle the first/last mile challenge, options for low-density coverage, and creating central travel hubs.

During times of uncertainty, micro transit can equal macro impact

Faced with COVID-19, Canadian transit agencies are experiencing the same pressures as their global counterparts. How they choose to respond to those pressures today can have a meaningful effect on their tomorrow. In Spain, Palma de Mallorca’s Empresa Municipal de Transportes (EMT) used the COVID-19 outbreak to innovate, setting up three new, connected on-demand zones at the height of the crisis. Spare helped identify which of its fixed-route bus lines had become a financial liability, replacing them with on-demand microtransit. In a period of 48 hours, they were able to expand transit service beyond pre-COVID levels by employing Spare Fleets to dispatch their own vehicles and drivers, as well as private taxis, depending on the scenario.

Preparing the road ahead with cutting-edge service configurations

Lincoln, NE transit operator StarTran took a different approach to its crisis-time transportation plan with equally important results. Prior to the pandemic, StarTran was looking for ways to improve the quality of its paratransit offer, which relied on a manual booking and scheduling process. By the same token, its fixed-route transit network also required attention. The fluctuating demand due to COVID-19 spurred StarTran into action. Within days, they launched a new on-demand transit solution that combines paratransit and microtransit using Spare’s technology. This configuration allows them to both automate the paratransit component and give every transit user access to a system in real time, while also reducing redundancy on the fixed-route side. They did this through co-mingling, another innovative Spare approach, which mixes different rider groups while sharing the same drivers and vehicles for all its users. For StarTran, this transit adaptation positively impacted the community, and helped the agency bring down its operating costs by 33 percent and its scheduling/dispatching costs by 25 percent.

In a recent webinar, we shared how COVID-19 is providing transit agencies with an opportunity to redesign networks from the ground up as new travel patterns emerge. To weather this storm, Canadian transit operators will need to shift how they view transportation, leaning heavily on data to help them make the right decisions for their customers and businesses. The ability and flexibility to combine on-demand and fixed-route networks is key to the future of transit as it provides people with equitable access to mobility. Spare’s technology has been developed with the flexibility to make this happen, ultimately improving public transportation, and how an entire community moves.


About Spare

Trusted across four continents and counting, Spare enables cities and transportation operators to plan, launch, operate, and analyze integrated on-demand and fixed-route transit systems. Some of the world's largest cities are using Spare’s technology as a core piece of the city’s transportation infrastructure. To learn more about Spare, visit or connect with us on LinkedIn.

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