KCATA, Johnson County to consider permanent plan for microtransit public transportation program

Photo credit RideKC.

After nine months of experimenting with a microtransit pilot program that offers public transportation in Johnson County, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority is preparing recommendations to the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners that would make the program permanent.

Josh Powers, business liaison for Johnson County government who oversees public transportation in the county, said the recommendations will likely include reductions in some fixed-route service and possible new areas to offer microtransit.

“It’s new and it’s been more successful than I think we could have hoped, and now the job is to try to look at ways to make it more accessible for more people, but also financially stable over the long term,” Powers said.

Johnson County and KCATA launched the pilot program in January and expanded the service to include Saturdays, thanks to a partnership with Overland Park to attract riders to the downtown and farmers market. The program, which will cost about $500,000 for the year, is covered by county ad valorem dollars and contributions from Overland Park for a certain segment of trips to and from the city.

For the past nine months, program leaders have observed trends of users and have found a few surprises.

For instance, they have found the demand for microtransit services is everywhere in the service area, which is bounded by Shawnee Mission Parkway, Renner Road, 119th Street and Metcalf to the east (extended to State Line Road on Saturdays).

“We thought that what would happen is as we rolled out this more on-demand, more personalized service, that it would lead to people leaving fixed-route service, and the exact opposite has happened,” he said. “We’ve seen our key corridors — Metcalf and 75th Street — ridership on existing fixed-route service is way up since we introduced microtransit.”

So far, the microtransit program averages about 110 rides per day and is on track to offer up to 30,000 trips by the end of the year, Powers said. With the demand being everywhere, KCATA can use the data to “build up the justification for a fixed-route service” in the future, he added.

“This could morph into a number of different ways, and the idea is to be as efficient as possible, to make the journey as short as possible, and to make the entire service, both fixed-route and microtransit, as cost-effective as is possible,” he said.

Microtransit solving ‘first mile, last mile’ problems in public transportation

The microtransit program is helping riders connect to fixed-route service, known in the industry as the ‘first mile, last mile’ problem.

Microtransit programs are typically found in more urban areas like Chicago or San Francisco. Noting the challenges of offering fixed-route service in “car-centric” suburban areas that dominate most of Johnson County, Powers said the microtransit program is innovative and unique for its service area.

“No one in the country is doing exactly what we’re doing just based on our size and our density and how spread out we are,” Powers said. “For a suburban area like ours, we’re really cutting edge with how microtransit is functioning. We’re figuring this out as we go along because no one else has done it.”

In fact, Johnson County was recognized earlier this month for its microtransit pilot program, winning the Innovation of the Year award at the 2019 Midwest/Southwest Transit Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

Transloc, the software partner behind the microtransit service, uses adaptive routing to try to get more than one person in a vehicle, which helps lower costs.

KCATA has also found that the microtransit program is attracting various types of users, including riders who prefer this type of transportation as well as riders who have no other options.

“We have to make sure that we’re understanding the reason that people are utilizing this service so that we can tailor it to that reason,” Powers said. “We have found that people are using it for every reason.”

Powers noted that many users appear to be using microtransit to get to a fixed-route service, which takes them outside of the service area to places like Kansas City, Missouri, or Lawrence, Kansas. In essence, the microtransit program solves the “first mile, last mile” problem in public transportation — this problem occurs when more people would use a bus but have to walk two miles to reach a bus stop.

Microtransit fare of $1.50 likely to increase

Overland Park is helping pay for some costs with the microtransit program to attract people downtown and relieve parking congestion.

Powers said the fare of $1.50 is “artificially low” for this type of service, especially if riders are using it instead of ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft.

“We know the fare is going to go up. When the pilot is over — and if the board of county commissioners gives us permission to continue doing the service — it’s going to have to be priced more competitively,” Powers said. “That said, we are not trying to compete necessarily with Uber and Lyft in the way that they operate. What we are trying to do is provide a spectrum of transportation services.”

The problem with fare being this low and with rides being in this much demand is the expense and subsidy of the microtransit program. The program only has four vehicles in its fleet; staff work to keep response times within 15 to 20 minutes, but every time a rider requests a trip from, say, the northeast corner of the service area to the southwest, that vehicle is out of commission for any other use except for riders also heading in the exact same direction. But adding another vehicle increases the costs of the program.

“It shows that there’s a lot of demand for this kind of service, but it also shows that it could get expensive really quickly,” he said. “That’s the balance point that we have to find.”

Powers said the KCATA will have to find a way to prioritize riders using microtransit to get to fixed-route service. This is all high-level and speculative at this point, but it could mean that fares for microtransit rides going to fixed-route service could remain $1.50, while microtransit rides going elsewhere would cost more but would still be more cost effective, he added.

“How much more, we have not determined yet, but I am confident in saying that it will still be much more cost effective than will your typical on-demand service,” Powers said.

The county board of commissioners will hear specific recommendations for that plan in a committee of the whole meeting Oct. 31.