Rethinking Public Transportation

As we enter this new era of boldly rethinking mobility, I am surprised I have only found a few inventors creating all new models for public transportation. Today, the majority of Americans have smartphones, so why do our public transit systems still look as they did before the internet? And for the few public transit agencies looking to integrate ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber together with their services, why are these agencies not more significantly rethinking their service models?

The new public transit inventor I’m impressed with is Richard E. Shultz, who lives in Austin, Texas. His new public transit concept is called “Cellular Mass Transit” (CMT). Shultz is a programmer, systems analyst and mechanical engineer who currently works for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Although he doesn’t work at a public transit agency, as a systems thinker he has been looking to reinvent public transit in recent years.  Shultz sees many problems with today’s public transit in cities like Austin. He feels the service is too slow, there are long waits between bus runs, transfers are not sheltered, there is low ridership and he finds the systems are built around the one downtown commercial area, allowing riders in suburban areas to travel easily to other suburban areas or centers.

In the CMT model, there is a combination of buses and minibuses. The service area is divided into 20 cells, with each cell measuring 12-m2. Each cell has a hub fed by 8 short feeder routes, and all of the hubs are connected by 33 express routes which, in the case of Austin, would run at least part of the way on the municipality’s managed express lanes.

Another similar model to Shultz’s CMT has recently been created at the University of Michigan, called “Reinventing Public Urban Transportation and Mobility” (RITMO). This system combines aspects of Uber-style ridesharing, fixed-route buses and light rail into the hub-and-shuttle system. It would combine high-frequency buses serving the busiest transportation hubs with a fleet of about 50 on-demand shared shuttles to get riders to and from those hubs.

I agree with Shultz and RITMO creators, and feel there is a tremendous amount of room for improvement when it comes to the performance of our public transit systems. For example, a few years ago a Brookings Institute study revealed that only 25 percent of lower income people in the U.S. could get to work in 90 minutes or less using public transit. I find that a terrible level of service.

I know operating a major public transit agency is extremely difficult. A city like Los Angeles spends over $1-billion on yearly operations alone and must juggle a multitude of drivers, buses, other transit vehicles and make sure everything runs smoothly and safely. But these agencies never were in the business of creating new service models, so it comes as no surprise they don’t seek talent to pursue these types of new opportunities.

We know how a bus runs on streets: a fixed route and it may stop on every block of the route if there is a request from a rider to do so. This makes riding the bus a slow way to travel. A rider that transfers expects a much longer trip (and public transit agencies know that public transit ridership declines by 50 percent when a transfer is required).

With the arrangements of CMT and RITMO, reaching the hubs can be accommodated with everything from bicycles to self-driving, local-use shuttles. And the hubs could become community centers, including retail for the riders.  

The CMT/RITMO designs are expected to move riders to their destination in half the time of today’s system. 

Shultz thinks that the CMT system would attract six times as many riders as the current public transportation system.  But he’s been unable to persuade leaders in Austin to develop his model. Still, it seems there is growing interest in improving the public transportation infrastructure. Perhaps, RITMO, which has a $1.4-million grant from the Michigan Institute for Data Science and is planned to start running as soon as this summer in a portion of the University of Michigan campus, and then roll out throughout the area, may make people in Austin—and elsewhere—realize the benefits of a new approach.