Microtransit Takes Off in Central Texas

Uber wins over the suburbs


The Uber Greenlight Hub in Austin (Photo by Jana Birchum)

As Austin's pursuit of transformative public transit goes big, little transit, or "microtransit," is quietly sprouting up in cities throughout the region. Microtransit takes many forms, ranging from van services that pick up and drop off riders in set zones to subsidized Ubers – also in specific zones. The more flexible form of public transit has become an important part of the transportation ecosystem for Capital Metro, as well as the cities of Kyle, Pflugerville, and, starting in early 2023, Round Rock.

Of the three cities, Kyle is the old hand with its current program. After the 2010 census, the public transit service that ran on Tuesdays and Thursdays went from costing the city nothing, thanks in part to federal grants, to costing about $50,000 per year because of Kyle's growth. Three years later that price was set to be $75,000. With the mounting cost, the city explored alternative options, including a partnership with a taxi company and fixed-route trolleys, interim City Manager Jerry Hendrix said. Ridership for those programs never took off, but a new form of transportation was gaining popularity. "And then as the rideshare started taking off, we started exploring that possibility and we ended up with Uber," Hendrix said.

The city landed on its Uber Kyle $3.14 program – a nod to its infatuation with pie, but also the cost of a ride. Riders pay $3.14, and the city covers an additional $10 for rides in the city limits. (And Uber does not cover any cost.) Anything over $13.14 is the rider's responsibility, with the exception of the airport – the city covers 31.4% of two one-way rides per month. It also pays for riders to go outside of the city to the Austin Veterans Administration for one round-trip ride per month. Kyle subsidized about 18,000 rides from October 2020 to November 2022 for over $186,000, according to data provided by the city. As a result of that popularity, the program expanded from eight to 10 vouchers per month last year.

Similar to Uber Kyle $3.14, Pflugerville recently launched its own catchily titled program: Pfetch a Ride. The program has riders pay $4 for an Uber, and the city covers the next $10, with the rider paying for anything over $14. The city also launched a pilot program with Cap Metro's Pickup, an on-demand transit service, that ran from March 2021 to September 2022.

Emily Barron, Pflugerville's assistant city manager, said the program was well-received, but the city opted for the subsidized Uber model because it let them grow beyond the limited Pickup zone. "We were able to expand the service geographically as well as the time for much lower costs to the city," she said. But the program has the Cap Metro network in mind. Riders can use the vouchers to go outside Pflugerville to Tech Ridge, which provides access to buses and eventually the planned Orange Line. In its first two months, the program provided over 900 rides, including wheelchair-accessible rides. It has a budget of $140,000 for the year. As for the future of transit in the city, Barron said it's too early to draw conclusions.

Meanwhile, the city of Round Rock announced plans to roll out an on-demand transit program in early 2023. Sara Bus­til­loz, Round Rock's communications & marketing director, said the city has been exploring a range of solutions, including Cap Metro's Pickup service.

Cap Metro has been tinkering with microtransit offerings for around five years. The Pickup service that it now offers in 10 zones costs riders about $1.25 and runs at different times in different zones. "We try to meet as many of the needs as we possibly can around the community, but it's just not possible to do that with a 40-foot bus obviously, you just can't drive it down every street, nor would we want to, because it makes no sense," said Cap Metro's Chad Ballentine. He noted Cap Metro piloted a program with rideshare company Ride Austin (R.I.P.). While the service had some perks, Cap Metro found flaws. For example, it couldn't train operators in the same way it would for driving a bus, nor provide an adequate number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Kyle ran into the latter problem. Hendrix acknowledged that almost immediately it became apparent the Uber service did not work for riders needing Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant vehicles. Then the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Western Dis­trict of Texas alerted them that they were not meeting federal ADA standards, and a press release from the office noted wheelchair-accessible vehicles were not available more than 40% of the time. Kyle now contracts with Maruti Transportation Group to provide wheelchair-accessible-vehicle rides. Pflugerville also uses the service.

Cap Metro sees ADA-compliant rides and other equity considerations as critical to its operation, Ballentine said. "One of the things that helps us pick what zones we go to is looking at these equity questions, such as households with zero cars or one car ... [or] households in poverty," he said. Pickup ridership is on the rise (especially in Manor and Walnut Creek), with each of the last six months setting a new record. So Cap Metro is also considering how the Pickup service can augment Project Connect, including a possible zone near Expo Center that would launch around the same time late next year as the MetroRapid bus line planned for the area – another sign of the growing role microtransit could play in helping macro­transit flourish.

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