Cab-share options like LyftLine are a type of microtransit, which some experts think will only continue to grow more popular in urban areas.  Image by Kārlis Dambrāns licensed under Creative Commons.

What does the future hold for transit in America’s cities? That was the question at hand on September 28th at the "Innovative Cities: Creating the Future” event.

The talk, hosted by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Energy Resources and Environment Program (ERE) Global Leaders Forum, brought together a variety of experts to discuss where "smart cities" are headed.

Here are a few of the key takeaways:

The future is (personal) car-less

Some experts think at some point in the not-so-distant future, personal vehicles will be a relic of the past. Doug Kaufman, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of transportation tech company TransLoc, thinks they will be replaced by something called “microtransit.”

You might not know the term, but it’s quite possible you’ve used something that falls into this category. According to CityLab, microtransit is “more micro than a fixed-route 40-foot bus or a metro rail system; more transit than, well, non-transit.”

Real-world examples of mictrotransit include:

  • Commuter buses, including Bridj in Boston and Washington, and Leap Transit and Chariot in San Francisco
  • Dynamic “vanpools”, such as Via in DC and New York
  • Carpool start-ups, like Carma
  • Cab-share options, like UberPool and LyftLine
  • Company and housing shuttles, including Google bus

All of these services provide an efficient and cost-effective system that helps people get from point A to point B. Kaufman says he currently owns a car and drives to work every day because it only takes 15 minutes, versus a 90-minute commute if he relied on public transportation. However, these microtransit services could slash this lengthy commute time, making car ownership redundant and not worth the expense.

Aside from the obvious financial and ecological burdens of owning a car, some experts argued we don’t use our cars all that often anyway.

City Planner Harriet Tregoning pointed out that most of us only use our cars five percent of the time and remain parked during the other 95 percent. City-dwellers spend a lot of time on the simple act of trying to find parking, which can be a big waste of time and money as well as source of frustration. As microtransit becomes a viable option for more people, she thinks they will choose that over owning a personal vehicle.

Not all cities are created equal in terms of transportation

So why do people still own cars in urban areas? The easy answer is the public transportation in suburbs and medium- to smaller- sized cities are not yet at a place where they can function as reliable modes of mobility.

Some millennials and young professionals flock to large American cities like New York, Chicago, and yes, DC for their transportation systems.

However, Peter Hirshberg, author of Maker City and founder of an advocacy firm by the same name, claims some people move to certain cities more because of density than transit. In other words, city transplants “want to be close to people, ideas, money, opportunities, and ultimately success."

The harsh reality, however, is that not everyone has the luxury to choose where they want to live. As a city’s population and density increases, so does the number of people being pushed out of their neighborhoods and into the suburbs.

In many cases these same people can’t afford a car and are forced to rely on the subpar transportation systems that exist in underfunded areas, resulting in much longer commutes. Most of the experts weren't optimistic about getting help to address these issues from the federal government in the near future. 

“The 2016 election has pointed out that cities are on their own,” Tregoning said. “Now more than ever, there is a federal disinvestment in places. Cities need to rely on each other for innovation.”

Where do we go in the meantime?

How this urban reciprocity would work is up for discussion. However, if American cities were to communicate their pain points and brainstorm potential solutions together, that would be a good start.

GGWash readers: How do you think cities should adapt to microtransit?