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Missouri cities and rural towns look at Uber-style rides to replace buses. But can they?

Booking a ride on the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority microtransit app, IRIS. Ridership on public transportation has fallen over the past decade. Officials see microtransit as a potential solution.
Meg Cunningham
Kansas City Beacon
Booking a ride on the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority microtransit app, IRIS. Ridership on public transportation has fallen over the past decade. Officials see microtransit as a potential solution.

On-demand, point-to-point rides are being offered in Kansas City and St. Louis as a way around fixed bus routes and schedules. In rural communities, microtransit is often touted as a tool to get people to work and essential appointments. But reviews of the programs are so far mixed.

For about as long as passengers have stepped onto buses, public transportation in most of Missouri has meant fixed routes and schedules. The idea of on-demand, point-to-point service as a public amenity was unheard of.

Today, those rides are being offered in Kansas City and St. Louis. Smaller Missouri cities are mulling whether microtransit — think publicly funded Uber-like service — could fill some of their public transportation needs.

And rural communities are touting microtransit as a powerful tool for getting people to work and essential appointments.

The growing interest in microtransit comes partly in response to anemic bus ridership. The decline started before the pandemic and accelerated after it hit.

Transit services responded by cutting routes, which meant ever fewer riders. Now communities are exploring whether more Uber-style on-demand rides could meet the needs of their riders — and their budgets.

Reviews of the experiments so far are mixed.

“We’re not in love with how it’s evolved,” said Jessica Gershman, the assistant executive director of planning at Metro Transit St. Louis.

She pointed to the city’s use of the on-demand program as partial fill-in for buses throughout the pandemic. Now, with recruitment of drivers back up, the city is looking at ways to make microtransit fulfill its original purpose: connecting riders to existing routes.

Using a mix of tax dollars and grants to hire private ride services, microtransit touts a low-cost method for extending the reach of public transportation. That could look like pickup service in a suburb to connect riders to the nearest bus line. Or providing cost-effective rides around service zones where a bus may not run frequently enough to meet someone’s needs.

But questions remain about the best way to move people around in cities, especially in less densely populated areas that can’t regularly fill a 35-foot city bus.

Transit systems and solutions differ from one city to the next. The federal government has yet to fully grasp the possibilities and hasn’t issued guidance to communities on how to use integrated systems.

But many people running microtransit programs in Missouri see it as the future. They say there is room for growth, especially in rural areas.

How Missouri uses microtransit as public transportation

In Kansas City and St. Louis, microtransit mostly complements bus routes. Columbia announced in late November that it’s exploring the idea.

“We want it to extend the reach of that bus or rail system,” said Gershman, the St. Louis official. “We’re not looking for a wholesale replacement.”

St. Louis Metro’s Via service zone map.
Kansas City Beacon
St. Louis Metro’s Via service zone map.

Microtransit launched in St. Louis in June 2020, shortly after a secondversion of the program rolled out in Kansas City. Some of the service zones provide rides to bus routes and train lines. In other zones, the public ride hailing gives overnight service for shift workers who can’t get where they need to go solely by bus or light rail.

Even before the pandemic, St. Louis sawridership drop. From 2014 to 2019, ridership fell 24%. From 2020 to 2021, ridership fell another 42.7%, the largest year-over-year change the Metro system had ever seen.

The city contracts with Via to provide a fleet of minivans, some of which have been retrofitted for wheelchairs. Across the border in Illinois, St. Clair County uses the same contractor to provide continuous microtransit service.

Riders can book on an app, similar to Uber or Lyft, and an algorithm will create a carpool with others who are moving in the same direction. Some rides, like those that connect to other transportation hubs, are free. Others come with a small fee. When moving inside a service zone in Kansas City’s microtransit system, for example, riders pay $3 for a ride.

Kansas City’s newest microtransit program, IRIS, was introduced in the Northland just months before the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority announced it would suspend service in Gladstone. The cost of Gladstone’s bus service had nearly quadrupled, an increase that the city’s budget couldn’t handle.

KCATA’s IRIS service zones. IRIS is available from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., while KCATA buses run from 5 a.m. to around 1 a.m.
Kansas City Beacon
KCATA’s IRIS service zones. IRIS is available from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., while KCATA buses run from 5 a.m. to around 1 a.m.

Instead, Gladstone opted to pay KCATA $7,000 a month for a trial of IRIS. After launching in the Northland, IRIS was expanded to parts of Hickman Mills and south Kansas City.

In a tweet, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said the city was stepping back when it came to covering the cost of transit for nearby cities.

“Kansas City taxpayers have subsidized service for years for a number of surrounding communities and is declining to do so further,” Lucas said.

How efficient can microtransit be?

Kansas City’s microtransit program, IRIS,launched in March. On average, it costs the city about $29 a trip. Kansas City is seeing much of its demand for microtransit come from those traveling into the city from the Northland or Martin City. For the KCATA system as a whole, the cost per passenger in October was $1.88.

Ridership trends often show services peaking about six months after launch, said Tyler Means, the chief mobility and strategy officer at the KCATA. In Kansas City, demand for microtransit is still growing month-over-month.

“Microtransit is expensive per rider, yes,” said Art Guzzetti, the vice president of policy and mobility at the American Public Transit Association. “But it’s happening in places where the alternative is the fixed-route system. That is even more costly when you’re operating a big bus on a scheduled basis.”

But some reports have shown microtransit to be less efficient than running a fixed-route bus system.

According to Transit Center, a group working toward modernized and sustainable public transit solutions, ridership on Los Angeles’ microtransit service was maxing out at about 1,675 rides per week. The city was spending $14.50 per microtransit trip, twice what it spends on the average bus trip.

In Kansas City, the program served about 17,300 rides in October, compared to nearly 1.1 million bus rides.

In both Kansas City and St. Louis, demand for microtransit is still rising.

“It has grown exponentially,” Gershman said. “Every time we’ve increased our service hours or tweaked one of the zones to cover more ground, we’ve seen that demand filled.”

Gershman said the city is using data from microtransit rides to determine where bus routes may need to go as the city rebuilds some of its coverage areas, like in its North coverage zone.

“We see the demand pattern and know that if it increases enough, it should tip back over to mass transit,” Gershman said.

How could microtransit thrive as public transportation in Missouri?

One of the IRIS cars provided to KCATA through zTrip
Kansas City City Manager's Office
One of the IRIS cars provided to KCATA through zTrip

A 2019 economic impact study from the Missouri Public Transit Association found that for every dollar spent on public transit, the investment generated $40 in economic activity. In Kansas City and St. Louis, every dollar spent generated $33 and $41, respectively.

A soon-to-be published survey from the MPTA found that public transit in 2022 had 47 million rides. Still, a study in 2022 found that available public transit across Missouri falls short of the need in communities by 39 million rides, Kimberly Cella, the group’s executive director, said.

The state hasn’t historically invested heavily in bolstering transit, although a budget surplus let Missouri boost its investment over the past two years.

“We can’t really rely on the state for a lot of transit support,” Gershman said.

Missouri has to think creatively about how to connect rural and urban communities, KCATA’s Means said.

Rural communities “are going to shrink and age, and they’re going to need more services in areas that have just kind of been forgotten about,” he said. “So they need solutions like this to allow them to gain access to the resources they need.”

That’s part of what Kelly Ast, the executive director of New Growth Transit, is hoping to do in 14 rural counties in Missouri. Most are south of Kansas City and two are just outside of St. Louis.

Ast launched a network of volunteer drivers that offers rides to areas across the state. The program, hosted by the West Central Missouri Community Action Agency, began out of a need for rides to medical appointments. Those rides aim to improve access to health care and boost local economies.

What started as an effort to invest in community health prompted Ast to realize that rural Missourians first need better ways to get around.

“I just got really frustrated that it didn’t matter what we offered,” Ast said. “People just couldn’t get there.”

New Growth Transit uses volunteer drivers, often retirees looking for a fulfilling way to spend their time. And they can at least knock 65 cents a mile they drive off of their federal tax bill.

A close up of a blue car with the sign "New Growth Transit LLC"
West Central Missouri Community Action Agency
West Central Missouri Community Action Agency
New Growth Transit is serving a number of rural counties in Missouri, mostly south of Kansas City, using volunteers to offer rides for medical appointments and other needs.

The group started exploring the program in 2019. Ast quickly realized that there was a need to get people to and from work and school. So services expanded. Now, riders just need to call 48 hours in advance to book a ride.

Public transit service times vary in rural areas, but most run from 7 or 8 a.m. to midafternoon, outside the hours of shift work that often dominates rural economies.

“We’re not even close to meeting that demand,” Ast said. “A lot of times, employment transportation is temporary for individuals that do work shift work. They have a vehicle down, they need to save some money to fix the vehicle, so microtransit really is a solution.”

Ast has seen the power microtransit can have as employers move into rural parts of the state or consolidate facilities. Employers are launching similar programs, called vanpools, to help their employees get to and from work.

She pointed to poultry industry employers in Cassville, which sits southwest of Branson near the border of Arkansas, who are tapping the services.

“The attendance is up for those individuals,” Ast said of employers using the service. “There’s just a lot of incentives. They can save money on the commute.”

Missouri’s investment

A report from the state’s supply chain task force recommended the state work with employers to establish dedicated microtransit commuting programs for workers.

The Missouri Department of Transportation is researching best practices for transit systems and employers on microtransit.

Meanwhile, transportation officials want to work more closely with employers on where they set up shop to better tie in with public transit.

“That’s the broader picture, right? We need to look at where we’re developing” worksites, said Cella at the MPTA. “And does that area have access to public transit? Because it’s critical, whether it’s for jobs or education or health care.”

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Meg Cunningham is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter.
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