Lisa Nisenson is co-Founder of GreaterPlaces, a tech start-up devoted to city and community design (launching April 2015) and had a hand in Cards Against Urbanity. She drinks lots of Diet Mt. Dew and meddles locally in Arlington Virginia.

Transportation has a Goldilocks problem. At one end, there is “this mode is too solo:” the single traveler in a space-gobbling automobile. At the other, high dollar,we have “this mode is too big:” either high dollar, fixed guide-way public transit or high dollar road expansions.  As a country, we’ve institutionalized these two ends, with less interest for the in-between.  But thanks to technology, this is changing.  We are on the cusp of widespread microtransit.

Microtransit (or lean transit or whatever we end up calling it) bridges the gap between single user transportation (car, Uber, taxi) and fixed-route public transit. Sure vanpools and private shuttles serve the shared ride market, but in a bulky, grumpy kind of way.  In the Washington D.C. region, queues for shared vans are unceremoniously called “slug lines.” On-demand shuttles seem worth a $16 writhe into the back of an Econoline van when traveling, but not for everyday commutes.

Fortunately, new transportation startups are bringing a disruptive flair to shared rides similar to Uber’s entry into the taxi market. The venture capital site Angel List includes 164 Public Transportation startups. Bridj, based in Boston, bills itself as “pop up” transit, and is using on-demand pick-up services to scout underserved routes. Initial fares are higher than transit ($6 a ride) but expected to fall as the service “learns” the most efficient routes and as more contenders enter the market, including Uber

Tech and small transit is not just for big U.S. cities.  The transit system in Nairobi, Kenya is infused with tech, from cashless pay systems to mapping to Wi-Fi.  Matatus (“3’s” in Swahili - or jokingly – you can always fit 3 more) are smaller vehicles that fan the city and its suburbs. Even as the public bus system withers, matatus are picking up steam thanks to low vehicle ownership, growing tech scene and Kenya’s amazingly high smartphone adoption.

The technological revolution is not only taking place on smartphones, but with vehicle technology as well. Small electric shuttles similar to the ones posted by Chuck Marohn are popping up in downtowns, in beach towns and within resort communities.  The Department of Transportation has formally recognized these vehicles as low speed electric vehicles, and several cities have charted out sanctioned routes. 

Tech is often viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, but should be embraced by urbanists for mobility solutions. Planners, engineers and civic advocates need to come up with a cogent framework to fit tech into mobility systems, with the following in mind:

Smartphone adoption & equitable access – Public transit will continue to provide transportation for our most vulnerable, notably lower income and elderly neighbors.  Cities will still need conventional outreach and non-smart phone options.  However, research from Pew shows that smart phone use is extensive across income brackets, in part thanks to non-contract carriers who provide internet to millions via phone instead of cable box.  Cities will still need paper and basic text alerts, and constantly study smart phone adoption.

Integration into Existing Transportation Programs – How can cities integrate private services into largely public transit systems?  To date, these two spheres operate separate from each other.  However, given pressure on costs and demand for service, cities need to figure out small scale, shared mobility.  This is where bigger transportation demand management (TDM) programs come in, though agencies will have to get used to promoting both public and private carriers. Agencies will also need to anticipate the evolution of vehicle technology in the “missing middle” realm, such as the electric shuttles Chuck mentioned and perhaps even self-driving transit. 

Rev Up What you Have – A big component of TDM is better use of existing assets in the form of bus lines, shuttle systems and carpools.  One frequent meme is to “Make the bus sexy.”  This would help, but it is not as important as getting out of the office and talking to riders – both existing and potential. Several years ago, Portland OR sent postcards to residents around plain bus stops to see if they would like a tutorial on the bus lines that run near their houses. The 2015 version would add tech tools and new modes to personalize the transit experience. Customization was once considered too resource intensive.  Time to recheck that assumption given startups like Ridescout and TransitScreen.

Add-on to sprawl or support for Strong Towns? – Perhaps the biggest question is whether (and how) tech-enabled transportation and small scale transit can support stronger towns. Auto-oriented land patterns are not going away any time soon and there is great cost associated with the mandated on-demand transit that serves low intensity land uses. By being able to reduce that cost with help from the private sector, resources can be reallocated to the high intensity transit serving high intensity land patterns.  However, there is always the fear that shiny, techy transit might greenwash a new generation of sprawl.  Transportation has always been about getting from Point A to Point B. Strong Towns has emphasized locating Point A and Point B closer, with as many options to traverse the two as possible.  The missing middle in transportation is essential for bringing these two conversations together.

What are other considerations for bolstering transit and transportation’s missing middle?

Hat Tips: Props to Dan Parolek from Opticos Design  for his work on the “Missing Middle” in housing.  Also props to the smart city incubator 1776 in Washington DC and my fellow startups Ridescout and Transit Screen.

Photo credit: Cruisecar, Sarasota Florida