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Why Germany’s goal to provide barrier-free transit can unlock its true mobility potential

Microtransit fills in service gaps to remove transit barriers - something Germany aims to do by 2022. But demand-responsive transportation can do more than just solve accessibility issues. It can unlock Germany's true mobility potential and keep public transit relevant in the age of technology.

Darian Heim

For those living outside urban settings and/or those with limited mobility, access to transit is a major issue. And as the global population ages, governments and transit authorities need to find ways to address this problem or risk excluding citizens from everyday life.

Germany, which has amongst the highest percentage of seniors in Europe, is leading the charge. By 2022, barrier-free and accessible public transit will be required in all regions per the German Passenger Transportation Act. Demand-responsive transit, i.e. microtransit, wherein passengers request real-time specialized transit services through a smartphone app or via telephone, can help Germany achieve its goal.

And by doing so, it can impact the entire transit network by linking passengers to the wider system of scheduled buses and trains, and keeping transit agencies relevant amidst the tech-fueled, rapidly-evolving transportation landscape.

Thick as thieves: how multimodal systems and microtransit fit perfectly together

Improving transit accessibility isn’t just a matter of adding deck-lowering busses to the fixed-route system. It’s recognizing that due to physical or geographic constraints, not everyone can walk to a bus or train stop, or connect to the transit system without a personal vehicle.

Automated microtransit is tailor-made to fill in these service gaps often referred to as the first/last mile. That’s because it’s a bridge that both physically and virtually (through networked information) connects passengers to a larger, mode-rich transit system.

Multi-modality is so important in modern transit because it gives people the choice to use a variety of transportation options without requiring them to navigate and manage these options separately. Many regions in Germany are already on this train.

For instance, the Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr oversees an integrated network that allows passengers to travel throughout the entire region using any available mode on the same ticket. In Berlin, the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) even includes bike-share and carshare in its transit system, while in Augsburg residents can subscribe to all of these for a flat monthly fee.

In this environment, it’s easy to see how a microtransit system that’s powered by an open-platform (and can therefore be added to existing tech infrastructure) is a natural fit. These agencies are already segmenting their passengers on the back-end in order to provide seamless across-the-board experience. Microtransit digs deeper in that it actually allows for additional operational efficiencies. Agencies can opt to pool riders from different service configurations on to the same on-demand vehicles at the same time.

Called commingling, it means they can provide demand-responsive transit without increasing fleet capacity or running parallel services to accommodate different passenger types. A low-mobility rider like a senior can request a door-to-door shuttle for her appointment downtown, while her neighbor can get on the same shuttle and alight at his local commuter train station to continue his journey. Each is eligible for different services even if they share the same ride.

For agencies that are not yet multimodal, an open-microtransit platform can help encourage this type of system by providing the starting point for a more individualized approach to transit management.

Ditching Uber: how microtransit helps in the Uberization of public transit

Taxis and other third-party transportation entities have been used by transit agencies for decades to provide specialized transit services to those in need. But when Transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft came onto the scene, the dial-a-ride method, which requires passengers to call and book their transit ahead of time with little flexibility and no real-time feedback, quickly lost its lustre.

Today, we expect the TNC experience: convenient, easy-to-use and seemingly powered by our smartphones. From this little device, we can request a ride that shows up almost instantly or schedule one in advance, choose whether we want to share it with someone, follow it on a map as it makes its way to our location and pay without ever having to think about it.

Yet, when it comes to having the public’s best interest at heart, and providing equitable access to subsidized transit, we can’t necessarily rely on private companies. When CleverShuttle, a private German microtransit provider couldn’t make the numbers work, it simply pulled out of several markets in late 2019; transit agencies can’t do that.

What they can do is opt-in to a microtransit platform that allows them to replicate the best parts of the TNC experience while continuing to provide affordable transit to all passengers. And they can still do this by employing their dedicated fleet of vehicles or trusted third-parties like taxis.

Trip brokering, (another TNC concept), can actually be more time and cost effective for agencies than dispatching their own vehicles and drivers. Instead of sending a 10-person shuttle to pick up a single rider from the fringes of its service area, an agency can automatically farm that trip out to a local taxi company, increasing revenue opportunities for these providers, at its preferred frequency. It can also, for instance, indicate that licensed taxi drivers get first dibs on any eligible requests and prioritize this mode for certain passenger categories like those with low-mobility.

This is especially important in countries like Germany where TNCs are locked in a battle with legislators who seek to protect the taxi industry. Microtransit allows that industry to maintain its protections, while also giving passengers more access to the type of transit they are demanding.

COVID, the climate crisis and beyond

Like in many other places around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has put Germany’s public transportation under immense pressure. Though demand has dropped drastically, physical distancing has pushed capacity even lower, threatening to further reduce transit accessibility for the unforeseeable future.

The ability to quickly adapt to changing circumstances is baked into modern microtransit. With it, agencies can monitor demand, manage scheduling, more easily regulate or increase capacity and maintain service without having to purchase a surplus of new trains or full-size buses to address the current situation.

Instead they can rely on third-parties (see trip brokering) and focus their capital expenditures on the adoption of smaller, less expensive electric vehicles (EVs) that will continue to serve the overall transit network for specialized and first/last mile transport when things return to ‘normal’. And they can add these EVs to the microtransit system without creating operational headaches: the tech behind the network remotely monitors the status of these vehicles and schedules-in charging breaks based on historical data, reducing out-of-service risks.

Electrification and digitization is a major focus of Germany’s transit policy, and COVID has strengthened its commitment to green public transportation: the environment ministry recently tabled a stimulus package that calls for climate-friendly investments in this sector as the country seeks to rebuild its economy. Electrification of transit can only go so far in the fight against climate change though. To feel the greatest impact, more people need to choose shared over individual on a daily basis.

Microtransit can be a vector for this change. It can be as convenient as a personal vehicle thanks to door-to-door service and nearly as quick, due to a microtransit platform’s optimized routing algorithms. It can create more bespoke transit experiences and encourage better behaviour by gamifying the transit experience (e.g. earn points each time you book a shuttle that connects to a train; 25 points equals to a free weekly pass). It can be reliable and available when regular transit isn’t.

The mandate to provide barrier-free transit like in Germany, is an important reason to introduce demand-responsive transportation to cities and regions. It’s potential mobility impact on the larger landscape however is an even bigger one.

Spare enables automated microtransit operations in cities around the world. We also help transit agencies make informed decisions about their service configurations so that they can do more with their budget. Want to know more? Connect with us on LinkedIn or drop us a note at