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Knoxville Area Transit: The Consideration of Microtransit Solutions

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Jasmine Henshaw and her family became homeless last winter, a few days before she gave birth to her second child. After moving into the Family Promise shelter on Middlebrook Pike, the Henshaws worked to become self-sufficient and get an apartment in Bearden.

It wouldn’t have been possible without the bus system provided by Knoxville Area Transit (KAT). But the family found the service created barriers, too. Henshaw said her husband rode the bus to a part-time job at Food City, where his shift started at 8 a.m.

“He would have to wake up at 5 o’clock, be down at the bus stop, wait for that, switch over at Kroger, get onto a different bus, and then he would walk some just to be there on time,” she said. “So he was only getting to work four or five hours a day, and then he’s spending the same amount of time just riding the bus.”

It was stories like these that led the interfaith alliance Justice Knox to focus on public transportation as one of its main initiatives. The organization has about 11,000 members from 19 Knoxville-area religious congregations, including Muslims, Jews and Christians. Justice Knox holds listening sessions to identify the biggest problems facing its members and their neighbors. Member Ann O’Connor heard stories of families that chose to lose their home over losing a car – because without the car they would lose jobs, too.

Last spring, Justice Knox asked KAT to add a totally new kind of service: “on-demand micro-transit.” That’s a mouthful, but it basically involves vans that provide a ride-sharing service coordinated through a free app. O’Connor explains that it typically works like an Uber and costs around the same amount as a bus ticket.

“Sometimes they’ll come right to your door, sometimes there’s a virtual bus stop just a block away,” she said. It can be used to get to work or a doctor’s appointment, or to pick up a sick child from school.

O’Connor said that more than 200 cities, including Memphis and Nashville, already use a version of on-demand microtransit. KAT director Isaac Thorne made a public commitment last year to pursue such a service for Knoxville. Since then, KAT officials have continued to meet with Justice Knox to discuss possibilities. As part of a large-scale operations study underway now, KAT is considering what form microtransit might take locally, said Belinda Woodiel-Brill, KAT’s director of planning and public information.

“We are essentially incorporating that concept as part of a toolkit for this transit study,” she said. “It’s definitely a really interesting and great solution in a lot of situations…. If there are pockets where it doesn’t make sense to have fixed-route transit service, but we see opportunities, is that a good fit for microtransit?”

An on-demand micro-transit service could be operated by KAT, coordinated by a contractor that specializes in the service, or through agreements with private rideshare companies like Uber or Lyft.

O’Connor said Justice Knox supports the model used in Arlington, Texas, where on-demand microtransit is subcontracted to a company called Via. “I personally think Knoxville deserves the best,” she said. “And Via has more experience, they’re in more cities – not only in the United States but around the world – and they have the most sophisticated technology of all the companies.”

Cities can limit where they offer on-demand microtransit by piloting the program in neighborhoods with the highest need. O’Connor said her Census research showed that about half the 10,000 families in Knoxville who have no car live in a low-income neighborhood.

On-demand microtransit can also be used to connect population centers or major employers outside the bus route, or in areas like South Knoxville where hilly, narrow streets make it tough for buses to maneuver.

“Knoxville is not unusual in the problems that we have here. A fixed-bus route is pretty antiquated because most cities are sprawling like we are. A lot of the good jobs are outside the city limits,” she said.

Microtransit could help residents get to work during hours when the bus doesn’t run. KAT buses begin their final trips around 11:15 p.m.

“That’s very difficult in Knoxville,” O’Connor said. “There is no bus service during the night, and there are lots of people that work second and third shift jobs.”

For example, Justice Knox heard from a refugee mother who was able to get a job at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, but her shift started at 7 a.m. Buses start running a little after 6 a.m. “She couldn’t find a fixed bus route that could get her there on time and also get her children to day care and school as well,” O’Connor said. “So she would arrive late to work, and she couldn’t keep the job.”

Doug Burton, principal planner with the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, said he hears interest in micro-transit to help people get their kids to daycare before work. But he’s not sure that is a realistic use of the service in a sprawling city like Knoxville.

“That’s basically a glorified taxi,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be where we’re at. In most cases it’s a feeder service into the transit system.” That means the micro-transit service takes residents just a few miles to the nearest bus stop. An example in Knoxville might be picking up people who live in low-income housing just beyond bus routes that serve Broadway, Clinton Highway or Callahan Drive, he said.

Woodiell-Brill said that using micro-transit to take people all the way across town would be a huge expenditure of resources. “There are a lot of different mobility solutions. So how do you package those together in a way that’s affordable for the city and the people who use the service?” she said.

“But we might find something real creative here,” Burton added. “I don’t want to foreclose any opportunity at this point.”

O’Connor said on-demand micro-transit often brings more people to ride the bus. “In a lot of cities it has definitely increased the ridership, which I know KAT is interested in doing,” she said.

However, using micro-transit for the first or last miles of a trip may not be that helpful if it’s an addition to an infrequent, long bus ride, O’Connor said.

“In some cities it is used to get to the bus route. But if your bus route is not efficient, then that doesn’t really solve the problem,” she said.

Henshaw said taking the bus to the doctor after her C-section required a transfer and a walk up the hill to Fort Sanders with an infant. Even going to the grocery store on the bus was physically challenging, since she and her husband would have to hold the baby and grocery bags while keeping a hand on their toddler and stroller. When you add in transfers and buses that come only once every 30 minutes or an hour, she found the bus service wasn’t very family friendly. “They really really need to take into consideration people that have kids,” she said.

KAT expects to propose how to use microtransit locally as part of the long-term plan it will finalize later this year, with several rounds of public feedback before then.

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