Informal transit may not be the answer, but it can fill key service gaps

By Megan Link 

When transit and mobility options are inaccessible or don’t meet needs, people find ways to travel. For most of the world, this often takes the form of informal transit services. As a result of failed public investment in transportation, these flexible, low cost, and unregulated systems are often the main form of travel in developing countries. Although higher income countries have some forms of informal transport, it is often subsidized and more regulated microtransit. These more flexible options do not replace formal transportation networks, but they do provide a critical service to often overlooked communities. 

Globally, informal transport is widely used. It looks different depending on the country but prioritizes a low-cost and unfixed-route system to provide access to goods, services, and jobs. Informal transport is not well regulated or subsidized, but continues to make a profit. Where vehicle ownership and emissions are low, flexible transportation options provide both an economic and environmental benefit for communities. Although there is not comprehensive data on informal transport ridership, it is estimated that informal services represent about 95% of motorized trips in African cities, and about 50% of trips in Latin America. As developing countries continue to see population and economic growth, incorporating informal transport into future transportation and climate plans can help meet the growing need without disrupting the workforce.  

Microtransit in the U.S. serves a similar role as informal transportation services, especially in rural areas or on the suburban fringe. While there are some informal transport options like dollar vans in New York City, most microtransit is subsidized to provide flexible and low-cost options to riders. Many critics argue that microtransit is inefficient since the cost-per-rider for agencies providing subsidies is often high, sometimes with no increase in ridership, and it takes away from formal transportation systems. 

But cities continue to turn to microtransit when formal systems fail or simply don’t exist. Jersey City tested microtransit when formal transportation options didn’t meet the needs of underserved communities. Ridership goals have already been exceeded, and the city continues to shift microtransit zones to better serve their communities. In rural Virginia, a grant-funded microtransit program has already doubled ridership and replaced an ineffective bus route, since the flexible options were more useful in the county. 

While microtransit can’t replace formal transportation options, it shows where demand is high but can’t be met through existing options. Integrating informal services as a complement instead of competition to formal transit options can provide essential first and last mile connections in communities with a disjointed transit network.  

The City Fix argues: 

“When options are limited, governments should prioritize investments in informal services and infrastructure that can bring substantial benefits to their most vulnerable citizens.”

Photo Credit: Chris Arthur-Collins via Unsplash , unmodified. License