Eliminating Public Transit's First-Mile/Last-Mile Problem

Alex Gibson January 26, 2016 First-mile/Last-mile, Public Transportation, Industry Thoughts, TransLoc Blog 1 Comment

The most commonly cited standard [for walking distance to transit] is 400m or ¼ mile.

Jarrett Walker, Human Transit

What is public transit’s first-mile/last-mile (FM/LM) problem? It begins with a ¼ mile. Most people in the United States are “comfortable” walking less than a ¼ mile to or from public transit stops. The problem arises when a potential rider is further than a “comfortable distance” to the necessary fixed-route stop. Of course, what you define as a “comfortable distance” may be very different than what I consider to be a “comfortable distance,” and this distance may vary based on uncontrollable variables such as weather and time of day.


In Wake County, NC, 28% of the roughly 1 million citizens live within ¼ mile of an existing mass transit stop. If the above logic holds, this means that 72% of the county’s residents are forced to walk more than the generally-accepted “comfortable distance” to transit. This is just one side of the equation—the rider’s destination must also be within ¼ mile of public transit to make it a viable option. Another way to look at this is to say that the transit agencies in Wake County have effectively eliminated 72% of their possible customer pool.

This is an inevitable side effect of a fixed-route transit system: stops are set at predetermined locations to maximize efficiency, ease-of-planning and ease-of-operation. What’s easiest for the agency is not what maximizes utility for the rider.

At this point, I figure we have three options:

  1. Do nothing. This is suboptimal.
  2. Shift to a more user-friendly transit system that eliminates the FM/LM problem (such as true, point-to-point, demand-response service). This requires some massive shifts in service delivery, planning, and operations, not to mention the obvious cost increases. This, also, is suboptimal.
  3. Leverage the power of technology to eliminate the FM/LM problem. Let’s go with this one.

As we announced last week, we’ve partnered with Uber to eliminate the FM/LM problem for public transit agencies.

Imagine opening a mobile app, telling it where you would like to go, and allowing it to facilitate the entire trip. A vehicle arrives at your location, not ¼ mile away at an existing fixed-route transit stop, and takes you to the best fixed-route stop that will fit your trip needs. Your arrival at the fixed-route stop is timed perfectly with the arrival of the bus—no more waiting on the side of the road. You hop on the bus, and are taken the majority of the way on the cheapest possible option: existing fixed-route public transit. At the appropriate time, the app buzzes, letting you know it’s time to exit the vehicle where, if necessary, another vehicle is waiting to take you the rest of the way. Get the facts on how people are using smartphones to access transit data.

Simple, inexpensive, seamless transit.

It’s at this point where public transit agency folks give me a look of disgust and, their voices rife with angst, use words like “impossible” and “operationally complex” and “too expensive for our agency.” It’s also at this point where I interject that TransLoc is eliminating of the FM/LM problem with a solution that requires zero change from the agency.


Operators still head to the yard every morning, get their vehicle assignments, and go about driving on the existing fixed-route schedule. Dispatchers are still available for driver- and rider-related questions. Administrators are still managing the operations on a daily basis. Nothing changes at the agency.

Our system uses a series of algorithms to determine the most optimal trip (that includes public transit) and handles the heavy-lifting of scheduling the FM/LM ride (with Uber, to continue the above example), handles the payment, and helps the rider navigate the system.

transloc_wake-county-stop-distanceTo bring this full circle (and illustrate just what a big deal this really is), let’s go back for a minute to the Wake County data with which we started. Remember: only 28% of Wake County’s ~1 million residents live within ¼ mile of a fixed-route transit stop. If we expand that radius to 3 miles (not coincidentally, a distance you can travel for $5.00 on Uber), the number jumps to 88%.

In terms of raw humans, that expands the reach of public transit in Wake County by 600,000 people—we’ve effectively tripled the population coverage of public transit without the agencies needing to make any changes whatsoever.

New Call-to-action

Tags: First-mile/Last-mile, Public Transportation, Industry Thoughts, TransLoc Blog





see all