Peer-to-Peer Mass Transit: How to Make it Work

Here is the second installment of Streetsblog publisher and LimeWire founder Mark Gorton’s essay, "Smart Para-Transit: A New Vision for Urban Transportation." Part 1 is here and you can also download the complete pamphlet.


Advances in information and communications technology offer
the possibility of optimizing the performance of our existing road network in
ways that were not possible even ten years ago. The ubiquity of web-enabled cell phones has put a mobile data input device into the hands of the vast majority of citizens. By applying cell phone, internet, and computer technologies, New York now has the opportunity to create a system
which can vastly speed travel times, increase the throughput of our road
network, carry more people, while at the same time, radically reducing the
number of vehicles on the road, gasoline usage, CO2 emissions, congestion,
traffic, and the harm that traffic inflicts on our neighborhoods.

A new form of mass transit can be created that offers trip
times highly competitive with the private automobile to nearly all points in
the region. This new form of mass
transit takes advantage of the existing road network and requires very little
in the way of capital investment. This
new form of transit is Smart Para-Transit.


gorton_pullquote.jpgThe past 100 years have seen New York City and the rest of
the country spend huge amounts of money on road infrastructure improvements to
serve automobiles. With the advantage of
hindsight, neglecting investment in mass transit while promoting automobile
usage may have been a poor policy decision; however, highways, bridges,
tunnels, and roads have been built, and New York must now maximize the value it
receives from the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on its surface
transportation infrastructure.

Although cars have been a significant presence in our world
for as long as anyone can remember, from a historical perspective, the
automobile is still a relatively new invention. The first 100 years of our society’s infatuation with the automobile was spent without bothering to answer the key question: "Can we fit all the cars we
need to move around?" Congestion and traffic jams are a way of life in New York. The previous answer to congestion was to build more roads, bridges, and tunnels; however, the added road capacity only encouraged more driving and led to even more congestion. Our society now
knows that it is impossible to build its way out of its congestion problems.

In a city where space is very dear, the private car is the
least spatially efficient form of transportation in use.  However, for all of its drawbacks, the car is
still an amazing technology. When the
roads are not congested and parking is available, it offers faster trip times
than any other means of travel.

New York City is blessed with a fine mass transit system
that provides good transit options to most of the people in the region. However, for outlying parts of the New York
City region, the transit options are a poor substitute for the mobility
provided by the private car.

How Smart Para-Transit
Would Work

Smart Para-Transit uses information technology to group and
optimize the existing trips that take place on the road network. Smart Para-Transit has a number of
components. The physical transport
component is a large fleet of dynamically routed vehicles: small vans, large

vans, small buses, and large buses. As
opposed to typical mass transit today, these vehicles would not run on
predetermined routes. Instead, a central
computer collects information about requested trips, figures out how best to
group passengers, and dynamically dispatches vehicles to service the required

In a city as dense as New York, lots of people make highly
similar trips at the same time using private cars. Smart Para-Transit allows for grouping of
these similar trips to reduce the wasteful overlap that occurs with many
individual cars traveling the same routes. Take for example the group of people who want to travel from Tribeca to
Montclair, NJ around 5:30 PM on a Tuesday. There might be a dozen people who plan to make this trip by car in a 15
minute period. These dozen people might
require 8 separate cars for their trips. Instead of 8 separate cars, one large van could fit 12 people and
consolidate these 8 vehicles into just one vehicle. The van could make 3 quick stops in Tribeca,
pick up all 12 people and head directly to Montclair. Once in Montclair, the van could stop at a
couple of central transit points, and then continue directly to some passengers

The vans need not be beat up vehicles that we typically
associate with van services today. They
could be environmentally friendly hybrids with plush interiors with cup holders
and ports to plug in computers.

Here is how Smart Para-Transit might look from a user point
of view. Before beginning a trip, a
user would enter their current location, their destination, and their desired
departure time into the system. The
Smart Para-Transit system could be accessed via website, mobile phone, or
traditional phone. The centralized computer
would take this trip information and direct the user to a pick a point within a
few blocks of their current locations. The user would then walk to this pick up point. Within a few minutes a bus or van would stop
at the pickup point and load the riders. The bus or van would then head directly to the destination area and
disburse the passengers at a handful of points. The trip would be nearly as direct as a car trip and would involve no
transfers and minimum waiting.

Examples of para-transit are in operation today. Super Shuttle runs a fleet of blue vans to
airports. The Hampton Jitney bunches
trips for people heading out the beach, and MTA operates Access-A-Ride for people
whose disabilities prevent them from being about to use traditional buses and
subways. All of these services are much
more limited, and less technologically sophisticated than the Smart
Para-Transit system that could be built, but they each show elements of the
larger potential system.

  • anonymouse

    Except in NYC, and just about anywhere in its surroundings, the 12 trips are more like 1200. The real use for this, as I’ve said before, is to replace things like shuttle vans from train stations to suburban residential and employment locations. In NYC, this is a solution looking for a problem. But out in the suburbs, this is a wonderful solution when trip density is too low for effective fixed route service, but there’s still demand for transit. The trick is to make this system blindingly easy and very user-friendly. Not like “dial-a-ride” services where you have to reserve 24 hours in advance.

  • brooklyn and i

    FFY 2009

  • Steve

    anonymouse is on the right track: NYC is, other than the airports, one of the best transportation networks in the country. It’s point to point in the suburbs that’s the problem: getting people from their widely dispersed residences to transportation nodes. That’s why so many suburbanites don’t use public transport: it doesn’t serve them well. (If I’m going to get into a car to get to a distant subway stop, I might as well drive all the way in.)

    One transportation node that nobody seems to have taken advantage of (at least not in suburban Boston) is the neighborhood school: hundreds of parents converge on schools to drop off children, and then commute onward to work in SOV’s. If schools were adjacent to transportation nodes (buses, pooling arrangements…), more parents might walk their kids to school to take advantage of the convenience. Not as techie as Smart ParaTransit, but takes advantage of an existing node: imagine, instead of 300 cars descending in chaos on a neighborhood school and then joining the clotted roads into the city, 300 children walking with parents who then walk another block or two to catch a bus or carpool.

  • “Smart Para-Transit uses information technology to group and optimize the existing trips that take place on the road network.”

    Has anyone modeled this? I mean set up a kind of virtual test with various requests coming in based on accusal possible trips and looked at how the fleet might work? It might give a very very very rough idea of what size fleet would be needed to serve a given area with a certain density of requests.

    I want to know more about the wait time– the Swiss bus that someone mentioned on the last thread took requests 24 hours in advance. That’s enough time to have a human sort out the routes.

    Can a computer really do this better than an experienced dispatcher?

  • Let me see if I can be of help for Susan Donavan’s good point about how grouping and optimization work in this class of systems. To take but one example . .

    Starting in the early eighties leading European cities began to bring on line wholly automatic computerized taxi dispatching systems. I n a nutshell: each vehicle has a GPS, on-board computer, etc. and is dynamically routed so as to pick up the nearest waiting customer. In the best of these systems/cities (and there are quite a lot of them in daily operation today) the wait is a matter of minutes. And even when a given taxi does not have an immediate call for service the cabs are dynamically deployed over the city by smart algorithms so that they offer the best spatial coverage for that next call to come in. They work, there are a lot of them, and they can easily be adjusted to handle un-associated groups of passengers with different origin/destination requirements.

    This is one part of the pragmatic experience base of Mark Gorton’s proposed new Smart Paratransit services. I very much hope that he and his allies will take this beyond a paper statement and find a way to demonstrate to New Yorkers and people in other cities that if we get off our hands and apply available technologies and our brains, we can do a lot about improving transportation in our cities.

    And while we’re at it start to save our poor planet.

    Eric Britton

    PS. Here is a quick listing of the range of services which fall under Mark’s Smart Para-Transit heading:

    Taxis (even in the single client variant, as least as an antecedent) : Limousines, Group Taxis, Jitneys, Line Taxis, Maxicabs, Shared Taxis (also called, among many others: Colectivos, Públicos, Peseros, Jeepney, Matatu, Gush Texi, Dolmus, Public light bus, Shirut, Molue, Bemo, Tro-tro, Poda-poda, Danfo . . . and lots more) ,
    Ride-sharing , Lift-sharing (in UK also called carsharing. Watch out!) , Carpools, Vanpools, Buspools , Ride-matching, Hitchhiking,
    Demand Responsive Transport , DRT , Dial a Ride, Dial a Bus, Taxi-Bus (Also Buxi, Busphone, Telebs, Rufas, ReTax, Sammel-Taxi, Texxi, etc.) , Accessible transit services ,
    Special Group Mobility Services, Paratransit, Shuttle buses, Feeder services, E&H group transit, Medical transport, Färdtjänst,
    Goods/freight delivery : Small package and message delivery, Grouped goods delivery/Clustering, Freight Village, Teleshopping,
    Carsharing??? – Arguably does not belong here since in actual use it serves a single customer/purpose. That said there are a number of important overlaps and common issues, including the IT components of both.

    This list is not big deal but I share it with you in order to stress that this is not an area in which we have to start from scratch. We will be building on real world experience.

  • I should add that Eric Britton has an entire web site dedicated to the Smart Paratransit concept, which has given the very snappy name, “xTransit.”

  • gecko

    Mark Gorton, My apologies if a prior post unintentionally was abrupt, but there seems to be a huge level of comfort, practicality, and efficiency in empowering people to be able to move themselves rather than creating further complexity, dependency on the government, or a machine system; with a confluence of benefits typical of discussions on this blog.

    It seems that natural systems tend to be self-organizing and very resilient — at no cost — which could include New Yorkers making there own informed decisions and way throughout the city based on the information your data resource could provide.

    Large vehicles dispatched by a sophisticated intelligent system is nice but, could it ever have the transformational improvements of say 40% to 50% (not to mention much higher percentages) of the population getting around locally by bicycles, folding recumbent tricycles, or other forms of small form factor human-powered transportation including hybrid human-electric?

    Of course, the quality-of-life improvements to allow this type of mobility would have to be dramatic but, wouldn’t it be worth the price?

  • gecko, Smart para-transit is intended to be part of an overall transportation system. Walking and bicycling would be more desirable forms of transportation that vans and buses. However, the world in which we live has had many suburbs and cities built with the car in mind. Lot’s of people have commutes which are 20-50 miles each way. It seems unreasonable to expect a majority of the population with 50 mile round trip commutes to do it by bike.

    If we were designing the transportation network of an idealized city from scratch, I don’t know if smart para-transit would have much of a roll to play. But in a city where lots of people drive because driving is a much faster way to get around than other alternatives, smart para-transit can provide these people a viable alternative.

  • gecko

    Mark, Elite athletes have reached speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour on recumbent bicycles on their own power.

    Small electric motors can make this rate accessible to normal people.

    If people do not want to supply their own energy by peddling and travel at high speeds larger motors are required.

    The most comfortable human-powered vehicles are probably recumbent tricycles with assisting electric motors suitable for the broadest range of people including the elderly, disabled and mothers with young children.

    Relatively modest infrastructure developments can be designed to enable long-distance unattended travel on vehicles similar to existing foldable electric assist recumbent tricycles which people will probably be able to sleep on if desired.

    Fifty-mile round-trip commutes would not be a problem and probably faster and more convenient since they would be door to door on these vehicles.

  • Gecko, Mark, Aaron and everyone else,

    Last night I was in a car (which I rarely am) coming home from a very nice vacation somewhere east of Montuak, Long Island.

    We decided to take the Southern State and parts of the Sunrise Highway to come home. As usual when I find myself in a car, I was deeply saddened by the “mall towns” we drove thru. Entire areas for miles with either no sidewalks or inferior ones with little street life. These communities are not like NYC and are never going to be. People drive everywhere. It is depressing, but sometimes you need a reminder that things aren’t always the way you want them to be.

    That said, we really need to be looking for different ways to challenge commuters and people who live in these communities. I think para-transit ideas are a good way to start a debate and see what kind of ideas the people who live in these kinds of places might be able to come up with when presented these kinds of ideas. Let the discussion continue. We will need many solutions to solve our energy and space problems. Para-transit ideas is just one.

  • gecko

    Eric Britton (again):

    Seven steps to reinvent transport in your city

    Virtually all of the necessary preconditions are now in place for far-reaching, rapid, low cost improvements in the ways that people get around in our cites. The needs are there, they are increasingly understood — and we now know what to do and how to get the job done. The challenge is to find the vision, political will, and leadership to get the job done, step by deliberate step:

    Vision and leadership: Open your eyes, break with the past, take on the real problems of mobility, well-being and economic health in your city.

    Tighten time frame for action: Set firm targets for all to see and judge — gearing all actions to achieve visible results within 2-4 year time frame.

    Build a coherent integrated policy frame: that explicitly drives and aligns all goals, measures and actions so that they move together in interactive synergy

    Frugal economics: You are not going to need another round of high cost, low impact investments to make it work

    Focus Projects : Select FIVE new mobility innovations to lead your transformation, and then package and integrate them for success.

    Ownership: Make your New Mobility program a broad-based collaborative enterprise that listens to and engages the whole city.

    Pick winners: New approaches demand success. Chose policies and services with track records of success and build on their experience.

  • I don’t think we have to choose between bikes, walking, para-transit and mass transit. We’re not looking for a single “best” mode of transportation. That’s the whole problem now, nationwide the car is the one and only mode a transportation for every single trip.

    What we want are diverse options. So it’s not like by having para-transit something is taken away from bike infrastructure or from mass transit. But perhaps we’ve been conditioned to think this way due to the chronic underfunding of modes of transportation other than the private car.

    That was my first fear when looking at this plan. I was concerned it would cut in to mass transit funding or try to replace mass transit. But this is a multi-modal picture– and yes there is a gap there are trips that do not work well on mass transit, bike, walking or even zip car. For those trips the only option is private car. It would be great if there were another option.

    Though, I must say– in the long run city planning can help reduce the length and number of all forms motorized trips.

  • Michael Pal

    Very interesting concept that absolutely warrants more study. As a Manager in the NYC Paratransit industry, i am very impressed.

  • What is the telephone number to call when requesting a trip?


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