Future Mobility

Preparing Public Transportation for the Future: Three Guiding Principles

Preparing Public Transportation for the Future: Three Guiding Principles

Travel behavior is undergoing a period of significant change in many urban areas. In recent years, public transit ridership, and bus ridership in particular, has fallen in many major U.S. metropolitan regions. While many travelers are still dependent on the personal automobile, technological and societal changes are redefining mobility. In the future, automation promises to bring about notable mobility transformations coupled with changes in the built environment, travel costs, commute patterns, and modal choice.

How automation may change the built environment and the potential impacts on public transportation.

The advent of shared automated vehicles (SAVs) could result in a reduction in urban parking demand, creating new opportunities for infill development and increased urban densities. While SAVs may compete with public transportation, opportunities for new infill development could also create higher densities to support additional public transit ridership-facilitating increased service both in routes and headways.


Automated vehicles and telecommuting could make longer commutes less stressful and practical, which could encourage some travelers to move farther out from urban centers opting for suburban or exurban lifestyles. This can pose a notable risk to public transportation in regions with high housing costs and a lack of affordable housing supply. If workers do not have to commute daily, and if those commutes are less expensive and more productive, today’s time cost of commuting (and congestion) may be substantially reduced. As such, concerns that driverless vehicles could reduce public transportation demand and encourage increased vehicle use are important to consider.


Mobility-as-a-Service Pionier moovel skizziert Stadtbild der Zukunft  Mobility-as-a-Service pioneer moovel shows the cityscape of the future 


Automation and other technologies could make public transportation more competitive.

Just as driverless vehicles have the potential to reduce driving costs, automated transit vehicles have the opportunity to reduce operating costs. With automation, public transportation has the potential to pass these savings on to riders in the form of lower fares or increased service, such as more routes or increased frequency. Reduced operational costs, service increases, and lower fares could make public transportation more competitive and lead to an increase in transit ridership. Additionally, public transit has the opportunity to leverage real-time data analytics and algorithms in a variety of ways to improve and customize the traveler experience; offer demand-responsive services; and leverage predictive analytics to more accurately forecast and respond to demand (e.g., prepositioning right-sized fleets). For this reason, technology and automation can be a multi-modal multiplier that increases public transportation effectiveness.

The growth of demand-responsive services offers a number of opportunities and challenges for public transportation.

With the growing commodification of the transportation network – where travelers select modes based on cost, journey time, wait time, number of connections, convenience, and other attributes – public transportation confronts an increasingly competitive environment. Public transit will have to increasingly focus on the user experience to encourage travelers to ride public transportation.


While the impacts of automation on public transportation are uncertain, what is clear is that automation will likely change historic and long-standing public-private relationships in the marketplace. As vehicle automation drives fundamental changes in cost structures of public- and private-sector services, the nature of public transportation as well as public-private partnerships will evolve based on geographies, densities, and existing infrastructure. For example, some public agencies may provide more demand-responsive services using smaller public transportation vehicles, while other agencies may pursue such systems through partnerships or the privatization of public transportation. In the future, driverless vehicles could result in a quasi-public-private transport system that leverages a mix of fleets, business models, and partnerships that vary depending on the context.


Urbaner On-Demand-Luftverkehr könnte in Zukunft eine Rolle spielen, um den innerstädtischen Verkehr zu entlasten und durch eine alternative Möglichkeit auf dem Luftweg zu bereichern. Urban on-demand air transport could play a role in the future in order to relieve the in-town traffic and to enrich it by an alternative way by air.


To prepare for the future, public transportation agencies should consider these three guiding principles:

1) Public transportation should embrace public and private collaboration: Public-private collaboration can help overcome long-standing challenges, such as bridging first-mile/last-mile connections and filling gaps in service (both spatial and temporal). For example, a number of public agencies are partnering with private-mobility providers to fill services gaps (e.g., service augmentation or replacement late at night and in lower-density environments) to improve access to public transit and reduce costs during in areas and at times when ridership is too low to support fixed route or scheduled transit services. As such, public-private partnerships and other collaborative endeavors may represent an opportunity to improve the cost effectiveness of public transportation and enhance mobility for all travelers.


2) Public agencies should collect data, establish data repositories, and evaluate the impacts of innovative and emerging technologies on system performance: Public transit agencies should partner with the private sector and consider requiring data sharing to evaluate the impacts of innovative and emerging mobility technologies on ridership and operational performance. By understanding the impacts of innovative and emerging services, public transportation can identify how to leverage the positive impacts and mitigate any potential negative ones.


3) The public sector should ensure equity and accessibility in mobility: Public transit agencies should continue to embrace their fundamental and core mission of providing mobility services for underserved communities (e.g., low-income, people with disabilities, etc.). As the transportation ecosystem evolves into a complex marketplace with multiple public and private participants, transit agencies should persist in meeting the basic transportation needs of all travelers.


Susan Shaheen and Adam Cohen recently co-authored Is It Time for a Public Transit Renaissance? Navigating Travel Behavior, Technology and Business Model Shifts in a Brave New World in the Journal of Public Transportation.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.


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