Public Transit

What Transit Is Still Missing: An Improved Experience

In recent years, the transportation sector has seen countless innovations. From testing the first autonomous buses and cars to the widespread use of ride-sharing mobile apps, the industry is embracing big data and smart technology more than ever before. We’ve also seen large numbers of riders enthusiastically adapt to new and improved transportation experiences, and even save money while doing so. A study by the Shared-Use Mobility Center found that the people who use shared modes of transportations are also more likely to use public transit, own fewer cars, and spend less on transportation overall.

Public transit agencies have watched with some trepidation as their riders began to experiment with new transportation experiences enabled by technology, and worried they might lose riders to new alternatives. Some transit agencies have begun to employ new technologies like mobile ticketing and advanced trip planning, but others are slow to adapt. By improving the transit experience, their aim is to retain existing riders and to convince many of the “supportive non-users” to give transit a try. These are the 73% of Americans who vote in support of using their tax dollars to create, expand, and improve public transit infrastructure, most of whom do not actually use it (only 5% of commuters use public transportation).

Providing a better journey from start to finish has the potential to change people’s perceptions and begin closing that gap. Transit agencies can start by looking to the technologies being implemented elsewhere in the transportation sector to hone in on the experience riders in the future will come to expect and value.

When you take a step back to consider what these recent industry developments have in common, reliability and convenience stand out as the top trends. Today’s travelers are accustomed to on-demand service. If they don’t hop into their own car and drive directly to their destination, they instead hail someone else’s car to pick them up and take them straight there. Either way, it’s both convenient and reliable.

Autonomous buses, on the other hand, promise a future of smarter, more connected transit systems. This development covers the need for reliability – a benefit touted by developers of self-driving technology. But a fixed route bus system, autonomous or not, still can’t completely satisfy the future rider’s need for convenience if the bus stop is too far away from their house or destination.

Drawing from these innovations in transportation, we can imagine what a better public transit user experience might look like in coming years.
Bus Stops
There’s no question that emerging technologies will play an enormous role in the transportation industry moving forward. By implementing IoT sensors and big data management systems, transit providers could track and communicate the precise location, arrival time, and passenger capacity of every vehicle in their fleet. How might that be useful to you and I? A quick glance at our smartphone app between bites of toast would allow us to make a choice between the bus two minutes out with standing room only or the one 10 minutes out with plenty of seats. Furthermore, what if the agency, who is tracking the same information, could offer you a dynamic discount to wait for the later bus with the intent of improving the experience for all its riders? That’s even better!

Once you’ve created a connected bus or train system, it would be a waste not to expand those individual networks to encompass multiple modes of transportation. From there, riders could have an array of public, and even private, transit options and information at their fingertips. Add in standardized mobile payments across the board, and the result is seamless transfers between bus, train, car share, ride share, and more.
To reel in those accustomed to a personal vehicle, mass transit also needs to offer a mode of transportation optimized for convenience. In the future, high-capacity, fixed-route buses and trains could be supplemented with fleets of smaller, dynamically routed shuttle buses. This would allow a more personalized and flexible journey. Instead of opting for a crowded bus with standing room only during rush hour, a commuter could choose to pay slightly more and board a carpooling shuttle. It would pick them up closer to their home, and perhaps only carry 15 to 20 other passengers – a much more relaxing experience.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has predicted that widespread use of autonomous fleets, similar to the one in our scenario above, has the potential to remove nine out of every ten vehicles on city streets, and eliminate the need for on-street parking. Current car owners might find this option to be a nice middle ground between the comfort and convenience of their personal vehicle and the affordability and efficiency of mass transit.

On-demand, self-driving shuttles, might be further down the line, but transportation providers are taking steps toward personalization even today – particularly with mobile technology. Transportation mobile apps have rolled out updates with intuitive and predictive features, optimized for each individual user. These days we’re accustomed to our apps adjusting to our preferences and location in real time, but the aim is for transit to offer a similar experience some day.

With the transportation sector rapidly transforming around it, public transit can harness the success stories of others in the industry and finally reach a population who rarely gives it a second thought. If they won’t come to the bus station, perhaps the bus station should just go to them. The more transit agencies pull from outside of the box – or the bus lane – the easier it will be to reach a new market of travelers.

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

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