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How can smart cities encourage public transit ridership?

A recent report by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that many public transit systems in major cities suffered a decline in ridership, with metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Baltimore seeing decreases of over 10 %. Most cities — with the notable exceptions of Boston and New York — have fewer people riding trains, subways and buses, the transportation mode that experienced the largest decline. In comparison, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are seeing significant increases in ridership. Lyft reported a “breakout” 2016 with its ride-hailing service tripling rides from 53 million in 2015 to 160 million in 2016. The question that stands before transit agencies and city officials is now a critical one — what can cities learn from innovative technology-enabled transit alternatives like Uber and Lyft to reverse the decline in transit ridership?

Start with the rider experience

The rise of apps in the transportation sector means that riders are increasingly able to make decisions based on the mode of transit that provides the best experience. Uber and Lyft put an emphasis on customer experience with their apps, enabling riders to seamlessly plan trips, pay, share arrival times with others and rate drivers. Short of being able to control traffic, these apps have eliminated many sources of transportation friction and anxiety for riders — a goal that every transit agency needs to strive for. By enabling new technologies, transit agencies have the opportunity to offer riders an experience comparable to that of ride-sharing services without being restricted to the roads, which are sometimes subject to uncontrollable conditions like traffic or construction detours.

Rather than viewing ride-sharing apps as a threat, transit agencies should use them as inspiration to increase transit ridership. In its “Shared Mobility and the Transformation of Public Transit” report, APTA found that the more people use shared modes of transportation, the more likely they are to use public transit, own fewer cars and spend less on transportation overall. By integrating transit services with alternative modes of transportation, such as car or bike-sharing services, and streamlining ticketing through mobile applications, transit agencies can offer smooth and uninterrupted experiences to riders. Transit agencies should replicate behaviors that have made ride-hailing services successful and integrate technologies that streamline the rider experience by using software development kits (SDK), or by linking services via deep linking, creating seamless experiences using peoples’ mobile phones. Through an SDK, transit agencies can integrate functionality from another app, like mobile ticketing, directly into new and existing applications already used by riders in their city ecosystems. This means that riders would be able to plan their routes using an agency-supplied or widely deployed journey-planning application and then purchase and validate tickets all in a single place. Linking services in this way will allow transit agencies to adapt to the evolving transportation landscape and provide a streamlined travel experience for riders.

Bet on innovative technology

The appeal of services like Uber and Lyft stems from streamlined digital processes, technology and innovation. In March, the popular app Transit, which shows upcoming arrival times for various public transit modes, announced a partnership with Uber. It will allow riders to view public transit options and wait times near their destination directly in the Uber app while they’re riding — eliminating the need to toggle between apps. Technology advances such as open data and integration through open APIs is giving rise to transport innovations that promise a brighter transportation future for all — agencies, commuters and private tech innovators.

Embrace best-of-breed mobile-first technologies

Agencies must adapt to and adopt new technologies that allow users to have a more streamlined travel experience. Strides have already been made in places like New York City, where underground Wi-Fi capabilities were introduced on the subway system, allowing its commuters to check their email and send messages in previous service dead zones. Other cities have also updated technology to make the daily commute a better experience. Boston’s commuter rail introduced mobile ticketing to remove the need to wait in line to buy your ticket at ticket vending machines to catch the train. Kansas City is in the process of implementing a data collection system for their streetcar line, updating it with information about things like utilities and current conditions. These types of improvements make a big difference in terms of boosting ridership.

Recently, Oakland-based transit authority Alameda-Contra Costa Transit (AC Transit) awarded a contract to Iteris, which includes the implementation of transit signal priority, improvements for bus stops, an adaptive signal control technology system and a passenger information system updated in real time. These updates aim to improve the San Francisco transportation system by reducing delays and average travel time along with improving the reliability of schedules. AC Transit prioritized these technological improvements understanding that they would lead to improved rider experience. Cities experiencing a downward trend can learn from San Francisco, Boston, New York and Kansas by leveraging mobile-first, best-of-breed technologies that address the end-to-end needs of their rider and promote seamless public transit use — something essential for smart cities to flourish.

Local governments must be involved

In conjunction with innovative transit agencies, it is crucial to have government officials who are equally as attentive to the needs of their city’s riders. Understanding where opportunities for improvements lie will allow governments to be at the forefront of strengthening their transportation systems. Recent successes of various transportation systems have stemmed from the support of government agencies, Kansas City being one example. A $15.7 million 2016 initiative allowed Kansas City to become a smart city leader. Surrounding its 2.2-mile streetcar line are 328 Wi-Fi access points, 178 smart lighting video nodes and 25 smart kiosks, enabling the ongoing collection of data. In February, Kansas City released its open data platform, giving citizens live access to streetcar arrival times, traffic flow and parking availability. Through this data collection, the local governments can not only analyze trends, but also drive innovation. The collaboration between transit systems and local governments is imperative to the success of both entities, and the continued satisfaction of the riders themselves.

A successful city is one that moves its people effectively and efficiently. One way cities can do this is by integrating apps and services for a more seamless commute. It is also crucial to have local governments and transit authorities working together to improve the rider experience. The downward trend in ridership does present a challenge, but also an opportunity for cities to become smarter, innovate and revolutionize rider experiences.

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