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The role of public transit in America has changed dramatically since the first public ferry sailed in 17th century Boston. It is now integral to life, providing critical transportation from our neighborhoods and suburbs to city and cultural centers. Our transit agencies provide services that make commuting better for riders and add convenience to the daily routine.
In short, transit has become so much more about the experience and less about the destination, although that is still its number one priority.
To that end, agencies are beginning to invest in advanced technologies like cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) to drive progress and expand mobility services while also supporting initiatives that protect the planet and strive for a more sustainable future. In partnership with technology providers, agencies can evaluate available solutions and validate whether they provide the greatest long-term benefits based on operational costs.
How customer behavior is changing transit
The recent pandemic affected transit agencies in different ways. Some cities reduced transportation services because fewer people were leaving their homes to ride transit for any reason. In those situations, no riders meant that no trip data was collected.
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While the absence of transit data is still a data point, agencies that did not require riders to pay may still have some sense of how many people were riding. This may be gleaned indirectly from the number of journey planning requests or real-time service status lookups, but can still provide insights into the relative usage of the system.
During this time, one meaningful shift was that — especially during the height of the pandemic — riders grew conscious of using, or were reluctant to use, vending or fare collection machines due to health concerns. In those environments, agencies noticed that individuals were making the transition to mobile apps for purchasing and managing transit cards. It became clear that they were more comfortable using personal devices than public ones.
As riders have returned, there’s a noticeable rebound on the mobile side, and it has come with more people embracing device-based digital wallets like Apple Pay and Google Pay. This trend is not just in transit but in cafes, bars and shops. The customer expectation is a mobile-first experience.
Measuring trends to make transit improvements
All of this device usage means that data is everywhere. We are surrounded by innovations that constantly generate an overwhelming amount of data. While people are generally happy to adopt these conveniences, they are equally cautious about data collection and personal privacy. To address this, many states have created privacy laws so that users have more control over their personal data. This is an issue in transit, too, since agencies rely on aggregate rider data to inform the level of services needed.
Transit systems would cease to exist if they weren’t underpinned with data to help inform agencies of ridership trends. Things like route changes, modes of travel and passenger behavior changes are visible through aggregate data. Using that historical information to predict what may happen tomorrow or next week is important.
As an example, if you look at a large-scale sports event like the recent New York City Marathon, where thousands of people came in by plane, by car or public transit, agencies can look back at the different modes of transportation used and assess how well systems worked for that event. This allows them to get the most of transit assets. They can better prepare for the next event. This is why data is critical to how modern transit systems function.
Leading by example for equity and inclusion
Some transit data is very valuable to an agency, as it reveals what features have been successful with the public. It can show where certain features were adopted and, through patterns of ridership, determine where flexibility may be needed.
Data is also useful in making public transport more accessible so that everyone can connect to critical community resources and services such as employment and healthcare. Accessibility is also very important to sustainability. If we can transform the transport systems to be more accessible, we can foster greater inclusion and diversity.
There are also positive economic impacts to expanding public transport to reach underserved areas. This is effectively done by studying travel patterns and destinations — known as point of interest data — for those in underserved communities. This delivers valuable insights into key economic locations and can help in planning more inclusive and accessible public transport. The integration of aggregate mobility data helps achieve more connected communities.
It’s all about rider choice
It’s important to note that data privacy is of utmost importance to not just transit riders, but the agencies and technology providers that handle data. In most cases, agencies are committed to providing all transit users with a secure and seamless payment process. Cubic’s fare collection systems, for instance, are built with equitable use in mind to address the needs of all transit riders, including those without smartphones or a bank account.
Perhaps most importantly, riders have a choice to pay for transit trips according to their preference, including via contactless credit cards, mobile phones using an app — or a new smart card that can be reloaded at retail outlets using cash. This gives them more control over what anonymized data is actually collected and how they want to pay for their journey.
Where transit will take us in the future
Data analytics is a growing area in transit. If you know your passengers take the number 12 bus at 8 a.m., and that road is going to be under construction, you can proactively provide alternative routes to alleviate disruption. Of course, this can only happen if you have the necessary data to provide recommendations and be reasonably sure that the information is useful to the customer.
Some agencies will also begin rewarding passengers’ behavior for riding outside of peak times (such as discounted fares). The more providers can flatten peak usage times, the more they can create savings and deliver a better experience for riders. Customers may not even realize that these types of incentives are already happening, but it’s driven by background service consumption data, similar to how a Netflix account can offer recommendations.
From my point of view, using aggregate data in transit significantly improves the overall product or service. Such data drives actionable outcomes. While the benefits are often subtle and may not be seen by the end user for some time, it is clear that such features and products can influence the actions that users take — and vice versa.
There’s a synergy between transit data and stronger, more efficient and sustainable transportation systems for our collective future.
Paul Monk is senior product director of mobile at Cubic Transportation Systems.
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