Public transportation plays a more important role in modern society than we are led to believe. However, in the past two years, nearly every US city, with a few notable exceptions, have reported a decline in their transit ridership rates. Data has shown that overall transit ridership rates hit an all-time low in 2017 since 2005, and bus ridership alone fell 5 percent. This steady decline has been attributed to factors such as lower fuel costs, shifts in demographics, and the rise of convenient alternatives such as rideshare.

Making headlines in the transit industry today are the latest Silicon Valley tech innovations. While these innovations introduce more efficiency into the modern rider’s life, they may not be sustainable solutions. Public transit still plays a vital role and allowing it to continue on its decline will bring about negative consequences in the long run.

Challenges Public Transportation Faces Today

Transit agencies’ efforts to bring up ridership rates will undoubtedly be an uphill battle. Here are the three biggest challenges facing public transportation today:

User Expectations Due to Technology

A major issue for transit agencies is how modern society is prepared to abandon public transit altogether to embrace the latest and greatest transit...
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Lack of Funding

Federal, state, and local funds are the main sources of transit funding, with passenger fares contributing. Heavy reliance on local general funds puts public...
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Shifting Demographics

People have longer lifespans today, which mean that life milestones such as getting married and buying a house get pushed to later in life....
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Why We Should Invest In Public Transportation

Despite the innovations we’ve seen in the private transportation industry, an important issue to keep in mind is that these solutions do not provide similar positive effects for public transit. Abandoning the public transportation model will bring about serious implications. Below are some key reasons why modern society still needs public transportation:

Promotes Economic Growth

An urban studies report estimated, on average, expanding and optimizing transit services produced an economic benefit of roughly $45 million a year by connecting urban areas. That figure ranged between $1.5 million and $1.8 billion based on the size of the city.

According to APTA, an investment of $10 million in public transportation generates about $32 million in increased business sales. Residential property values for homes located near public transit with high-frequency service performed 42% better on average. It was also found in the APTA report that for every $1 billion invested in public transportation, more than 50,000 jobs are created.

Because bigger cities have more people utilizing public transit infrastructure, they tend to benefit more. Looking at agglomeration more closely, a benefit of having more people in an area is to widen and diversify the labor force which in turn promotes economic growth. Agglomeration can be promoted.

Prevents Negative Economic Implications

A pressing concern that arises if public transit were to die out is the economic implication. There is uncertainty on how and if government regulation will be able to ensure equitable transit service for all in terms of income inequality. A for-profit mass transit model would put at-risk communities at further risk. The issue here is that upward mobility will be stunted and income disparity may further widen without public transit.

Conserves Environmental Quality

Opting for public transit is one of the most effective and accessible actions individuals can take to cut down on energy consumption. It helps metropolitan areas reduce overall vehicle emissions and pollutants significantly as transportation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions produced nationwide. Simply put, the fewer vehicles used to move people around, the fewer emissions produced.

From an energy standpoint, one of the main sources of energy usage in the US is petroleum used in private vehicles. Public transportation use saves an equivalent of 300,000 fewer automobile fill-ups daily. On top of that, the growing usage of electric, hybrid, and alternative fuel within the transit industry will further reduce energy consumption. Not only will increasing ridership cut down on fuel consumption, it will also reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil.

Another environmental benefit is that public transportation enables higher density land development. This reduces the time and distance between destinations, which means reduced emissions from transportation. Compact development allows for more land use for other uses as well as reduces the need for pavements which causes run-offs that degrade the water supply.

Eases Traffic Congestion

The 2010 Urban Mobility Report states that the lack of public transportation services would have cost commuters an additional 785 million hours of delay. With growing urban population numbers, this number undoubtedly stands higher today. “There is no doubt that expanding public transportation use is key to reducing traffic congestion,” said APTA President, William Millar. Public transit has the ability to transport many more people in much less space than individual automobiles, hence reducing traffic congestion and helping riders avoid the daily stress of maneuvering through heavy road congestion.

Allows Affordable Means of Commute

An average of more than $8,000 is saved every year by households that use public transportation as opposed to driving a primary vehicle. It is also worth noting that residents in proximity to public transportation drive an average of 4,400 miles less every year compared to those without access. Individuals who opt for public transit save significantly as they do not need to expense for gas, maintenance, insurance, and other related expenses. For those who cannot afford their own private vehicle in the first place, public transit offers an affordable and viable solution.

Supports Tourism

During Infrastructure Week 2014, Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC, Washington D.C.’s convention and tourism organization, brought attention to global tourists when visiting a city. He stated that visitors expect to have the option to experience the city without the need of a car.

It has also been projected that the US will attract more than 101 million international tourists in 2021. In order to support the growth of the tourism industry, cities must be able to live up to the transit expectations of visitors. For instance, in countries such as Japan and China, visitors have the opportunity to see the country from the windows of their high-speed rail car.

Transit Agencies’ Response Strategies

Due to the major challenges facing transit agencies with decreasing ridership rates, transit agencies need to come up with all-encompassing strategies to address these concerns. These strategies should consider every aspect of operation, including services offered, data management, user experience, and systems optimization.

Enhance the User Experience

An Analytical Approach to Data Management

Experimentation with Partnerships and Technology

Become Agents of Mobility

Do More with Less

Enhance the User Experience

A big focus within transit operations today is on optimizing the riding experience for the passenger. This can be enabled through passenger-facing technology with the goal of creating a seamless and hassle-free transit experience. For example, user-friendly mobile apps could be used to allow users to book trips with ease and gain visibility into real-time schedules. On top of mobile apps, the digital experience should also be optimized. This entails giving users more information on websites and apps as well as better publicizing and communicating service information through digital platforms.

An Analytical Approach to Data Management

Data management needs to shift from mere data recording, to data analysis. From a regulation standpoint, the industry has seen more hefty reporting requirements in terms of planning, funding, and audits. From a consumer standpoint, demand has shifted such that users have much higher expectations of service today. Agencies need to respond to these changes by taking a more analytical approach to their data management in order to identify areas for service improvement and anticipate how operations need to react.

Experimentation with Partnerships and Technology

It goes without saying that if agencies want to see different outcomes, they need to take different approaches. A potential way to innovate would be to experiment with partnerships with other agencies, and in that, identify how the partnership could complement each other’s services.

Given funding restrictions, agencies should also look out for partnership opportunities with private sectors. Private transportation companies have more flexibility in terms of access to the latest advances in technology, investment in marketing efforts, and response rate to consumer demands. The idea is to leverage the advantages of the private sector while still supporting public transit agencies’ goals.

On the subject of technology, transit agencies need to be open to embracing innovation and change. Look out for areas where leveraging technology could benefit your agency. Don’t be closed off to cutting-edge technology such as autonomous vehicles even if it will not be realistically integrated into mass transit in the near future. Agencies should at least keep their eyes open for opportunities for partnerships and experimentation here. That way, when the industry is ready for these innovations, your agency would already have their foot in the door.

Become Agents of Mobility

Mobility as a service (MaaS) has become an industry buzzword for good reason. The idea behind MaaS is to bring all types of transit solutions together into a single intuitive platform. It does so by seamlessly connecting transit solutions from different providers, taking care of everything from scheduling to payment.

Transit agencies can integrate themselves into MaaS by making transit more available with a focus on more on-demand service, but going beyond the traditional DRT model. This is also another area where partnerships play a role. Agencies should explore options for collaboration with the goal of bringing together various transit solutions under one roof to optimize for the user.

Do More with Less

With empty seats being a commonality, agencies need to think about what supplemental services they can offer to fill the gaps, hence increasing efficiency. For example, think about a paratransit vehicle with a capacity of holding 15 people. In most cases, these vehicles do not nearly run at full capacity. Agencies need to address this inefficiency by thinking of ways to make these vehicles accessible to users who may not necessarily need that specific service.

Agencies also need to find ways to make the most of the resources at hand. They should be leveraging software wherever possible to allow employees more time to focus on innovation, instead of keeping the wheels turning. An example would be Ecolane’s transit software, which enables same-day and real-time scheduling.

It Can’t Just Be About Driverless Cars

The urban population’s soaring numbers call for sustainable solutions to address the mass transit issues of today. While autonomous vehicles and rideshare innovations are more exciting subjects to delve in, they are not large-scale transit solutions, and hence will be unable to support urban growth. Public transportation and fixed-route transit services play a bigger role in society than we are often led to believe. Letting it become obsolete will bring about serious implications to communities nationwide in the long-run. Transit agencies need to take proactive approaches in order to have the best opportunity to solve for mass transit.

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