Public transport, and transportation in general, is a challenging endeavor in urban areas. As certain city populations grow, and as their economic bases shift and evolve and their housing sector adjusts, even more vehicles are entering the roads each day. One of the effective solutions to decreasing the pressure on city streets and highways is maintaining a robust public transportation system, but modern urban areas bring a host of challenges to the table for transit agencies, some of which can be mitigated by proper and forward-thinking transit management, and others which will need to come from the municipal level on down.
Here are five major challenges for transit in urban areas:
- Traffic congestion: The sheer number of vehicles on city roads each day just carrying a single person on their daily commute to work is huge, and when added to the delivery trucks and vans, service vehicles, and buses and taxis out there driving each day, can lead to massive gridlock. It contributes to rising tensions, more fuel use, higher amounts of air pollution, and slower commuting times, while also serving up the major challenge of finding a place to park most of those vehicles near their destinations. Delivery vehicles and buses may not contribute to the deficit in parking places, but they can be a logistic challenge for other drivers to navigate around during their route stops. Cities can offer some solutions to gridlocks and congestion through a combination of better infrastructure (metering on ramps, 'smart' traffic lights, more HOV lanes, BRT systems, the addition of bike lanes, etc.), while transit agencies can address other congestion issues such as the flexibility or adjustment of routes and stops during peak periods, or as commuter base changes.
- Long commutes: Increased traffic, road construction, and a population that increasingly lives in one part of the city and works in another all contribute to longer commute times. Cities can address the issue through an evolution of their planning work to incorporate alternative transportation modes (such as biking and walking), supporting more walkable neighborhoods, and the better promotion and marketing of public transit options as a more productive alternative to driving. Transit agencies can work to build systems that are easily navigable, with more opportunities for multi-modal transportation connections, and that are designed to get 'smarter' over time.
- Secondary infrastructure: The supporting element of ensuring adequate rider parking areas can be a boon to increased public transit usage, as park-n-ride stops allow for riders to leave their vehicles safely on the outskirts of a city and avoid parking hassles. Improved route stop infrastructure, such as a rain or sun awning and benches, along with clearly posted schedules, can make the difference to some potential riders, as can the offering of amenities such as WiFi access. Additionally, allowances should be made for more bike and scooter parking at routes, as well as increased access to bike racks on the transit vehicles themselves.
- Sprawling cities: As many cities grow increasingly outward, urban and suburban sprawl places both residential and commercial real estate further away from the center, and this decentralization leads to not only increasingly complex transit and road systems, but also to long commutes and drive-time traffic woes. Some cities may choose to focus on an 'infill' development process to tighten up city centers, or to use strict zoning guidelines to keep industry and residential areas separated, but no matter the approach, the trend toward decentralization looks to continue. Transit agencies can work toward smarter long routes that could include more direct routing with fewer stops during certain hours, or additional shorter routes with more frequent stops during others, and could work on a comprehensive set of options for its riders that includes multiple modes of transportation to speed commutes.
- Large fleets, large costs: Transit agencies in urban areas, which manage larger fleets of vehicles and more employees, have their challenges cut out for them in terms of keeping maintenance costs and tasks under control, as well as attracting, training, and retaining a skilled workforce, which contributes to increased safety and fewer lost-time accidents. The adoption of technology systems for better route scheduling, maintenance tracking, and employee scheduling can help reduce costs and downtime, as can the implementation of better tracking, mapping, and communications systems on the vehicles themselves. Cities can help enable more efficient transit systems by partnering with agencies in planning processes, the sharing of resources (fueling and maintenance facilities), and pursuing forward-thinking solutions such as electric buses.
Public transportation is a very effective solution to some of the mobility issues in cities and urban areas, and although it also comes with a set of challenges, transit agencies and city governments can take steps toward quicker and more cost-effective systems for getting people where they need to go, when they need to go there.