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Public transit isn’t dead: Three ways cities are upgrading their networks

  •   5 min read

Cities are getting creative and exploring changes to draw people back to public transportation and get the economy moving again.

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Is public transportation as we knew it officially dead? Despite the doomsday scenario seemingly cemented in the media, public transportation was actually already seeing diminished ridership around the world over the past decade — led by a 15% decline in bus riders in both the US and UK. COVID-19 should actually be seen as the long-overdue catalyst for change.

Now more than ever, cities can look at public transit as a key component to rebounding from an economic slump, with studies finding that every dollar invested in public transit generates roughly $4 in returns.

Think of it as the ultimate spring cleaning solution, with the goal of drawing riders back and capturing subsequent revenue.

Like most things in public transit, though, there’s no “one size fits all” approach. Among the opportunities to refresh existing infrastructure, cities and transit authorities are exploring introducing technology to optimize their fixed routes. Depending on the unique situation in a community and the specific questions that need to be answered, the right solution could live anywhere on a continuum:

Regardless of the approach, integrating technology into bus fleets can translate into a resurgence of passengers. For instance, introducing the ability to book socially-distanced seats on existing bus routes may reassure those riders already on the public transportation bandwagon. 

In other cases, the desire to deliver more flexible transit in areas not traditionally served well by fixed-route buses might result in eliminating fixed routes altogether, and instead allowing passengers to hail a bus on-demand from anywhere in the city. Still other cities might need to find the balance of bringing those who already rode the bus back on board, while finding ways to attract those new customers who are looking for safe mobility in our new normal.

1. Amping-up data, control, and visibility.

Statistics may currently show that overall bus ridership is slowly dwindling, but that doesn’t mean every bus is driving along its route completely empty. Just look at Chicago’s weekday commuter 134 Stockton/LaSalle Express bus — it’s consistently filled to the gills with passengers, arrives every few minutes, and is a generally reliable route for daily riders.

But that was prior to COVID-19. Transit agencies like the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) now have to consider a host of new challenges to operate their otherwise popular bus routes as residents emerge from sheltering in place and consider returning to work. Months after a global pandemic spread rapidly, who wants to ride a packed bus or hand money to a driver? 

The answer could lie in technology that will address these very real public health concerns. New tech allows cities and transit agencies more control over things like:

  • Capacity planning — Limiting the number of people who can board a vehicle by setting maximum capacity per vehicle type. This is very easy to change, so cities can keep adjusting capacity quickly as social distancing restrictions change and loosen. 
  • In-app wellness checks — Riders should also know when not to travel. The app or website they use to book a seat on the bus can ask them to confirm a few things first, like whether they have a fever or if they’re wearing a mask.
  • Contact tracing — Cities can use data provided by their new transit tech to know who rode together in order to retroactively offer that information to health departments and others who are leading  contact tracing programs.
  • Skipping stops When a bus reaches capacity, drivers can be notified to keep it moving, skipping stops that would otherwise pack too many riders in a single vehicle.
  • Digital payments — There’s no need to handle cash anymore. To reduce touch-related interactions, riders can pay via a mobile booking app rather than swipe a farecard or hand over cash.

Explore solutions with Via here.

The goal is to make public transportation feel safe without completely turning it on its head. By employing basic technology that’s already widely available in other transit platforms, cities can add a layer of safety and control to their existing fleets to encourage passengers to return to riding the bus. 


2. Optimizing underperforming routes with new creativity.

Let’s face it: even before COVID-19, certain bus routes made some transit leaders think, “Is this worth it?” Ridership was low, but not low enough to necessitate cutting the route and leaving residents dependent on the bus high and dry. In the wake of the pandemic, however, there’s no question that these kinds of routes can morph in some capacity. 

For example, say there are a series of routes that see strong ridership during the day, but overnight, demand plummets. It’s still paramount to keep the overnight service afloat because its primary users could be essential employees like nurses. However, running a fixed-route line once an hour is both inconvenient for passengers and costly for the city. 

Transportation leaders in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, pulled the trigger on such a plan in September 2019 in an attempt to improve the quality of service of nine evening bus routes. The 20-square-mile zone in Sault Ste. Marie saw low utilization and long wait times for riders between the hours of 7 p.m. and midnight, where buses only arrived once an hour. 

(Heat map of where passengers request rides in Sault Ste. Marie using the on-demand app.)

By implementing technology in the overnight service, passengers can now hail buses on-demand during Sunday evening hours via the Sault Ste. Marie On Demand app, which led to eliminating the need for one of their nine buses, a decrease in average wait times to just 15 minutes, and an increased vehicle utilization.

Taking a similar approach, a town in the United Kingdom saw even greater results from their tech-enabled service. Public transport operator Go-Coach experienced a 90% drop in ridership during the pandemic in the town of Sevenoaks in Kent. To combat low utilization, Go-Coach launched a new on-demand transportation service called Go2 using their normal fixed-line buses. 

Within just one month, Go-Coach increased vehicle utilization by 77% despite drivers spending significantly less time behind the wheel — a more than 60% reduction in hours on the road, equating to a 46% reduction in miles driven. Despite driving less, riders’ average wait times for the bus shrank from up to one hour to just 11 minutes. Leaders at Go-Coach say they plan to reintroduce fixed-line bus routes as the city returns to normal, eventually shifting their on-demand transport network from full-size buses to smaller vehicles over time.

The blend between demand-responsive transportation and fixed routes is proving to be the key to overcome the slump in ridership, attracting users back to the bus in a safe manner.

3. Revamping fixed-route transportation altogether.

In some parts of town, it will always make sense to have a high-frequency bus route. In many others, it never does. The pandemic only exacerbated the divide, meaning that it’s time to determine where (and when) it makes sense to offer specific types of public transportation. 

For example, high-frequency routes in densely populated zones stay intact, at least during the daytime, possibly implementing technology to manage capacity during COVID scares. At night, between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., high-frequency routes that experience a drastic drop in passengers can be replaced by shared on-demand services in order to reduce the volume of full-size buses endlessly circling in their routes.

Bus routes in less dense neighborhoods could go entirely on-demand, hailed by passengers when they need a ride. This applies to both daytime and nighttime service. Altering just a handful of routes with technology that responds to demand can have a dramatic impact on efficiency and operational costs. 

Learn more about on-demand solutions.

Let’s look at Via’s transit modeling data for a city with roughly 3 million residents living in a 42-square-mile zone. If that city used on-demand technology to replace 11 fixed-routes during the daytime and 13 routes overnight, it could serve the same number of passengers while decreasing daily bus mileage by 63%. That’s like a bus route shrinking from 100 miles to 37 miles in a single day, while still picking up the same passengers. 

In addition, because riders book a trip using the on-demand app, the same technology can help address visibility and control concerns like contact tracing and capacity management.

Many options, one huge goal.

Whether cities are overhauling their network or simply making it safer to ride, technology has the opportunity to bring riders back to public transportation. Regardless of the kind of solution a city is looking for, the recent dip in passenger demand should be seen as an opportunity to invest in transit infrastructure and bring passengers back to the bus.

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