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The True Value of Transit Tech

  •   4 min read

What if old-school public transportation could use cutting-edge technology to dramatically improve the user experience? Good news — that’s already occurring, and it’s called TransitTech.

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In recent decades, transportation innovation has sped along at an unprecedented pace. Rides are available with just a tap of your smartphone, electric cars hum down the streets, fully self-driving vehicles are on the horizon, and (a few) civilians are even rocketing into space

But the fact is, the bulk of technological innovation within the transportation industry has been limited to the private sector — if you’ve got the cash, you can get in the game. Where does that leave the everyday individual? They usually have access to inconsistently-deployed and varyingly-effective tracking, booking, and payment technologies.

TransitTech is an umbrella term that encompasses any instance where new technologies are developed and/or applied to improve the experience of the average transit rider. ‌

‌‌What if that could change? What if old-school public transportation could use cutting-edge technology to dramatically improve the user experience? Good news — that’s already occurring, and it’s called TransitTech. TransitTech is what happens when private sector transportation technology innovations are introduced in public transportation networks.

What exactly is TransitTech?

‌TransitTech is an umbrella term that encompasses any instance where new technologies are developed and/or applied to improve the experience of the average transit rider. That can mean:

  • Integrating services: for riders that means they can plan and book multimodal trips using mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) apps, while transit agencies can introduce multiple service modes managed through the same backend platforms (also known as Integrated Mobility Services, or IMS). 
  • Utilizing contactless payment systems, mobile ticketing, transit planning apps, single-sign-on (SSO) systems, or standardized transit data feeds to create a digital network that empowers riders. 
  • Deploying new tracking and routing systems that help transit agencies and operators optimize their networks in real time.
  • Using new vehicle technologies like electric and autonomous vehicles to create sustainable, safe, and cost-effective transit networks.
  • Replacing underperforming fixed routes with dynamically-routed, on-demand buses or introducing new software to improve paratransit performance. 

And that’s just the beginning. At its most powerful, TransitTech can unite existing technologies and function as seamless digital infrastructure, empowering riders to access all that their region’s transit has to offer. Instead of dealing with broken ticket machines or waiting for the next delayed bus or paratransit vehicle to arrive, riders can buy tickets online, plan out their trips ahead of time, and track real-time vehicle arrival so that they never lose time (or economic opportunities, social activities, and medical appointments) waiting for a ride.

Today’s TransitTech can: Integrate disparate services into a unified network.

No single transit mode can work for everyone, everywhere. A college student takes the city bus to class — but not to her final exam, when she absolutely can’t be late. An office worker uses bikeshare to get to work— but not when there is snow on the ground. A woman who uses a wheelchair takes the light rail (which is equipped with wheelchair lifts) to work, but relies on paratransit to go to the grocery store and other appointments and errands. 

For each of these riders, a unified planning, booking, and payment platform — known as a mobility-as-a-service or MaaS — could help them tailor their travel plans to their specific needs for each trip. Where previously gaps in the transit system might drive residents to car ownership, a MaaS system can make coordinating multimodal trips easier and a car-free life achievable. 

Transit agencies looking to build out their networks and create opportunities for multimodal trips can choose to deploy multiple transit modes using the same integrated technology, known as “integrated mobility solutions” (IMS). For the rider, the outcome is the same as MaaS — a single-platform planning and booking experience — but for the agency, it can be much easier to manage, track, and analyze the comprehensive network if implemented using the same back-end technology.

Revolutionize data collection and drive equity.

All transportation innovations rely on robust data sets, which means ‌that novel data collection and analysis strategies need to be prioritized to ensure that transit continues to meet rider needs. And while some data is available for planning and optimization — transit planners make heavy use of standardized GTFS feeds documenting the planned and live position of transit vehicles, as well as demographic information — other critical information, like consistent and standardized maps, is available piecemeal. 

To address this issue, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued a Request for Information (or RFI) on Transportation Equity Data earlier this year. The goal of the RFI is to help agencies and state DOTs gather the information they need to come into compliance with a new executive order mandating all Americans have equal access to reliable transportation. 

The USDOT is looking for advice on new data collection methods, data analysis and visualization strategies, and compliance monitoring in order to ensure that new technologies are developed and deployed equitably. Even more importantly, they are looking to update existing success metrics to disrupt older planning paradigms detrimental to equity, such as highway-focused development. This RFI is the first step in a nationwide push for transit equity, and its focus on improved data analysis paves the way for future innovative applications of transportation technology. 

Bring autonomous mobility to the public.

In 2020, the City of Arlington, Texas, was awarded a $1.7 million grant through the Federal Transit Administration’s Integrated Mobility Innovation Program to integrate autonomous vehicles into the existing Via on-demand rideshare service. In March 2021, the city launched RAPID (Rideshare, Automation, and Payment Integration Demonstration) in partnership with Via, May Mobility, and the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). 

The service integrates five AVs, including one wheelchair accessible vehicle, into Arlington’s public transit system — the first example of AVs integrated into public transit in the United States. Arlington residents can book their shared, on-demand, autonomous trip through the Via app and travel anywhere within the RAPID service area, which includes the Downtown Library, City Hall, the University of Texas Arlington, and numerous restaurants, offices, and businesses. The cars are fully self-driving, although a trained Autonomous Vehicle Operator will be in the driver’s seat at all times.

“We had an independent study determine that the on-demand service was the single most effective greenhouse gas emission reducer in our entire North Texas region because we are literally taking people out of their single passenger vehicle or taxi,” said former Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams. All RAPID vehicles are either hybrid electric or fully electric, giving riders more transportation options while continuing to cut back on pollution.

Like physical infrastructure, digital infrastructure lays down structures, makes connections, and paves the way for solutions that can be utilized now and in ways we cannot yet imagine.
Above all, TransitTech’s flexibility allows cities to future-proof their transportation networks and incorporate tech innovations as they become part of our new transit norm.

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