As cities across the U.S. struggle with falling transit ridership, the National League of Cities is urging them to seize the moment by serving more riders, like the poor and “unbanked.”

Many cities are already thinking about how technology can be used to marry traditional and newer forms of multimodal transit, while at the same time ensuring these solutions are equitable across the entire population.

“The good news is that the majority of large cities are thinking about equity. And cities are uniquely positioned to lead the nation into more equitable outcomes,” said Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director for city solutions at the National League of Cities (NLC).

Rainwater was responding to a recent report by the NLC titled “The Future of Equity in Cities,” which explored issues like transportation, housing and economic development.

With an eye toward serving more riders with multimodal systems, researchers insist on the need to develop these new ideas for everyone, including the disabled, riders with little access to technology and the unbanked — users who lack bank accounts to link up to mobile-ticketing apps and other popular forms of transit technology.

“The one point that I would always make is that technology is a tool, and should not be the end result,” said Rainwater. “As we’ve had more wealth kind of go back into cities, and we’ve had good and bad outcomes as a result of that with displacement and other issues, I think this is top-of-mind for city leaders, and there’s a real opportunity to think about how it is that we’re lifting everyone up within our communities, rather than leaving people behind."

Transit ridership dropped 3.1 percent nationwide in 2016, compared to 2014, a record year for ridership on public transit in the United States, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). And the trend seems to be continuing. Ridership is down 2.9 percent for the first six months of 2017, compared to the same period a year ago.

However, voters seem more than willing to approve transit-related projects. Nearly 90 percent of transit-related ballot initiatives were approved this year, according to APTA. And in 2016 voters approved 71 percent of transit and transportation ballot initiatives, according to the National League of Cities report.

“From what we’ve seen ... people are willing to invest in their transportation future. People in cities are passing initiatives to fund a whole range of transit projects, from rail, to roads, to bicycle infrastructure,” said Rainwater. “So the fact that there’s this kind of vast hunger for better transportation infrastructure, I think is being visibly seen at the ballot box by choices that people are making.”

As transit agencies consider how to grow service and ridership — and deliver on the mandate voters have sent — they should explore how to better serve riders in areas of low population density by using multimodal ride-sharing or even on-demand minibuses, said Diego Canales, one of the authors of the World Resources Institute's report “Connected Urban Growth: Public-Private Collaborations for Transforming Urban Mobility.”

“On-demand minibuses, or dynamic ticketing and trip-planning platforms that improve the rider experience … will need to be part of the repertoire of options for transit agencies to explore when revising their current services over the next three or four years,” said Canales.

It’s not just increasing ridership in underserved areas, but transit agencies could also lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve the bottom line with on-demand-type transit options, say experts. For example, a diesel-powered, 40-passenger bus needs at least seven passengers aboard to be a more environmentally efficient option than the typical single-passenger car, according to a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, the cost of operating transit has been on the rise, up 22 percent for buses from 2000 to 2010 and 25 percent for light rail, making it all the more imperative to operate efficiently.

“Even specific services like on-demand buses will not need to look the same in all cities, where agencies can look at how to adapt them to their specific context and circumstances throughout their RFPs,” said Canales. “For example, cities can look into providing minibuses that incorporate front or back bike racks to allow inter-modality, wheelchair accessible vehicles or even allowed to be hailed throughout SMS texts.”

Mixing traditional transit with new forms of mobility has shown mixed results. Centennial, Colo., conducted a pilot study from August 2016 to January 2017 where free Lyft rides were offered to users of the region’s light rail line so that riders could use the ride-hailing service to get from the train station to any place within 3.75 miles. However, the Regional Transit District (RTD), which operates the light rail system in the Denver metro, found that ridership from the Dry Creek station increased less than 1 percent during the pilot period. And since Lyft drivers operating their own cars often cannot serve disabled passengers, RTD had to contract with Via Mobility, a nonprofit in Denver, to provide Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-equipped vans, driving the total cost to about $48.50 per ride, said Jeff Baker, senior manager for service development at the Regional Transit District.

Mobility that serves all riders — in other words, equitable — does not come cheaply, but is essential, say those in the transit industry.

“We have to serve everybody. We are a public agency. That’s our job,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Still, Uber and Lyft are both moving ahead with autonomous vehicle development, which could lower operating and fare costs even further, making transportation network companies (TNCs) an even more attractive pair with transit systems looking to close those first-mile, last-mile connections.

The National League of Cities anticipates autonomous vehicles will “likely be ubiquitous with everyday life in cities of all sizes and geographies” by 2030, according to the NLC report.

“There’s a lot of action, and it appears to be happening faster than just a year or two before,” said Rainwater. “And so, what I would say, where you would see it roll out first would be in our largest cities.”

Rainwater points to existing trends, such as a declining desire to own personal vehicles and the rapid growth of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.

“What I would start to think is we would have kind of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the next few years, kind of in a pilot phase, moving to full scale implementation in larger cities, with a slower kind of phase-in nationally,” he said.