Perspectives

How Smart Cities Can Increase Public Transit Ridership (Industry Perspective)

Cities and public transit systems need to embrace the customer-service-centric features that make ride-hailing services so popular.

by Brian Zanghi, CEO, Masabi / May 17, 2017
Northfoto/Shutterstock.com

A recent report by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that a drastic decline in ridership has been taking place on major public transit systems in cities nationwide, with the exception of only a few — namely, New York and Boston. These cities have managed to buck the downward trend by embracing technology and adopting a smart city mindset to create successful public transit ecosystems. For cities suffering from falling ridership, they serve as an example of how to adapt to the needs of today’s fast-paced, tech-savvy urban residents and visitors, and bolster public transit use in an era of abundant transportation options.

Why does this downward trend in ridership exist, and what can cities learn from areas that continue to experience growth?

Cumbersome Cities Face Downward Trend

As it stands in many cities, the process of using public transit is cumbersome, making the experience undesirable, deterring riders. In many places, calling an Uber or Lyft is more convenient than taking public transit. In addition, ride-sharing apps eliminate the often-confusing transit schedules and map navigation that plague public transit, particularly when there’s a need to switch from a train to a bus or another service. There’s instant gratification of a guaranteed wait time, and the apps accurately predict arrival times according to traffic patterns and routes, while also dealing with the payment.

Ride-hailing apps are great for large hub stations and as a first-mile/last-mile supplement to train transit, but not so much for bus companies that are now forced to compete directly with them. Bus ridership had an overall decline of 4.1 percent, according to the report. The only way to combat this is by embracing the customer-service-centric features that make Uber and Lyft so popular and include them in public transit. This is happening in cities like Las Vegas where the mobile ticketing app links to TransitApp for best-of-breed mobile ticketing, route planning, access to upcoming arrival times and determining the location of buses in real time.

Capitalizing on Customer Convenience Leads to Big Success

Efforts to productively modernize infrastructure in public transit are crucial. For example, in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is successfully reinventing the public transit system as a whole by focusing on vehicle and station renovations, new rail lines, and innovative technology like Wi-Fi, charging stations and mobile ticketing. Although New York City subway transit saw a slight decline in ridership of 0.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016, overall, New York transit systems, including Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road, NYC DOT and Staten Island Railway, all saw a significant increase in ridership, per the APTA report.

In Boston, commuter rail ridership increased more than 3.5 percent while transit overall grew by 1.4 percent. A big factor behind this growth is the city's commitment to making the transit experience more seamless for riders. For example, open sourcing the city’s data has led to better services available to riders. Now, companies are able to develop smartphone apps that inform riders of estimated arrival times and delays, a service previously unavailable. Another service improving rider experience is mobile ticketing on the commuter rail. This led to an increase in good will from riders who increasingly expect their interactions with the world to be more personalized and app driven, similar to what they have come to expect from a ride-sharing service.

How to Move Toward a Transportation Ecosystem

One lesson cities like Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, which both saw overall declines in ridership, can learn is that efficiency across all elements of a transit ecosystem is critical — including collaboration between the transit system and external organizations.

For example, a different study released by APTA revealed that people who use transportation apps like Uber and Lyft are more likely to use public transit than those who do not. In order to keep ridership high, public transit should focus on a customer-first approach. Implementing an app-centric experience for the customer encourages riders to participate in the entire transit ecosystem by creating an easy and accommodating experience.

Ride-sharing apps are a great solution to the first/last-mile conundrum faced by large, sprawling transit hubs because they can help promote further interaction with the city’s own public transit system. For example, Los Angeles addressed some public transit issues by partnering with Uber for the “guaranteed ride home program,” which offers four free Uber rides a year to public transit’s 30-day rolling pass holders. According to the report, L.A. experienced an 8.6 percent increase in light rail ridership last year. Dallas hopes to improve the more than 5 percent decrease in ridership it faced last year in a similar way by working with transportation sharing organizations to create an overall seamless experience for commuters.

Creating a harmonious public transit ecosystem should be centered around ease and convenience for riders in order to be successful. Engaging in conversations about tech trends and rider satisfaction have led cities like Boston, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles to solve transit troubles by focusing on outcomes rather than specific technologies or tactics.

Cities caught in the downward trend should aim to procure innovative solutions that produce ease of transit and encourage ridership, but leave the tactics to the bidders, which will foster more innovation and create less of a burden on the government to invest in solutions that may not wind up solving the issue. This outcome-based procurement method will go a long way toward facilitating the type of innovative environment that spurs riders to use public transit as a first option, rather than a last resort.