IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Transit Agencies Need to Increase Technology Investments

Transit systems are growing along with ridership. But more investments in technology are needed to make transit a reliable alternative to automobiles in cities.

Editor's note: In this five-part series, Government Technology examines the present impact of technology on transit systems and what that can mean for the future of urban transportation.

America has been and still is a car-oriented society. In the first decade and a half of the 21st century, the share of public transit in urban mobility was less than 2 percent of all passenger miles, according to Jean-Paul Rodrigue, author of The Geography of Transport Systems. Since the 1920s, the use of public transit in urban areas has been in steady, sometimes precipitous, decline. To put it simply, public transit has plenty of room to grow. Fortunately it’s starting to happen.

Beginning in the 1990s, with increases in government funding for public transportation projects, ridership has started rising again, breaking a 57-year record in 2013. And growth should continue for two reasons.

First, despite the paucity in federal funding, the U.S. is expected to invest $71 billion in 2015 in new light rail, streetcar, subway, commuter rail and bus rapid transit lines, including new tracks, rail cars, buses and stations, according to Yonah Freemark, an expert on transit systems. The multi-billion dollar investments will give added capacity to nearly 90 transit systems throughout the country.

Second, as this report has shown, transit agencies are beginning to embrace information technology as a strategy to attract new riders while improving the capacity of existing infrastructure. It starts with convenience. Mobile ticketing is taking off and the quicker transit agencies make the feature available, the better. By giving riders more information about their transit system, especially arrival times and how to plan a trip that reduces transfers and wait times, agencies are making their service more attractive to choice riders. This information is extremely accessible these days, thanks to mobile devices and the publication of open data so that third parties can create transit-oriented apps. 

Somewhat more expensive intelligent transportation technology, in the form of vehicle location and passenger counting systems, gives transit agencies the digital infrastructure they need to run buses and trains more efficiently. When the data from these systems is properly analyzed, transit agencies have the ability to put routes where riders need them the most and to accurately gauge capacity. More efficient use of bus and train fleets can also translate into less wear and tear on equipment.

Technology also allows transit agencies to improve how they serve customers. In the private sector, 62 percent of consumers have used social media to report customer service issues and nearly 30 percent of customers expect a service response within one hour when they contact a company via social media, according to Oracle Retail. These same consumers expect similar digital dialogs from their transit agencies. Those agencies that do it correctly will have a higher percentage of satisfied riders.

Making the right investments in transit technology takes time and money. But budgets remain under stress. New York City’s vast transit agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, could be facing $100 million deficits in coming years, according to The New York Times, and has to address a $15 billion shortfall in its capital plan. MTA just announced a fare increase to close the budget gap. Even innovators like Portland’s TriMet aren’t immune. Over a four-year period, the agency has contended with $56 million in budget shortfalls, according to the city’s daily newspaper, The Oregonian.

Yet budget issues, a perennial problem for transit agencies, shouldn’t be an excuse for not using more advanced IT in public transportation. With the right IT leadership and the kind of innovative mentality that is spreading through city governments these days, transit agencies can and should be able to apply technology in cost-effective ways that can reap far-reaching results as more people make public transit their choice for travel. It’s a ride worth waiting for.

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.