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Data, Analysis Are Essential to Planning the Future of Transit

Transit agencies are turning to data and data analysis tech firms to plan future developments, like route changes or service upgrades, as transit tries to regain ridership lost during the pandemic and improve services.

An electric bus operates as part of the New Jersey Transit fleet.
Shutterstock/Azat Valeev
Major events like the COVID-19 pandemic and now the possible passage of a federal infrastructure package with significant funding for public transit, could breathe a fresh wave of innovation into what has traditionally been a mostly static — albeit essential — public service.

“There is potentially a very bright future ahead for transit,” remarked Austin Stanion, manager for solutions engineering at TransLoc, during a CoMotion LIVE discussion Wednesday, ambitiously titled, “Transit Utopia: Where Movement Meets Possibility.”

“What if we got beyond the doom and gloom and thought, what is possible?” Stanion pondered. “What if our mobility dreams actually came true? What if we could provide the level of transportation mobility access for our communities … What if it was possible?”

Transit ridership nationwide is still down about 54 percent from where it was at this time in 2019, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Amid these changes is the federal infrastructure proposal, approved by the U.S. Senate this week. The measure would send about $107 billion to public transit, and about $102 billion to commuter rail, Amtrak and other passenger rail services. That possibility is part of what's animating comments from transit watchers like Stanion, and calls for transit to seize this moment and embark on industry-changing innovation.

A desire to restore ridership, and more broadly, to better serve communities, is prompting transit to explore monumental shifts in operations as it turns to data and technology to help guide that journey.

New Jersey Transit is partnering with the movement technology firm Replica to fold a number of data resources into planning and decision-making at the agency. The Replica data reflects localized economic activity, ridership changes on any given route, and a look at the overall mobility in an area showing not only the mode of travel, but also the purpose of the trip.

“We help [transit agencies] by not just providing better data, but put that data in context,” Steven Turell, chief of staff for Replica, told Government Technology.

Other agencies like the Napa Valley Transportation Authority in California have partnered with TransLoc, another transportation technology platform, to use data gathered from the on-demand transit service to help plan future fixed-route services.

“I think it's a myth that 'the public sector moves slow. The public sector doesn’t know how to use data.' There are still barriers that need to be broken down. But there are some incredible examples happening around the country of data being used to make quick decisions, in quickly changing times,” said Stanion, addressing comments and questions from Government Technology.

Other transit developments coming online include an all-electric bus rapid transit (BRT) line in Milwaukee designed to reduce emissions, address racial disparities and connect with a high-density housing development that will feature “a key transit station,” said Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of APTA.

Meanwhile, the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City is joining forces with community partners to offer on-demand rides for late-night workers. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has installed temporary transit lanes on key routes “to speed up service so that transit riders do not bear the cost of traffic congestion,” Skoutelas pointed out during a recent “listening session” organized by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

“Ridership patterns will change. Routes will undoubtedly need to be adjusted. This is an important time for considering the redesign of routes, both to meet the changing demand for service, and to address longstanding equity issues,” said Skoutelas in some of his comments during the FTA meeting.

The pandemic and its resulting shakeups have demonstrated that drafting these changes — which can lead to high-level developments like a BRT line, or reimagined nights and weekend service — often need to be made quickly. In order to be resilient, transit has shown a need to think and act fast. Which is where data, and its analysis, can help.

The days of it taking 90 days to alter a bus route has shifted to much smaller time frames, said Tyler Means, senior business strategist at TransLoc, as he recalled Napa Valley Transit’s use of ridership data from its on-demand service being put to broader use.

“The on-demand data that we were collecting is what used to help them understand which routes were best to turn off first, how to reopen the fixed-route system, so they could collectively figure out where on-demand best serves the population, and where fixed-route best serves the population,” said Means, during the CoMotion discussion.

“No one wants government to be capricious about the decisions they make,” reflected Turell from Replica, as he called attention to the numerous on-the-fly experiments launched across the country trying out the notion of open streets and sidewalk dining, and how these experiments offered a rich buffet of data to examine as cities consider next steps in areas like transportation and transit.

“Did the number of biking and walking trips change? Was there more retail spending or restaurant and bar spending in those areas?” said Turell, offering some of the key questions these projects raised, which could be answered with technology and data. “And you can actually start to optimize much more quickly for the outcomes that you want in the city.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.