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Philadelphia, Minneapolis Look to Data for Transit Improvements

Technology officials in the two major cities shared how transportation-related data — from scooters to buses and trains — is helping to inform decisions and the broader transportation planning process.

In ways large and small data and its analysis is helping to guide the evolution of public transit and mobility across cities, as they adapt to new transportation modes and ridership trends.

In Philadelphia, demographic data revealed just how drastically the ridership on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) network has changed in the post-COVID world. The service is no longer primarily a commuter service taking workers to jobs in the morning and back home in the evening, but “serves all types of trips and becomes the mode of choice to go anywhere in the region,” said SEPTA CIO Emily Yates.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 61 percent of ridership on SEPTA identified as female. Today, that percentage has risen to 70 percent. The African American ridership population has risen from 48 percent to 60 percent. And low-income riders used to make up 33 percent of ridership. This number is now 45 percent.

“As a result of understanding those numbers better we’re really trying to push our transportation to be much more of a ‘lifestyle’ transit network,” said Yates, during a panel discussion Feb. 21, hosted by CivStart, a nonprofit innovation hub with a focus on growing the use of technology in the public sector.

In Minneapolis, the city’s IT experts process data in-house. This can take the form of user data across multiple modes such as transit and micromobility, informing officials when it comes to locating transit stops, micromobility devices, transit hubs and other pieces of the transportation ecosystem to build a more connected and seamless experience, explained Danielle Elkins, mobility manager for the Minneapolis Department of Public Works.

“For a lot of the things we’re doing sometimes it’s new data — so it’s scooter data, it’s ride-share data, it’s bike-share data — that tells us where people want to go, where they’re starting rides or stopping rides,” said Elkins, during the discussion. Elkins was careful to note the city’s efforts to maintain consumer privacy and anonymity, which consists of pinning locations to the center of blocks, rather than the exact start or end of a trip.

The city’s data and technology specialists work with transit to ensure that they are connecting the infrastructure that supports shared mobility with the infrastructure that supports transit for seamless last-mile transitions within the city, said Elkins.

“It’s also helping to inform where we need to continue to invest in greater infrastructure to continue to connect those modes,” she added, pointing out this has led to the city’s mobility hubs program.

That said, cities are still experiencing “gaps” in their data collection.

In Philadelphia, there’s no comprehensive understanding of how micromobility is being used, said Yates, and really granular mobility details are also missing. For example, if it’s known that more than half of riders are women with children making multiple stops, it would be helpful to know even more details about their needs, such as stroller accommodations, said Yates.

In Minneapolis, there’s still somewhat of a disconnect between city departments and the data each collects. For example, in one department a scooter may be the typical shared electric mobility device users rent by the minute. To another department, the word refers to a personal mobility device.

“We’re not speaking the same language,” said Elkins.

Another challenge is the “data that we’re missing,” she added, referring to freight-related data.

“So we don’t understand fully where freight is trying to access the curb, which puts way more strains and potential modal conflicts on us that we are forced to solve, but without any information to figure out where our pain points are,” said Elkins.
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.