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Transit Riders Expect Tech, Other Improvements Post-COVID

A survey of transit riders illustrates some of their concerns around the cleanliness of vehicles, on-time performance and the technology that seeks to improve engagement and the overall experience.

Public transit riders in post-lockdown America want their buses and trains to arrive on time, with shorter wait times, and they want to be kept up to speed on crowding and cleanliness.

You could say these are the basics of what riders have always generally expected from their local bus service. But just as the coronavirus pandemic has upended so much of life in America, transit also finds itself in a place of reset from its business-as-usual comfort zone.

“When agencies are looking to where they should put in investment, I think we’ve got a lot of clear indications,” said Brett Wheatley, CEO of TransLoc, a transit technology firm operated by Ford Mobility.

Wheatley’s observations come following a survey of some 1,200 working adults who regularly used transit prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was a chance to hear from riders related to their concerns, wants and general state of the industry.

The feedback follows months of significant disruption across public transit when ridership abruptly fell in March 2020. Transit ridership nationally is still down to 64 percent of pre-COVID levels, according to statistics provided by the Transit app. Agencies are taking a number of different steps to lure riders back, which often include free or reduced fares.

St. Clair County Transit District in Illinois slashed fares to about a third of what they were before the pandemic. Ridership is now at nearly 80 percent of pre-COVID ridership.

Those reduced fares will probably stick around for a while, said Robert Wilson, operator of St. Clair County Transit District, which is just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo. Ridership is back up to about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

“I believe we’re at where we’re going to be for a long time,” said Wilson during a Wednesday roundtable with TransLoc to discuss the survey findings, the state of transit and what moving forward might look like. “I’m thinking we’re going to be at $1 for some time coming.”

However, riders are not just looking for deals. Some 74 percent of survey takers said they want apps or tech features to improve the transit experience. These can come in the form of real-time vehicle-crowding data, or technology that integrates trip planning across multiple modes and payment.

Two in five transit riders use two forms of transportation to get to work, while 20 percent of transit users use three forms of mobility, according to the survey, making the case for better multimodal integration across transportation systems.

Seventy-three percent of those surveyed want protocols in place to limit crowding — steps similar to the actions transit agencies took during the pandemic.

“When it comes to public engagement, the expectation on the part of riders is higher,” said Tricia Thomas, content marketing manager for PublicInput, which helps government sector agencies better engage with users and the public.

“It’s really important that we find ways to be agile in meeting people where they are, and giving them as many options to communicate and to engage as they can, in a way that makes them feel comfortable,” said Thomas in comments Wednesday.

“And in the age of COVID, that means remotely. So, technology is truly the key to engaging people and helping them elevate their voices,” she added.

A lingering concern for transit is losing riders to personal vehicles, as commuters and others have become skittish about sharing closed indoor spaces with strangers. About 25 percent of respondents in the TransLoc survey say they plan to use their personal vehicle more, post-pandemic. However, this response could be more aspirational, said Wheatley, noting the high cost of car ownership and operation in many urban areas.

“I think what it’s really saying is people just want to have more control. And personal ownership of vehicles allows you to have that control,” said Wheatley.

“I think the challenge is going to come down to a lot of people — depending on where the market is — is just affordability,” he added.

Keeping fares low may also convince enough riders to rethink buying a car, said Wilson, who noted getting commuters back onto transit could fall along general demographics, with many white-collar office workers continuing to work from home.

In St. Clair, transit officials plan to reduce wait times on some routes from 20 minutes to 15 minutes, a move that should sit well with riders, with some 63 percent saying service improvements like these are a top concern. Wait times for the on-demand service — a door-to-door transit experience in St. Clair — is 10 minutes. These service options, on the rise before the pandemic, are expected to proliferate.

“Fixed-route is always the best option for that high-ridership corridor. Whereas microtransit is good at connecting outlying areas that may have suffered from lack of service,” said Austin Stanion, manager of solutions engineering at TransLoc. “I’m really excited to see how these systems can work together, and less of the conversation of which is better.”

COVID-19 has shown itself to be a time of innovation across government sectors — some of it forced, while in other cases hastening trends already in place — and presents opportunities for better systems than before the pandemic, say observers.

“If we listen to riders and we provide compelling options with compelling service, I believe that ridership can return and can increase,” said Stanion. “However, if we try to just do the same old thing that we were doing before, if we’re not listening to riders, if we’re not looking at where people need to move, ridership is not going to recover, if we cannot provide compelling options.”
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.