Can New Tech Reinvigorate Lakeland, Fla.’s Transit System?

A host of high-tech amenities, including a pay-as-you-go app and Wi-Fi, are part of an effort to boost bus system ridership. Officials hope they can reverse the gradual decline in ridership.

by Sara-Megan Walsh, The Ledger, Lakeland / May 2, 2019
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(TNS) — If the city adds free Wi-Fi, mobile charging stations and a pay-as-you-go app to its bus system, then more people will want to hop onboard — at least that's the hope of transit officials.

Citrus Connection's board members unanimously decided that improving the public's perception of the transit system needs to be a top priority in 2020 during their strategic planning retreat Wednesday morning. The hope is if the public buses can be made more convenient and appealing they can reverse the gradual decline in ridership.

"Product drives perception," said Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, who sits on Citrus Connection's Board of Directors. "If we want to improve the public's perception, we need to do it through our product."

As of September 2018, there were approximately 2.4 million rides counted annually who utilized the public transit system in Polk County, 1.6 million of them in the Lakeland system. This is a nearly 24% drop since 2014, which was likely driven by a significant service reduction in 2015 following the failure of a sales tax funding referendum. Compared to last year, fixed-route ridership is down 1%.

Lakeland's mayor suggested all city buses should become equipped with free Wi-Fi and charging stations for cellphones as a first step in attracting more passengers.

"It's not even an amenity, it's a necessity," Mutz said. "For us not to figure out how to get those on our buses is like saying, 'let's run a bus with one axle that doesn't have any tires.' "

Joe Cheney, maintenance director for Citrus Connection, said currently there is only one vehicle in the fleet with a charging station at the front, located near the bus driver. He agreed that he would ideally like to see one installed on every bus.

Citrus Connection received a shipment of new 4G modems April 30 that will be installed in each city-owned bus within the next 30 days, according to Cheney, that have the capacity to provide Wi-Fi to customers. He said the public transit system would need to purchase out a data plan and upgrade its system before passengers can connect.

"We're in the middle of a whole bunch of changes that are occurring," Cheney said.

The transit agency has an agreement with Avail, the maker of its reloadable plastic Smart Card system, to create an online website where riders can add funds to their card without visiting the downtown terminal or Citrus Connection's office. It's been delayed for nearly two years, according to Cheney, who hopes it will be up and running in July. He wants to install a mobile pay-as-you-go system on buses that would allow riders to pay fares using debit or credit card information saved to their cellphone.

Tom Phillips, executive director of Citrus Connection, said the improvement that will go the furthest in improving users' experience is basic and requires no technology.

"The basic amenity for rider by choice is the lack of shelters," Phillips said. "No one wants to be standing out in the hot Florida sun or torrential rains. We all know its cost prohibitive but that's a huge barrier to choice ridership," he said, compared to riders who have no choice but to use public transportation.

In March, the agency accepted a $19,240 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation that requires 50% matching local funds to construct two bus shelters at park and ride facilities. Phillips said many more are still needed.

Lakeland Commissioner Phillip Walker, who serves as chairman of Citrus Connection's board, said he would like to see more bike racks on public buses so a bike-and-ride connection could be encouraged.

Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey, who also sits on the agency's board, suggested the public buses should operate free of charge a few days each year so residents can try out the transit system. Lindsey hopes it will encourage people to become more familiar with it.

"We need to break the barrier that somehow 'I'm creeping into an area I'm uncomfortable with' at least until you change public perception," he said.

Mutz agreed and suggested transportation officials could be on hand those days to help first-time riders understand the system and plan out their routes.

This step could be crucial if the agency moves forward with its proposed "Re-Route 2020" plan, which consolidates the agency's eight routes within Lakeland to five new color-coded routes. The goal of the proposed plan is to expand hours of bus service while making the public transit system more user friendly.

"This is why we have to drive up public perception now, right now," Mutz said. "This is one of the ripest opportunities we've ever had."

©2019 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.