Report: Public Transit Must Become a City's Mobility Backbone

A survey by the American Public Transportation Association finds that millennials value transit, but agencies must take the lead in becoming mobility managers to keep up with changing travel options.

by / January 10, 2019
A light rail train in Minneapolis. A new report by the American Public Transportation Association finds that millennials value public transit and see it as the "backbone" of a region's transit system. (AP/Janet Hostetter)

America's transit agencies need to be more than a network of bus and rail routes, and take on the emerging role of mobility manager with a single platform where citizens plan, book and pay for transportation across a buffet of mobility options.

A new report from the American Public Transportation Association has found that Americans are largely supportive of public transit, despite the explosive growth of transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, along with other private-sector providers like bike- and scooter-shares. In fact, 82 percent of millennials — a demographic largely seen as “mode-agnostic,” meaning they will take the best mode for each and every trip — “agreed that public transportation is the backbone of a multi-transit lifestyle,” according to the APTA report, which surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults.

“Innovation and change is everywhere and people should be open to new ways of funding, new ways of providing services,” said Darnell Grisby, director of Policy Development and Research at APTA, and one of the lead authors of The Transformation of the American Commuter.

The report stressed that transit agencies need to transition themselves into “mobility managers,” where they serve as the single platform for routing, booking and paying for a trip across not only the transit network, but also private-sector services such as ride-hailing or car-share operations.

“New technologies, data capabilities, business platforms, these have disrupted transportation and changed the way people move around cities,” said Grisby. “We think that public transit agencies can be helpful to ensure positive outcomes if we are the backbone of a multimodal lifestyle.”

A number of city transit agencies are already doing this. L.A. Metro in Los Angeles has reimagined its account-based TAP Card to allow for partnerships with outside, third-party mobility providers. Meanwhile, officials at transit agencies in Portland, Ore., Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago are involved in similar projects.

TriMet, the transit provider in the Portland metro region, is moving forward with beta-testing its upgraded account-based platform.

“We now have a flexible open architecture for fare payment that can be expanded to all the other modes,” said A.J. O’Connor, manager of Intelligent Transportation Systems at TriMet, during a Nov. 14 webinar hosted by Meeting of the Minds, a nonprofit that studies smart cities issues and solutions. “We’re in talks to allow bike-sharing to be paid through this, bike lockers, scooters, etc.”

These kinds of upgrades, which take into account the ever-growing number of ways residents and visitors move through cities, are often cast as essential transformations for public transit if it is to remain relevant, and reverse trends in declining ridership, say industry watchers. From 2015 to 2016, roughly 80 percent of the top 30 transit agencies saw a decrease in ridership. In the first six months of 2018, transit ridership nationwide was down 2.9 percent, compared to the year before, according to APTA statistics.

A number of transit agencies have already taken steps to partner with TNCs like Uber or Lyft, to fill first-mile, last-mile gaps, which generally help to make transit a more convenient option. “A lot of communities around the country are exploring, or actually have pilots underway, to address some of these issues,” said Grisby.

“Partnering with a TNC such as Uber or Lyft might be a great way to do that,” he added. “And integrating that with your own software applications could be a good way to make sure that you can integrate all the different trips that someone might want to take, into a single place.”

The Regional Transportation District, serving the Denver metro region, is involved in a project to work in some forms of multimodal trip planning into its platform, said Jeff Becker, senior manager of service development at RTD.

“Integrating prices and payment into the planner is even more difficult, but also in the works,” he added.

Some of the other findings in the report noted that congestion pricing — charging a premium to cars navigating high-congestion districts — may not be as controversial as some officials might think. Fifty percent of millennials support congestion pricing, if the money generated will be spent on transit-related products and services.

“And I would note that we hit 50 percent before a campaign of education and persuasion is conducted,” said Grisby. “So, that’s a really good figure for the future.”

Also, 74 percent of millennials would use a mobility-as-a-service app, while 56 percent say access to public transportation is important and 65 percent of millennials would use public transportation if it were convenient or accessible.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

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 Sacramento.