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Transit Needs Tech and Innovation Now More Than Ever

As public transit in the United States pulls itself out of the COVID-19 downturn, watch for it to fast track innovation as it aims to achieve increased efficiencies, responsiveness and more rapidly respond to community needs.

a man waiting for a train
Transit trends calling for more mode integration or data-driven decision-making have not been swept to the sidelines as the sector recovers from the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, transit may be leaning more on these efforts as it looks for more opportunities to rebound from sharp pandemic-related declines. 

“Whether it’s service reliability, or analyzing data to make smarter decisions, or passenger information, these are trends that existed before the pandemic, but we’re seeing it now accelerate this digital transformation across agencies and cities around the world, and ultimately, I think, that will really help the industry emerge much stronger,” said Jonny Simkin, CEO of transit data platform Swiftly, during a CoMotion LA panel Sept. 17. 

By now, the struggles faced by transit are not unknown. The novel coronavirus crisis and related economic downturn have presented public transit with a set of unprecedented challenges related to regaining ridership, ensuring public safety and managing the economic fallout that comes with drastically reduced funding.

However, transit leaders and industry observers have noted the health crisis revealed the very necessary public service that transit provides, as many essential workers turned to transit to get to work while other Americans were forced to retreat from public life.  

“For everyone who’s not taking public transit today, it turns out everything you rely on, whether it’s food or health-care support, is still being supported by public transit,” said Simkin. “So regardless of whether we talk about ridership or not, it’s absolutely essential that public transit remains not only funded, but continues to really operate at high levels.” 

As transit recovers, watch for several trends to evolve in various forms, said Simkin, adding passenger information and the quality of the real-time ETAs “are absolutely essential.” 

“I think before the pandemic, everyone knew that it was really important to have high quality information for passengers. But now, it’s a public health and safety hazard if you don’t,” he remarked. 

Also, watch for agencies to leverage big data to make smarter decisions, at a faster pace. 

“What we’re seeing is traffic patterns are changing daily and weekly, in ways they never have changed before,” said Simkin. “The ability to rethink schedules at a much faster rate is absolutely critical.” 

Multimodal interoperability — the ability for transit to integrate more seamlessly with other transportation networks — will continue to be a focus for any number of agencies. 

“Some say the pandemic is a crisis. We see it as a major disruption that requires structural change, in order for us to be sustainable,” said Stephanie Wiggins, CEO of Metrolink, a commuter rail line serving six counties in the Los Angeles metro region.

“While we are one mode, we’ve got to shift our thinking so that we connect better with micro-mobility,” she added. “We have to connect better with our transit services, and we provide a more meaningful value proposition for local economy and the region that we serve.” 

Karen Vancluysen, secretary general at Polis, a network of regions and cities coordinating transit providers across the European Union, urged transit systems not to overlook better integrations between public- and private-sector mobility providers. 

“Provided they deliver a positive contribution to their policy goals, in terms of urban mobility we can really see positive trends coming out of those services,” she added.  

But in the end, public transit must remain the backbone of urban mobility — despite its not insignificant headwinds — the speakers urged. 

There is no other mode of transportation to operate as efficiently and as sustainably as public transit, said Vancluysen. 

“Also, what we don’t have to forget is all these other crises, which might be less tangible, but haven’t gone anywhere in the meantime: air pollution, congestion, safety problems. All of these are still very much around,” said Vancluysen.


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.