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The role of public transportation in America has changed dramatically since the first public ferry sailed in 17th-century Boston. It is now an integral part of life, providing crucial transportation from our neighborhoods and suburbs to urban and cultural centers. Our transportation agencies provide services that make commuting easier for travelers and make everyday life easier.
In short, transit is so much more about the experience and less about the destination, although that’s still the number one priority.
To that end, agencies are beginning to invest in advanced technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) to drive progress and expand mobility services, while also supporting initiatives that protect the planet and strive for a more sustainable future. Working with technology providers, agencies can evaluate available solutions and validate whether they offer the greatest long-term benefits based on operational costs.
How customer behavior is changing transportation
The recent pandemic has affected transport companies in several ways. Some cities reduced transportation services as fewer people left their homes to travel on public transportation for any reason. In those situations, no rider meant no ride data was collected.
While the absence of transit data is still a data point, agencies that didn’t require passengers to pay still have some idea of how many people were riding. This can be derived indirectly from the number of trip planning requests or real-time service status lookups, but can still provide insight into the relative utilization of the system.
During this time, a major shift was that – especially during the height of the pandemic – riders became aware of using ATMs or ATMs due to health concerns, or they were hesitant to use them. In those environments, agencies noticed individuals moving to mobile apps for purchasing and managing transit cards. It became clear that they were more comfortable using personal devices than public ones.
Now that the riders have returned, there’s been a noticeable uptick on the mobile side, and it’s led to more people embracing device-based digital wallets like Apple Pay and Google Pay. This trend is not only on the road, but also in cafes, bars and shops. The customer expectation is a mobile-first experience.
Measure trends to implement transit improvements
All this device usage means data is everywhere. We are surrounded by innovations that constantly generate an overwhelming amount of data. While people are generally happy with these conveniences, they are equally wary of data collection and personal privacy. To address this, many states have enacted privacy laws so that users have more control over their personal information. This is also a problem during transit, as agencies rely on aggregated passenger data to determine the level of service required.
Transportation systems would cease to exist if they were not underpinned by data to inform agencies about trends in passenger transportation. Things like route changes, modes of travel and changes in passenger behavior are visible through aggregated data. It’s important to use that historical information to predict what might happen tomorrow or next week.
For example, if you look at a large-scale sporting event like the recent New York City Marathon, where thousands of people came by plane, car, or public transportation, agencies can look back at the different modes of transportation used and assess how well systems worked for that event . This allows them to get the most out of means of transit. They can better prepare for the next event. Therefore, data is crucial for the functioning of modern transport systems.
Lead by example for equality and inclusion
Some transit data is very valuable to an agency because it reveals which functions are successful with the public. It can show where certain functions have been adopted and, through driving patterns, determine where flexibility may be needed.
Data is also useful in making public transportation more accessible, connecting everyone to critical community resources and services, such as employment and health care. Accessibility is also very important for sustainability. If we can transform transportation systems to make them more accessible, we can promote greater inclusion and diversity.
There are also positive economic implications for expanding public transport to reach underserved areas. This is effectively done by studying travel patterns and destinations – otherwise known as point of interest data – for people in underserved communities. This provides valuable insights into key economic locations and can help plan for more inclusive and accessible public transport. The integration of aggregated mobility data helps to reach more connected communities.
It’s all about rider choice
It is important to note that data privacy is of utmost importance not only to travelers on public transport, but also to the agencies and technology providers that handle data. In most cases, travel agencies are committed to providing all public transit users with a secure and seamless payment process. Cubic’s fare collection systems, for example, are built with fair use in mind to meet the needs of all carriers, including those without smartphones or bank accounts.
Perhaps most importantly, riders will have the choice to pay for transit travel according to their preference, including via contactless credit cards, app-enabled mobile phones – or a new smart card that can be topped up with cash at retail outlets. This gives them more control over what anonymized data is actually collected and how they want to pay for their travel.
Where public transport will take us in the future
Data analytics is a growing field in transit. If you know that your passengers will take bus 12 at 8am and that road is under construction, you can proactively offer alternative routes to reduce disruption. Of course, this can only happen if you have the necessary data to make recommendations and are reasonably confident that the information will be useful to the customer.
Some agencies will also begin rewarding passenger behavior for driving outside peak hours (such as discounted fares). The more providers can smooth out peak usage times, the more they can save and provide a better experience for passengers. Customers may not even realize that this kind of incentive is already happening, but it’s driven by background data on service consumption, similar to how a Netflix account can make recommendations.
From my point of view, using aggregated data in transit greatly improves the overall product or service. Such data provides useful results. While the benefits are often subtle and may not be seen by the end user for some time, it is clear that such features and products can influence the actions users take – and vice versa.
There is a synergy between transit data and stronger, more efficient and sustainable transport systems for our collective future.
Paul Monk is senior product director of mobile at Cubic Conveyor Systems.
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