Building new modes of transit is hard and expensive, but with investments in connectivity, sensors, and communications, we can tactically innovate in the mobility space to improve customer experiences in the short term.
The evidence is clear: public transit options are imperative to the economic and environmental health of a city, and are in demand from increasingly carless populations. A city that’s well-connected by integrated transit options encourages tourism, economic development, and even has cultural benefits by connecting neighborhoods and ideas.
But few things in cities are as difficult as making big changes and improvements to public transit. For one, there are hard costs: building transit infrastructure is often one of the biggest expenses a city can incur, requiring upfront investment which can reach well into the billions. It’s politically expensive, requiring long term commitments by an often term-limited elected official, and requires extensive community and stakeholder engagement. Further, public transit is expensive to maintain: upgrades and installs often suspend current service, with knock-on effects to neighborhoods, communities, and city productivity.
While this foundational work is imperative to making public transportation an option for more urbanites, massive infrastructure projects may not be the only way to improve transit.
Cities and transit agencies should take a page from the responsive city model, using lighter-weight connectivity infrastructure, sensors, and mobile technology to upgrade and connect existing assets, incorporate new modes of transit, and vastly improve the customer experience along the way. And unlike building subway lines that can take decades (here’s looking at you, 2nd Avenue Subway), connectivity installs can be a matter of months, not years.
These are the three crucial investments in creating a responsive transit experience:
Sensors, connectivity, and instrumentation
In order to understand what public transit is already doing well, and how commuters are using these systems, cities must invest in the instrumentation of existing transit systems. Connected sensing technology can provide riders and operators with insights into the basics: things like location information, usage, and congestion. And as sensing technology continues to improve and get more affordable, transit authorities can augment traditional sensing like environmental sensors, beacons, and wi-fi-as-a-sensor with other RF-based sensing and increasingly powerful computer-vision-enabled cameras-as-sensors, like depth-sensing cameras.
Data generated by this sensing technology should not be just data for data’s sake. Rather, it should provide insights into how our systems are being used, and identify operational, geographic, or temporal gaps, and provide updates and alternatives to riders. For this, there is a need for robust data integration layer and tools that can be used to drive action and provide accessible information to riders and transit agency operators. Here, messaging platforms come in handy: responsive digital screens, mobile device integrations, and other wayfinding tools that can turn those data-driven insights into actionable, real-time information available in the right format at the right time. This real time information can have profound effects on the customer level, reducing commuters’ stress, increasing their access to mobility options, and even reducing travel time.
An integrated, cross-platform user-driven design is another lighter-weight, tactical investment that can yield huge benefits for riders. A shared design language across platforms can help riders more easily navigate the system, and may even increase openness to new modes and options within the system. This can have a long-term effect of helping manage peaks in demand.
New business models and public-private-partnerships can help take some of the capital investment pressure off of transit agencies and open up new opportunities for technology and development partnerships. The future of transit will require a close look at connectivity investments, sensors, and communications as key solutions to improving the commuter experience.