The year 2020 delivered a “gut-punch” to the public transportation industry. After riding high in 2019, seeing ridership gains for the first time in nearly a decade, transit agencies were caught flat-footed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant government mandated shut-downs. Public transportation ridership across the globe plummeted 50% to 90% with the highest declines affecting commuter services.
The revenues also dropped precipitously as many transit services moved to rear door boarding and waived fare collections. Cities’ sale tax revenues that subsize transit declined because of the business shutdowns. Additionally, agencies had to ramp up their cleaning protocols and so these costs went up. The one-time $25 billion tranche of funds through the CARES ACT helped underwrite many of these losses in the U.S. but major transit agencies burned through their cash quickly covering their losses.
Agencies have attempted to react and rebound by reducing service to meet demand, adding new tech tools like real time passenger info on bus occupancy, and adding more microtransit to meet niche mobility needs now that routes are reduced.
However, many large transit services are heading into this new year of 2021 with plans to dramatically reduce service and/or layoff employees to cut costs to meet their new, much-lower revenues absent a major rescue package from Washington, D.C.
The outlook for 2021 is not rosy and bright for our industry. Unless there is significant expansion of federal operating dollars for public transit in the U.S. and Canada, there could be severe and potentially permanent retrenchment in our service plans.
Additionally, agencies are working to ensure their employees and contractors get the vaccine first as a cohort of the frontline, “essential” workers.
As Susan Lent, partner at the Akin Gump law firm in Washington, D.C., specializes in transportation matters, says, “With President-elect Biden being a proponent of transit and Congress preparing to advance multiyear surface transportation legislation, legislators and regulators can take steps to enable transit operators to recalibrate and restore ridership and attract new riders.
While the first step is authorizing stable and reliable transit funding and allowing federal funds to be used for operating expenses in the short term, the next step is creating programs that encourage innovation so that transit can better adapt to new technologies and integrate with other transportation modes. Enabling transit operators and contractors to adapt their systems to changing demographics and commuter patterns will ensure that transit is a viable mode of transportation either on its own or in conjunction with other modes of transportation.”
How exactly can transit agencies create programs that encourage innovation and think about service delivery differently? We need to regroup, reprioritize, and rebound to recapture our market and expand it to new audiences.
“Future Proofing” Transit
Three of the ways agencies are preparing to pull themselves out of the current morass and better prepare for future resurgences of this or some other unexpected pandemic or global catastrophe are improved technology, implementing low touch solutions, and providing better, real time information to passengers.
1. Better Technology
For the first time in a long time, from Los Angeles to Shanghai, residents could see the skyline at the beginning of the pandemic. That is because cars weren’t driving as much and spewing particulates into the atmosphere. One way to reboot that is for cities to double down on transit that takes so many cars off the road and especially Zero Emission Buses (ZEB). Whether its battery-electric buses, hydrogen powered, or compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, we can use their story to help reverse the bad mojo that uninformed politicians placed on transit by calling it “unclean” and “petri-dishes” for germs and contagion early on in the pandemic. Clean, zero-emission buses provide us a higher moral ground again and help us change the messaging and image of transit back to “CLEAN!”
And the technology for these vehicles is improving dramatically to make them more practical. As Lauren Skiver, CEO of SunLine Transit Agency in southern California and a major proponent of ZEBS, asserts, “Transit continues to lead the way in the development of zero emission technologies for heavy-duty vehicles. The performance of electric fuel cell and all battery-electric buses has seen reliability and performance improvements through the tenacity of transit operators. Our commitments have not only pushed improvements in ZEB vehicles, but has also accelerated the commercialization of zero emission technologies in the trucking sector as well.”
Agencies also need to update their back-office technology from out of the 1990s. Just before the lockdowns, I visited a major North American transit agency that still used a paper diagram of their bus lot with a utility person walking the lot every few hours to identify where vehicles were parked. This is the 2020s and because of the new normal we can no longer operate like that. Progressive transit agencies are investing in better asset and people management technology tools to allow for real time info on vehicle location, electronic manifests and mobile check-ins for drivers and the like.
To be able to operate with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver, most forward-looking transit agencies realize they need a better approach than shifting to “Saturday Only” schedules when a major problem like COVID-19 hits. Software that allows for backoffice scenario planning, rerouting service, and adjusting rosters and shifts quickly and seamlessly (that includes integrated CBA work rules) is now needed.
As Steve Sawyer, GM of Trapeze Group asserts, “Advanced, cloud-based software technology is the key to unlock more efficient and customer focused transit operations, while empowering your back office staff to provide better information to your frontline teams, even when working remotely.”
Another tech-based improvement is the use of microtransit to support main routes and provide niche and more individualized service. Agencies may turn to contracted microtransit providers as a way of supplementing service where main fixed routes now are no longer feasible. Autonomous vehicles are also finding more usage now as part of a comprehensive offering of mobility services.
2. Low Touch Solutions
The second future-proofing approach is to adopt low-touch solutions. These include moving away from traditional fareboxes and emphasizing e-faring (e.g. mobile phone APP based), adding contactless faring (i.e. credit cards), wearables (i.e. bracelets with account card chips), and even zero fare transportation. These approaches reduce the need for cash and as a result, speed boarding procedures, allow for all door boarding and are low touch.
The leader of the zero-fare movement in the U.S. is Robbie Makinen, CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. He states, “This pandemic has shined a light on the value of public transit. Our zero-fare program, which has been in effect since March 2020, has been critical to connecting people to essential jobs and services. At a time when service is being reduced nationwide, because of zero fare we have reduced less and increased ridership.”
Online/Mobile Trip Booking is now more important than ever to allow more control for passengers on ADA paratransit services and reduce the need for packed reservations call centers, as long-time industry leader Carl Parr asserts.
Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is aggregating all public mobility services in a city on one smart phone app on which passengers can plan, pay for, and potentially even subscribe to all mobility services. It was a hot trend before COVID-19 but now seems more relevant than ever to provide a broad mobility mosaic to a region. As Howard Collins, COO of Transport for New South Wales in Greater Sydney, Australia told me, “passengers want a connected end-to-end journey” and he added they now want very clean vehicles and stations.
3. Real Time Passenger Info
Real Time Passenger Info is the new coin of the realm. It permits passengers to make informed decisions, allowing for capacity control on buses/trains and at bus stops and platforms. This creates confidence in the system.
As Neil Scales, Director-General of the massive Department of Transport and Main Roads in Queensland, Australia asserts, passengers want “accurate, relevant, real time info” now.
“Transit systems of all sizes have no doubt taken a hit these past nine months,” says CTAA Executive Director Scott Bogren. “But our industry has a history of adapting operations to new demands, while always emphasizing the safety of our passengers and the efficiency of our operations — 2021 will no doubt see that taking place across the transit field.”
To rebound, cities need to be laser-focused on the best approach to providing service. That starts with making sure our technology is advanced and built for any new challenge that lay ahead.
We already were exploring transit agencies’ new role as the “aggregators” of all mobility services (public and private) in a city. Now this approach takes on new relevance. With fewer dollars to spend and travel patterns perhaps inexorably changed, planners need to identify what are the core essential routes that must be continued to provide minimum public mobility.
Partnerships with contractors, microtransit providers, and the taxi/TNC industry to help fill in the gaps may be necessary. As Brad Thomas, president of large transit contracting firm First Transit and chair of the industry association, North American Transit Alliance says, “North American transit contractors have worked closely with our partners during this difficult time, providing safe and cost-efficient transportation services to the communities we serve under unprecedented conditions. With this extensive experience, these contractors are uniquely positioned to bring these capabilities to other agencies; finding efficiencies and implementing new technologies to meet evolving passenger needs and expectations.”
White collar workers may never return to their jobs in the city on a daily basis so the peak demand curve for commuter train and buses may remain flat for the foreseeable future. So transit agencies might need to evaluate adding in midday, night, and weekend service to attract new riders for tourism, nightlife, and weekend ballgames etc., as a new market for these services and assets. Correctly evaluating and serving these new emerging travel patterns will be key for transit agencies to remain relevant and rebound in 2021.
Although the picture might be different than we’d have hoped, with strong leadership and political support in 2021, agencies can reposition their transit services to meet the new levels and types of demand, and provide more customer-focused, technology-driven mobility, which can attract and retain riders.
Paul Comfort host of the Transit Unplugged podcast; VP, Business Development, for Trapeze Group; and best-selling author.