The impact of the pandemic has created an urgent need to regain ridership. It compounded an already downward trend in ridership, as identified in a 2018 report published by American Public Transportation Association (APTA), and has created a challenge for transit agencies weathering the pandemic. But this challenge also presents a new opportunity: to rethink the passenger experience and the role of mass transit in promoting the health and well-being of our communities.
Prior to the pandemic, innovation in the transit technology space did not directly focus on public health issues or present solutions to marry public transit and public health. In the COVID era, this began to shift, with transit operators seeking more efficient ways to prevent the transmission of viruses in place of expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes damaging manual-disinfecting. A variety of technologies have been tested and piloted — including UV lamps, upgraded HVAC and air filtration systems, and manual foggers or handheld sprays — but few offer high enough rates of efficacy to inspire confidence by transit agencies, who continue to gauge the health needs of returning riders.
The new focus on health does not detract from transit’s previous focus of digital transformation. Rather, if done right, health and safety innovations can further enhance those digital technologies and make the entire passenger experience safer, healthier, and more accessible for riders as they navigate returning to work and school and adjust to future phases of pandemic response.
By implementing these innovative health technologies, transit agencies have the chance to rebuild confidence in public spaces and contribute to COVID mitigation efforts. These innovations can help both return ridership to pre-pandemic levels and improve the passenger experience in the future. Here are four examples of how technology can benefit passengers and improve ridership today:
1. Air Treatment: In 2020, air treatment systems emerged as potential replacements for expensive and time-consuming manual disinfecting procedures. Rather than spend time and money on staff and cleaning materials needed to routinely sanitize every surface inside a transit vehicle, transit agencies have been exploring how to combat the virus in the air before it can land on a surface or infect passengers. Many solutions have emerged, including those that use advanced HVAC systems, UV filters, and even foggers or sprayers, but the most effective solution has proven to be continuous antimicrobial air treatment, which quickly envelopes and inactivates 98% of virus particles in the air. As we continue to fight the COVID-19 virus, its variants and other viruses and gear up for the next flu season, continuous air treatment can provide much-needed protection for riders and provide a more virus-resilient method of transportation.
2. Accessible technology: The COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the essential service that public transit provides and the community reliance on safe and accessible public transit. Transit agencies can leverage a variety of ADA-compliant transit technologies to improve the accessibility of transit stations and vehicles throughout the entire transit journey. ADA-compliant E-paper displays repurpose technology previously seen in e-readers and applies it to transit applications for bus stops and transit stations. The ultra-low-power LED screens minimize power usage while also maximizing accessibility for hearing-impaired and vision-impaired passengers. An optional solar-power addition allows for displays to be installed in remote areas, thereby expanding the rider information in rural locations without major infrastructure projects and capital expenses.
3. Infotainment and PSAs: On-board passenger information systems have been a critical communication path during the pandemic to provide passengers with up-to-date information about COVID protocols, safety guidelines, and route updates. By combining PSAs with more traditional travel information, the passenger experience has been transformed to better meet passenger needs during the pandemic and further support an enjoyable rider experience.
4. Video Surveillance: Existing technologies can be repurposed for new efforts to help promote a safe and enjoyable rider experience. With advanced software tools, video footage can be easily leveraged for ongoing training of operators. Video clips of incidents where riders do not follow safety protocols, for example, can be used to train operators on how to better enforce those guidelines and deescalate heated situations. Triggers can be monitored and reported for sudden stops, accidents, or avoidance of collisions. By identifying and capturing these events, agencies can continually and proactively improve safety. Some agencies have taken the technology transformation to another level, catching the good deeds of operators on camera to create advertising campaigns that promote the use and safety of public transit. These campaigns have gone viral in many instances and have promoted continued Good Samaritan-behaviors of operators while also improving employee retention and job satisfaction of operators.
As these examples show, both new and existing technologies can be used to help improve the passenger experience and increase safety during and after the pandemic. As riders return, some of them warily, to their usual commutes, transit agencies have an opportunity to leverage transit technology to create safer, healthier, accessible, and more future proof experiences for riders.
Werner Malcherek is chief technology officer for Luminator Technology Group.