Transforming urban transportation has become the focus for hundreds of companies offering a wide range of digital solutions. The list of key players includes some of the world’s biggest companies, like Alphabet. This giant organization spends tens of billions of dollars each year to develop better transport options for Google Maps, Waze, Waymo, Sidewalk Labs, and even at Google X — the company’s “moonshot factory.”
Some smaller companies are providing innovative solutions in the realm of the “reverse commute.” These are the trips where employees commute from urban residences to their place of employment located in outlying sites, especially in suburban offices or industrial parks. Some experts have dubbed the reverse commute as “the stepchild of commuter transport.” Every major metro region in the U.S. has a significant number of reverse commuters.
Rethinking an old concept
After World War II the suburbanization trend began in earnest. Well-to-do urban residents started to move to the suburbs. Stores, restaurants, and ultimately offices followed, leading to the wholesale decentralization of economic activity. The physical separation of the remaining city residents from suburban employment opportunities led to social unrest. In turn, it gave rise to “spatial mismatch.” The US Federal government tried, by and large unsuccessfully, to address spatial mismatch. The aim was to provide mass transit programs for reverse commuters. These efforts were plagued by high cost. The projects exposed the difficulty of applying mass transit approaches to a distributed employer base. This kind of transportation, by itself, could not resolve a set of complex and varied social issues. Most of the programs were ultimately discontinued.
Today, many metropolitan centers have been revitalized. A new generation of employees, who cherish the vibrancy of the city as a residence, seek employment in the surrounding office or industrial parks. This new generation tends to eschew personal cars, favoring ridesharing and other shared mobility options instead. But still, convenient, effective reverse commute options are scarce.
Most shared mobility solutions, from on-demand ride hailing to e-scooters, require a constant level of high demand and have predominantly taken hold within urban areas. Peak demand, such as during commute periods, leads to supply scarcity and surge pricing — far from ideal conditions for commute applications. Ridehailing is an individual transportation mode. It’s therefore inherently costly. It also does not address some of key commuting issues, especially traffic congestion and environmental sustainability. Micromobility solutions, including e-bikes and scooters, are effective only in short distances, and they’re sensitive to weather conditions.
The public policy benefits of using public transit infrastructure for reverse commuting are significant. These include leveraging underutilized capacity, congestion relief, and sustainability. However, public transit systems in most major U.S. cities were designed around established commuter routes — and thus they cater to them. Rail transit schedules are aligned with traditional, inbound commuter demand. Stops are optimized to reach the maximum number of residences, which does not necessarily align with suburban office or industrial workplace locations, typically clustered at a distance from residential concentrations.
Addressing today’s needs
A 2019 study of the Boston Metro reverse commute identified significant barriers for workers living in the urban core who want to reach suburban employment locations. “The U.S. Census Bureau’s data show that 15.4% of all commuting trips in the Boston region are reverse commutes, but relatively few of these trips are made by transit.” (BRMPO)
The Boston case study highlights the challenges faced by public transit systems: “It is difficult to provide reverse commuting transit services that are efficient from an operations standpoint and do not require multiple transfers or long walking distances at one or both ends of a trip … [and that] the MBTA does not have the resources to implement new reverse-commuting services that could require years for ridership to build.”(BRMPO)
Jennifer Sanders, executive director of the North Texas Innovation Alliance, sums up both the challenges and the need for additional solutions: “Mobility needs, particularly in sprawling metropolitan areas, are not one-size-fits-all, and integrated modes of travel that meet the needs of residents are more critical than ever. In a time when there is an increasing divide between jobs and affordable housing, for the transit-dependent, higher-wage jobs are often out of reach — in many cases just outside of a transit service area. First- and last-mile solutions executed in partnership between the public sector and employers is a key piece of the puzzle toward economic mobility, environmental impacts, and quality of life.”
Transport Management Agencies (private/public partnerships) have, in fact, stepped in to help by operating last-mile shuttle services from public transit endpoints to businesses in the outskirts of the metro. And yet, big challenges remain. Lack of accessibility and the need to make several transfers discourages those considering reverse commuting by transit, in many cases leaving the car as the only viable option. To address these shortfalls, new reverse commute mobility solutions are needed.
Tech as a solution
Some forward-thinking companies are taking on the reverse commute challenge by combining state of the art technologies with traditional bus services. The leading provider of smart bus commuter solutions, Zeelo Corp., is one of them. According to Barak Sas, corporate development executive at Zeelo, “making the reverse commute convenient, safe, and reliable is the key to success.” He added that “buses need fewer passengers than light rail to achieve critical mass and are therefore better suited to directly serve dispersed business locations in the suburbs. On the other hand, buses are 30-times more efficient than single occupancy cars, or ridehailing vehicles, for that matter.”
Zeelo constructs routes using proprietary AI-powered algorithm, called RINA (Route Integration Navigation Algorithm). RINA enables Zeelo to design routes that originate where employees live, rather than at the endpoints of transit systems. At the other end of the commute, bus routes are designed for drop offs at or very near the work location, thereby avoiding the need for multiple transfers. Zeelo seems to be well-suited to support first and last mile solutions. And it can also propose tailored alternatives in cases where too many transfers would render a commute inconvenient or impractical.
Intelligent route design enables schedules to be driven by actual reverse commute transit demand, rather than the consequence of a commuter system directed in the opposite direction. In addition, Zeelo operates a 24/7 contact and operations center. All trips are managed and allocated through this central platform, which in turn are connected to driver and passenger apps.
App-based technology for passengers creates a seamless rider experience. Commuters can book and manage travel passes, manage booked journeys, message or speak to a live 24/7 support team, track the vehicle, and receive notifications of any delays. A rating function closes the loop for continuous improvement of the service. Similarly, the driver app allows Zeelo to closely track vehicle movements, and enables passenger identification and check-in.
The Zeelo service is employer-sponsored, and it can be tailored with precision around a client’s priorities. For example, employee cost contributions can be structured at any level, and in various forms such as daily, weekly, monthly, or annual passes. Routes can be designed to support recruiting efforts in specific urban areas and can be dynamically adapted if employee patterns change.
Passengers check in using a QR code, which provides additional security. COVID-safety measures such as capacity restrictions for social distancing and contract tracing are available, and policy adjustments in response to changing conditions can be implemented quickly and efficiently.
Zeelo’s technology and service platform is succeeding because it turns the reverse commute into an HR tool for employers, supporting corporate recruiting, retention, and employee satisfaction objectives.
Zeelo is primed to improve the mobility of thousands of reverse commuters with simple, flexible, and safe transport, especially where existing public or private transit networks do not provide viable commute options. At the same time, it’s also possible for Zeelo to integrate with first- and last-mile solutions — such as carpool, micromobility, and public transit. These make current networks more effective, and they provide additional reverse commute options for workers and employers.
Benefits of tech-enabled services
Tech-enabled bus-sharing services provide a better experience, advance social mobility, and improve sustainability. According to the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., 7.5 million (up to 10%) of households in U.S. metropolitan areas are zero-vehicle households, and these can only reach just over 40% of metro-wide jobs via transit within 90 minutes. The dependence of social mobility, and ultimately, quality of life, on access to employment is a well-documented fact. Providing a variety of effective commute transport options turns out to be a crucial resource that encourages the diversity, health, and wellbeing of urban communities.
Commuter bus sharing solutions also alleviates local congestion, improves air quality, and assist moving toward net-zero transportation. The Urban Mobility Report tallies the amount of fuel wasted in the U.S. due to traffic congestion at 3.5 billion gallons in 2019, resulting in 36 million tons of excess greenhouse gas emissions. The research shows that Zeelo’s shared-bus solution can reduce GHG emissions by up to 78% compared to the single vehicle occupancy vehicle.
Employers seems to be taking note of these facts. When Aston Martin was looking to implement a commute solution for its employees, congestion, and sustainability played a key role in the decision (BusinessLeader Magazine). Large public institutional investors, such as Blackrock and Vanguard, use environmental, social responsibility, and governance standards for their strategic investment criteria.
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