Public transit systems in North America are in a unique position. Demographics are changing in American cities, and with that demand for transit ridership is increasing. A reduced desire for car ownership and preference for walkable communities among growing age groups such as millennials means that transit agencies are facing more calls for extensive services. Likewise, policy leaders have put an emphasis on mobility for underprivileged areas, seeking to connect isolated communities through greater access to transportation.
At the same time, rail agencies – who have historically been on the late side of technological adoption – are moving to update old information systems, streamline their operations and invest in modern amenities like WiFi and digital communication to improve efficiency.
Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the American Public Transport Association’s (APTA) Rail Conference. APTA is the most prestigious organization for public transport professionals in North America and the event brought together a diverse group of rail professionals – from transit systems encompassing some of the largest cities in the United States, to smaller systems with only a few light rail routes. I’ve highlighted key takeaways from the event below:
Investments in mobility are paying off for passengers and employees alike
As public transit agencies expect to deal with a shortage of labor in the coming years, it will be important to consider the preferences and expectations for the new generation of young workers. This means moving away from paper time sheets, shift schedules, and passenger tickets, and into the new mobile-enhanced digital age.
For large organizations like NJ Transit, this means investing in onboard WiFi so that conductors can scan tickets via a mobile device. The cost of WiFi for this system – which serves the most densely populated state in the US – determined that purchasing WiFi was in fact a more cost effective strategy than paying for cellular service as it looked to modernize both its worker and passenger experience.
This shift to mobility for rail agencies will open up new ways for them to manage their crews in years to come. Crucial employee information like available shifts and bid lines, schedules and notifications about delays or changes in service can be pushed directly to employees’ devices, thus improving efficiency and employee satisfaction. This trend bears watching, as an emphasis on employee satisfaction becomes the new normal for the next generation of rail workers.
Last-mile ride sharing integration
Rail operators have long faced a challenge that many in the retail or logistics industries are familiar with: The last miles of delivery are often the most difficult to offer – and the most expensive.
While delivering passengers is not the same as delivering products, the logistics and cost challenge associated are essentially the same. Expanding a transit service, like a bus route for instance, is costly and may not have enough demand to prove worthwhile. Likewise, using dedicated paratransit services or shuttles is extremely costly.
For this reason, transit agencies are solving this last-mile ridership challenge by partnering with popular ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to offer discounted or subsidized transportation to and from transit stations. This not only makes public transit more accessible for those who may not have transportation to a station, but also offers transit agencies significant savings over paratransit alternatives.
SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s public transit agency, recently announced a pilot program to match riders at its highest-traffic stations with discounted rides to and from their homes. NJ Transit – which operates around New Jersey and is a major commuter system into New York City – explained at the APTA Rail Conference that it is working on a way of integrating Uber directly into its mobile app used for ticketing and schedules, offering a subsidized rate for up to 4 miles of service.
Improved efficiency through integrated operations technology
A common thread among a number of the operations-focused sessions at the APTA Rail Conference was the shift towards an integrated model of operations. With the growth of Operations Control Centers (OCCs), transit agencies are actively working to make this a reality, going as far as developing brand new centers that quite literally break down the walls between departments to increase efficiency, communication and responsiveness to disruptions on the day of operations.
As many transit systems look to develop expansions of their networks or new modes such as light rail, it will become increasingly important to improve the efficiency and integration of planning decisions in order to keep customers at the center of the planning process. Timetables must be aligned, fleets utilized efficiently, and crew schedules made compliant to keep operating costs low and ensure that customers arrive to their destinations on time. This growth in multimodality increases the complexity of operators’ networks and makes integrated planning that much more critical to match service goals.
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This post was previously published on LinkedIn.