Like most public transit systems across the globe, transit operators in the U.S. and Canada were crippled by the worldwide pandemic that shuttered business offices and forced workers to retreat to their homes.
Statistics Canada says the ridership on the country’s public transit systems dropped 71.5 percent from February 2020 to February 2021, marking 12 straight months of ridership decline. In Quebec and Ontario, ridership temporarily increased 6.8 percent from January to February after stay-at-home orders were lifted in some regions. In the U.S., the numbers have been just as dramatic.
Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), says about 50 percent of transit riders nationwide have returned to buses and trains. He said the biggest losses – about 65.6 percent – are in commuter rail systems serving white-collar suburbanites traveling to downtown workplaces.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Skoutelas. “Transit agencies will have to pivot to what this new future might be. Essential workers continue to be transported. But we need to get the larger workforce back on public transit, not only for our survival but also to revitalize cities.”
For many transit operators, returning to a sense of “normal” will require new technologies that address post-pandemic concerns. Three of the most innovative solutions are:
In a post-pandemic world, removing the transfer of cash and coins from people to people will become a priority. Cashless payments require no physical contact between passengers and transit operators. Not only does this limit the person to person contact which increases the riders’ comfort level, it also speeds up the boarding-per-passenger times compared to cash. Decreased dwell times improve operational efficiencies of the transit agencies and creates a more refined rider experience.
Cash has its own increased costs for the transit agency associated with handling cash, security, and the time it takes to process the cash payments. Since fares can now be digital, the use of cash will start to drop, decreasing the overall cost of handling cash to transit agencies. Customers could reload accounts online or from their smart device, enhancing overall convenience.
In the Netherlands, for example, the Dutch government passed legislation requiring all transit payments to be cashless by the end of 2017. Many European countries are following the same path.
Another trend with mobile ticketing is gamification for riders, which creates another revenue stream for the transit agency. Incentivizing riders with discounts at their favorite coffee shops or entertainment venues near a transit stop can increase ridership and generate revenue through ad sales at those locations.
Not only does cashless work with mobile ticketing or account based extended use transit cards, but it can also be used with EMV payments as well. The rider has the option to use EMV for payments if they do not have the mobile app or card available, expanding the use for the riding public.
Thermal imaging sensors enable operators to measure the temperature of the passengers from 50cm-1m within less than a second. Increased body temperature is one of the indications of COVID-19 infection. Thermal sensors can be installed at the entrance of the vehicles/stations so that the body temperature of each passenger can be measured without a major impact on the passengers through-put (disruption of through-put could lead to congestion). Sensors can also be installed onboard the bus and can quickly scan passengers as they enter the vehicle. In this way, the access of passengers having a higher than permitted body temperature to the vehicles can be denied.
Building entrances can be outfitted with the Thermal Imaging sensors to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace, office buildings, rail stations or community centers. This added layer of protection for staff members could increase public confidence in transit use.
The public transit industry is developing real-time passenger occupancy apps which generate reliable real-time data on the occupancy of the vehicles and makes that data available to the customer before the arrival of the vehicle at a stop/station.
Enghouse Transportation has developed a Trust Engine that can be used to inform the customer about occupancy in real-time from point A to B. This is critical data for the customer, since the occupancy could change, which may jeopardize the security of the customer. The customer can consult the Trust Engine app on a Smartphone during the trip to view the trust index of the vehicle. If the trust index is at a level that creates a risk, the customer can decide to exit the vehicle and wait for a less occupied vehicle to arrive.
The Trust Engine app can be used in conjunction with Automatic Passenger Counters (APC). The app can be used at both small and large transit properties. Having this kind of flexibility is key to building back public confidence in using transit.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says while commuting patterns may be shifting, now is the time to boost public transportation, not downsize it.
“Today, Americans who rely on public transportation to get to work spend twice as long commuting as those who drive. And it is not as reliable as it should be,” said Buttigieg. “A lot of this is because of the age of our transit infrastructure — across the country, there are systems in urgent need of upgrade and modernization. Every American should have access to good options for affordable, fast, safe, and reliable public transit — particularly those for whom transit is the only viable option.”
“The investments in building transit made this year will help decongest our cities and reduce emissions,” said D’Angelo. “Public transit is at the centre of social equity and environmental sustainability, and the support from this government is potentially transformative. But transit systems also need support for existing transit services. Funding in the Safe Restart Agreement is running out and should be extended so transit systems can emerge from the pandemic in position to expand.”
In a post-pandemic world, we will yet face many factors we cannot control. With the use of technology, however, we can keep people moving on public transit in a safe and efficient manner. Innovation, expertise, and creativity will be the drivers to increased ridership and greater customer satisfaction.
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