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Taking Transit Beyond the Traditional

As they increasingly understand that they're in the mobility business, some agencies are making the most of innovative approaches.

Atlanta Bus
A man pays his fare on an Atlanta bus.
Ridership on most U.S. public transit systems is on the decline. An analysis by the Eno Center for Transportation, comparing data between 2014 and 2106 from the American Public Transportation Association, found that all but seven of the country's largest urban areas lost riders. The decline has been attributed to a variety of factors including the rise of ride-hailing services and low gasoline prices that make driving less expensive.

Regardless of the reason, transit districts are getting the message that they need to make some changes. Houston and Seattle were two of the cities that saw ridership increases in the Eno study, and the two metro areas had something in common: They had undertaken major overhauls of their bus networks. Houston, in addition to expanding service on weekends and evenings, redesigned its system to ensure that buses arrive at least every 15 minutes. Seattle undertook a similar redesign to optimize its bus network while expanding its light rail routes.

Many other forms of innovation are underway. Customer experiences with private-sector services like on-demand ride-hailing (such as Uber and Lyft), along with mobile phone-based payment services (such as Apple Pay) and real-time information access (such as Waze for traffic congestion), have raised expectations for public transit. Agencies are realizing that they're in the mobility business and need to provide more than traditional transit services to be successful.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation's fourth-largest transit agency, developed a new smartphone app for use on 150 new Wi-Fi-equipped buses to enhance customer experience and safety. The buses' positions are updated every five seconds. The system supports the buses' onboard digital displays and also provides a "live chat" button to immediately connect with an LA Metro customer care representative. The representative's screen shows the customer's location, route and travel direction, enabling immediate assistance and eliminating the need for the rider to ask the bus driver for information. This allows the driver to focus his or her attention on driving, which improves on-time performance and reduces the potential for accidents.

LA Metro is also exploring what it calls a "micro-transit" service. As reported in FutureStructure, the agency recently issued a request for proposals to study how it could provide cheap, on-demand, door-to-door transit service using ride-share vehicles. "Think of it like a van or a mini-bus," said Joshua Schank, Metro's chief innovation officer. Metro's idea is to give micro-transit riders a discount if they transfer to a bus or train.

Capital Metro, the Austin, Texas, regional transit agency, has taken this concept a step further, operating an Uber-like ride-hailing demonstration project through its "Pickup" app. The pilot project "allows customers to request a ride in a specific geographical area that we're demonstrating," explained CapMetro CIO Joe Iannello. "It is going to last somewhere between six and twelve months. Once the demonstration ends, the likelihood is we'll then pursue a permanent solution."

One of the biggest hurdles to implementing solutions like these is the government procurement process, which can slow down getting new technologies in place. Unlike LA Metro, CapMetro didn't employ an RFP, which would have taken many months. Instead, it used an innovative procurement process, referred to as a demonstration agreement, to move rapidly from concept to implementation.

In a recent podcast interview with Government Technology, Iannello said that the agreement, literally only a few pages, simply states what the purpose is, who the partner is and what the time frame is, and specifies that there's no cost to the agency and no commitment to the vendor beyond the time period of the demonstration. This way, Ianello said, CapMetro can provide an innovative solution as a pilot very quickly and get feedback from customers using a real live solution.

As these examples demonstrate, public transit agencies are capable of breaking new ground when it comes to delivering services. It's smart to build feeder lines to commuter rail, light rail, bus rapid transit and trolley networks. These lines can reach into "transit deserts" found in so many of our low-density, single-family home communities. In addition, new services like these can get more value from the massive amounts spent to develop hard infrastructure transit networks. More agencies should start exploring these types of options, particularly where they can be piloted and tested with little to no money down.

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic
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