June 16, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic heightened public transit’s place as an essential public service; not just an amenity, but the lifeblood of our cities. Investments in physical infrastructure, particularly roads and transit systems, are a pivotal point in the Biden Administration’s $7 trillion dollar “Build Back Better” agenda, and will have profound impacts on transit. In our latest webinar, Swiftly Account Manager Anita Davidson sat down with thought leaders from academia, transit agencies, and the private sector to discuss how leveraging data and listening to the evolving needs of passengers is essential for an equitable return to full transit service.
The “digital divide” is the gulf between those who have access to the internet and thereby information, and those who do not. In transit, this divide was heightened during the pandemic because some passengers were unable to access information about changes to service or fluctuating COVID-19 regulations. Steve Young, CIO at VIA San Antonio discussed how his agency was able to reach riders through instantaneous next bus and detour information via Swiftly-powered SMS, which was previously only available in web-based apps like Google Maps.
Young added, "the digital divide exists in every city and transit agency, and while agencies are creating new technologies, we want to make sure we are not leaving customers behind."
Similarly, Dr. Megan Ryerson, UPS Chair of Transportation at UPenn, spoke about how her research team is working with Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to improve wayfinding in stations. She described how station signage is designed by agency staff that know the transit system well, and how this bias may inhibit those who read the signs and aren’t as familiar with the transit network. To increase transit access, Dr. Ryerson said “not only do we need to tell people a bus exists, but we need to tell them how to navigate to that bus and how to transfer stations. We have to provide that guidance and information in a way that promotes universal design - and not just to people who are able bodied.”
Over the last year, agencies have been asked to do more than ever before; instituting new cleaning protocols, enforcing mask compliance, and accounting for unexpected travel patterns. Transit has always been an industry that needs to be smart with resources, and our panelists discussed how they’re using data to focus on ways to improve the passenger experience and empower customers.
Brandon Miller, Senior Operations Planner at SEPTA, spoke about the robust data sets SEPTA is leveraging to build reliable schedules and trip planning tools. “We recently launched an estimated seat availability tool, which will improve the customer experience because we are providing key insights to help customers plan their travel given social distancing,” said Brandon.
As Jerome Horne, Transportation Specialist at Foursquare ITP explained, “it is really critical that agencies dedicate staff towards interpreting the data because the more organized that agencies become, the better they can be at distributing that information.” Horne discussed the importance of data sharing amongst city partners including DOTs, agencies, and MPOs to “create a more complete picture of now just the built environment, but the people and personas that are actually traveling.”
Populations have always been dynamic, but today the populations that transit serves are changing faster than ever before. From new commuting patterns to people moving away from cities, our panelists discussed how agencies can rethink equity focused transit to reach their communities.
To recover post-pandemic and address new commuting patterns, SEPTA and VIA San Antonio recently piloted on demand services, which enabled the agencies to reach riders in low density areas. For SEPTA, the new service titled “Owl Link” utilizes paratransit vehicles as a last mile connector for three of the city’s 24 hour transit routes, and connects customers with late night employment destinations in the suburbs.
In San Antonio, the on demand service, VIA Link, had a successful initial pilot, and is now being distributed to other neighborhoods in the San Antonio region. Young also discussed how VIA San Antonio is reinventing payment to better serve riders. As riders don’t always have credit cards, VIA San Antonio is rolling out cash payments in their mobile app as a way to democratize access to buses.
Dr. Ryerson raised the question of relying solely on empirical data and commute-focused planning, and instead suggested taking a qualitative, human-centric approach.
“When we rely on ridership, we really bias our transit planning. We should engage in a more conceptual understanding of neighborhoods, people's needs, and how they want to be connected. Moving past that mindset [that transit should be commute focused] requires some mental gymnastics and is a key piece that the transit planning community needs to embrace to authentically plan equity focused transportation."
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