How cities can make public transit more convenient than your car


By Alex Gibson

Climate change continues to be top of mind for cities, and across the country city leaders are tirelessly trying to figure out how to get cars off the road and reduce carbon emissions.

Revamping public transportation can be the best strategy forward, but most cities approach it the wrong way, spending far too much money and resources with little to no growth in ridership. This has led to frustrated commuters, higher road and city vehicle maintenance costs and worse air quality in urban areas. At the same time, citizens in lower socioeconomic classes are suffering from longer, more expensive commutes on the bus lines that remain.

What cities need to understand first is that public transportation will never be as flexible as personal vehicle ownership. To compete with private cars, transit agencies need to get creative to raise the appeal of public transit and deliver the same benefits that private cars offer.

Open data will revive public transit

What do we mean by open data? In this context, this means that transit agencies and other mobility providers like Lyft or Lime should openly share data with one another to optimize rider experiences.

A fully loaded bus has an 83 percent less environmental impact per passenger mile than a single-occupancy passenger vehicle. Unfortunately, limited access to data on rider demand and behavior means a fully loaded bus isn’t a regular occurrence. Instead, agencies can seem to run blindly, operating empty fleets that tap into transit budgets and make it impossible to provide services to citizens who really need it.

Understanding where riders are traveling, where first- and last-mile commuter issues exist and how current forms of transit are being used is critical to developing a transit ecosystem that is both effective and sustainable. While Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) feeds and other forms of available data are vital to understanding commuters’ evolving needs and behaviors, cities often lack the time and resources to analyze this data effectively. To understand how to make public transit an efficient and therefore desired mode of transportation, local transit agencies need to understand the trends, gaps, and sentiment among riders first.

Companies like TransLoc are giving agencies the power to effectively achieve this. Tools like TransLoc’s Architect solution allows transit agencies to freely manage and share transit data, and in turn, give rideshare or other micromobility providers a comprehensive look at community-based transit needs to advise their own growth strategies. Harnessing external resources like this will empower agencies with an open-data mindset to understand exactly how public transit could be altered so that it’s always the more convenient option for commuters.

Adopting an open-data standard not only allows agencies to better serve their riders, but also builds interoperability and transparency among municipalities across cities. With a larger network of shared data, transit agencies can leverage insights that advise how they can increase public transit ridership. Alternatively, open data also helps private companies like TransLoc develop innovative applications that help agencies better serve riders.

One mode of transit will no longer suffice

Urban areas have to find ways to provide more convenient and frequent service — but to do so, they have to modernize their approach to transit planning. Of course existing transit modes can continue to operate, but modern citizens demand much more than one simple mode of transit. This is largely because of heightened access to smartphones and flexible ride options that have created a greater expectation for transit in general. Instead of competing with companies that provide these types of on-demand services, cities should be inspired by them and do everything they can to mimic the convenience that rideshare or scooters provide at a cost that’s accessible to everyone.

Adopting an agile mobility approach to urban transit delivers these flexible choices to riders while making existing transit like subways and fixed bus routes more desirable and efficient. Services like microtransit can help cities offer this type of flexibility and access at scale.

For an example of this approach an action, take Kansas City, historically one of the most important economic hubs in the Midwest. It boasts a surplus of cheap land alongside a sprawling, diverse population. This naturally makes city transit a serious logistical challenge. After trying to address these issues by building a new light rail system — which ultimately proved unfeasible — the city decided to approach transit differently. Instead of trying to execute a complete overhaul, they developed a diverse transit ecosystem that would not only meet the needs of its widespread and diverse population, but also give them the freedom of choice.

To achieve this, they supplemented existing transit with new modes, from microtransit and private mobility providers to bikeshare and electric scooters. The result? The city was able to boost business in the urban core, while also creating greater access to jobs and opportunities for people living outside the city center. At the same time, they were able to increase demand for fixed-route service through realigning fixed bus lines to high-demand areas and giving citizens outside the city easier access to fixed-route service through agile transit options like microtransit.

Americans have historically seen their cars as a symbol of freedom to move as they please. But as cities continue to grow, it’s becoming that much more critical for cities to manage the number of vehicles on the road. To do this, they must embrace new forms of mobility to create environments where personal vehicle ownership is optional. By innovating with smarter bus routes, flexible transit vehicles, and microtransit strategies, city transit leaders can deliver sustainable transit that’s also efficient, equitable and accessible to all.

Alex Gibson is TransLoc’s Business Owner for Mobility Information. With his interest in solving meaningful problems, Alex is applying both his passion for transportation infrastructure and data and his understanding of how to leverage those assets to make public transportation and cities the best they can be. Through alignment and evangelism, Alex ensures that his team is able to combine data with the mission of TransLoc to become the most trusted provider of accessible and accurate transit data and information.