Creating Better Transit Experiences in a Privacy-Conscious Society TOU

Creating Better Transit Experiences in a Privacy-Conscious Society

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The role of public transit in America has changed dramatically since the first public ferry sailed to Boston in the 17th century. It has become an integral part of life, providing essential transportation from our neighborhoods and suburbs to urban and cultural centers. Our transit agencies provide services that make it easier for riders to get around and add convenience to the daily routine.

In short, public transit has become so much more about experience and less about destination, even though it remains its number one priority.

To that end, agencies are beginning to invest in cutting-edge technologies like cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) to drive progress and expand mobility services while supporting initiatives that protect the planet and aspire to a more sustainable future. Partnering with technology vendors, agencies can evaluate available solutions and validate if they offer the best long-term benefits based on operational costs.

How Customer Behavior Changes Public Transit

The recent pandemic has affected transit agencies in different ways. Some cities cut transportation services because fewer people were leaving their homes to take public transportation for whatever reason. In these situations, no passengers meant no ride data was collected.


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Although the lack of transit data remains a problem data point, agencies that did not require passengers to pay can still get an idea of ​​how many people were riding. This can be gleaned indirectly from the number of trip planning requests or real-time service status searches, but can still provide information about the relative use of the system.

A significant change, meanwhile, was that – particularly at the height of the pandemic – passengers became aware of using or were reluctant to use vending machines or cash machines due to health concerns. In these environments, agencies have noticed individuals transitioning to mobile apps to purchase and manage transit passes. It became clear that they were more comfortable with personal devices than public devices.

As passengers return, there is a noticeable rebound on the mobile side, with more people embracing device-based digital wallets like Apple Pay and Google Pay. This trend is not only in public transport but in cafes, bars and shops. Customer expectation is a mobile-first experience.

Measuring trends to make transit improvements

All that device usage means data is everywhere. We are surrounded by innovations that constantly generate an overwhelming amount of data. While people are generally happy to embrace these amenities, they are equally cautious about data gathering and privacy. To address this issue, many states have created privacy laws so that users have more control over their personal data. This is also an issue in public transit, as agencies rely on aggregate ridership data to determine the level of service required.

Transit systems would cease to exist if they were not backed up with data to help inform agencies of ridership trends. Things like route changes, travel patterns, and changes in passenger behavior are visible through aggregated data. It is important to use this historical information to predict what could happen tomorrow or next week.

For example, if you’re watching a major sporting event like the recent New York City Marathon, where thousands of people came by plane, car, or public transit, agencies can look back at the different modes of transportation used and assess how well the systems performed for this event. This allows them to make the most of transit assets. They can better prepare for the next event. This is why data is essential to the functioning of modern public transport systems.

Leading by example for equity and inclusion

Some transit data is very valuable to an agency because it reveals which features have been successful with the public. It can show where certain features have been adopted and, through traffic patterns, determine where flexibility may be needed.

The data is also useful for making public transport more accessible so that everyone can connect to essential community resources and services such as employment and health care. Accessibility is also very important for sustainability. If we can transform transportation systems to be more accessible, we can foster greater inclusion and diversity.

There are also positive economic impacts to expanding public transport to reach underserved areas. This is done effectively by studying travel patterns and destinations – known as points of interest data – for people living in underserved communities. This provides valuable information on key economic locations and can help plan more inclusive and accessible public transport. Integrating aggregate mobility data helps create more connected communities.

It’s all in the choice of the driver

It is important to note that data privacy is of utmost importance not only to transit riders, but also to the agencies and technology providers that process the data. In most cases, agencies are committed to providing all transit riders with a secure and transparent payment process. Cubic’s fare collection systems, for example, are designed with fair use in mind to meet the needs of all transit riders, including those without smartphones or bank accounts.

Perhaps most importantly, riders have the choice to pay for their transit journeys according to their preferences, including via contactless credit cards, mobile phones using an app, or a new smart card that can be topped up at cash outlets. This gives them more control over what anonymized data is actually collected and how they want to pay for their trip.

Where public transit will take us in the future

Data analysis is a growing transit zone. If you know your passengers are taking the number 12 bus at 8am and this route will be under construction, you can proactively offer alternate routes to mitigate disruption. Of course, this can only happen if you have the necessary data to provide recommendations and be reasonably sure that the information is useful to the customer.

Some agencies will also start rewarding the behavior of passengers who travel outside peak hours (such as reduced fares). The more providers can flatten peak hours of use, the more savings they can create and provide a better passenger experience. Customers might not even realize these types of incentives already exist, but they’re driven by service consumption data in the background, similar to how a Netflix account might offer recommendations.

From my perspective, using aggregated data in transit greatly improves the overall product or service. This data generates actionable results. While the benefits are often subtle and may not be seen by the end user for some time, it is clear that these features and products can influence the actions users take – and vice versa.

There is a synergy between transit data and stronger, more efficient and sustainable transportation systems for our collective future.

Paul Monk is senior director of mobile products at Cubic transport systems.


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