The potential of partnerships for improving public transit

Small cities are better suited for smart public transit

With new smart technologies appearing every day, the ultramodern city scape is quickly becoming a reality. But where are these advancements taking place, and where should the epicenter of change occur?

One immediately thinks of large cities like New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Yet recent ventures show that smaller and medium-sized cities are better suited for smart city investment.

To address the obvious counter points, yes, larger state-funded budgets have more flexibility when it comes to expanding public transit networks and updating existing infrastructure. Meanwhile, smaller, and mid-sized cities lack this funding, and with fewer choices, members of smaller communities tend to prefer personal vehicles, in turn creating more resistance for investing in modern transportation options.

However, despite having less funding and resources to improve public transit, smaller cities have inherent advantages in bringing modern technologies into their existing networks. With less existing infrastructure and smaller populations, integrating new smart technology is much quicker and requires less education and engagement to get the public, quite literally, onboard.

It’s common in smaller cities to find businesses and populations concentrated in one main area. This can create unique economic conditions that allow new ideas, industries and technologies to flourish quickly and effectively. The organizational structure of small city governments can also help quicken adoption and implementation of new technologies or systems, as there are fewer people and departments to work through, and, in some cases, the same people might be responsible for several functions.

Smaller cities and populations are also more willing to participate in new programs to attract investment and economic development. A main goal for implementing smart technology in smaller populations is to improve citizen satisfaction. While more robust cities may receive investment because of their larger population, a smaller city’s economic growth and stability is directly tied to the happiness of its population. This focus on quality of life and increased visibility has led small cities, such as Reading and Lancaster, Pa., to participate in new transit advances with an impressive success rate -- proving that smart technologies can help even smaller cities achieve their goals.

When looking into the types of technology to implement first, many cities are drawn to tools that address problems they are currently facing. Mobile ticketing and mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) platforms can solve many challenges that have arisen during the pandemic as well as existing problems. Contactless technology can reduce physical exposure, increasing the safety of transit workers and riders, and mobile ticketing can increase ridership, cutting the city’s carbon footprint by decreasing the number of personal vehicles on the road.

Transit agencies can also cut spending by eliminating the purchase and maintenance of cash fareboxes, a costly piece of equipment that requires regular upkeep and maintenance. By using simple and affordable electronic validators to collect fares instead, authorities can address three areas at once: electronic fare validation, GPS vehicle location and insights into ridership and service use. This solution also provides benefits to passengers, especially those who travel with multiple modes of transit. Having a one-stop shop for all mobility options in a city -- whether it’s to purchase a parking ticket, bus fare, time on an e-scooter or a journey with a ridesharing services -- makes it much easier to travel and can incentivize more people to use public transit in the first place.

Mobile ticketing and contactless fare collection systems can help small cities and transit authorities gain real-time insights into their transit routes and schedules to help optimize operations. For instance, seeing there are many recurring riders on one specific route enables transit depots to deploy a larger vehicle for that time of day, or if a route is barely being used by the travelling public, authorities will know they can reduce the frequency of service in the area and allocate those resources elsewhere.

Another benefit is learning how people travel from one point to another. With a MaaS platform, cities can see how residents use public transit, if they also use a ride-share service for the first and last mile and if they use an e-scooter to travel a few blocks. This combined data provides a holistic picture of travel patterns in and around the city and can help to identify missing connections or the need for new stops or routes in a public transit system.

Taking this up a level, cities can also gain insight into road usage and traffic patterns. For example, knowing that a large number of commuters arrive at a park-and-ride facility at 4:30 p.m. every Thursday can enable the city to better manage traffic lights in the area to avoid congestion. Similarly, seeing a large number of people using e-scooters on Main Street at 8:00 am can help prioritize traffic flow to limit potential conflicts between pedestrians, e-scooter users and vehicles.

This past year, the integration of smart technologies into cities has pivoted from a wish list item to a vital need. With the pandemic as a catalyst, small and medium sized cities have shown their desire for accommodating new transit technology. Recent projects have demonstrated that less infrastructure, smaller populations and less-integrated city functions are the perfect launchpad for a successful execution of public transportation technology. Not only is the adoption of smart technologies becoming increasingly easier with the rise of dedicated services, the benefits of smart technologies in public transportation are becoming harder to ignore. Mobile ticketing and MaaS platforms can improve quality of ridership, increase revenue, improve environmental conditions, increase accessibility in low-income areas and, overall, provide cities with tools needed for a stress-free and flourishing future.

About the Author

Miroslav Katsarov is the CEO of Modeshift.

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