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4 tips to strengthen public transportation in a Post COVID-19 World

George Mulhern

Mass transit experts believe connected technologies can help this critical public service not just rebound, but thrive

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed countless aspects of our communities. One of the sectors hit especially hard is mass transit. Ridership and fare revenues have plummeted by more than 90 percent. While relief funds will address some of the short-term needs, the long-term health, and sustainability of the public transit system remains fragile.

As the pandemic continues and we settle into a new normal, public transit systems will have to get creative to stay safe, solvent and dependable for the millions that rely on it. Public transportation simply doesn’t have the option to go out of business. It won’t be easy, but technology can help it maintain its role as a critical public service.

Today, Cradlepoint partners with nine of the 10 largest transit agencies in the U.S., and we’re working closely to find new ways that tech can help to respond to these new challenges. We gathered a panel of academics, government officials and technology experts to discuss the challenges and innovative solutions issues that should be top of mind for transit agencies. As we continue to find ways to address the impacts of COVID-19, I wanted to share the top 4 recommendations from our panel of experts.

Build Safety and Trust

Agencies today are faced with a new reality based on one core concept: Ridership is at an all-time low and has taken revenue with it, but the riders that remain are largely essential workers whose health and safety need to be protected.

“We are going to have to focus on who really needs those services first and foremost,” said Dr. Susan Shaheen, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley. “And focus on making sure they are getting the types of transportation services they need to get to jobs, to get healthcare, to get to critical education.”

But mass transportation is a vital part of everyday life for everyone — not just those deemed essential. “Directly or indirectly, transit is also an essential service for all of us who shop at a grocery store, receive deliveries, eat at restaurants and so on, so the actual impact is beyond those who solely rely on transit for their own lives,” said Lori Pepper, Deputy Secretary, Innovative Mobility Solutions, California State Transportation Agency.

This biggest challenge for transit agencies during COVID-19 is keeping riders and workers safe and, slightly longer term, rebuilding trust in mass transit. The cramped and crowded nature of many transportation systems has made riders hesitant to jump back on board. Though the association between the virus and public transportation has so far proven to be more fear-based than reality, agencies need to work to restore trust with riders and workers. To Dr. Shaheen, the central question to focus on is “how can we get people back on to public transit and feeling good about high occupancy vehicle travel?”

Tap into the Power of Connectivity

What is going to help riders and workers feel more comfortable now and in the future? Connectivity. “Connectivity is the core requirement for concepts that could provide additional use cases for transit or potentially new revenue streams apart from ridership,” said Pepper. She highlighted a project where the City of Sacramento worked with Cradlepoint and others in the industry to turn transit buses into mobile hotspots to serve under-connected communities during the pandemic. With connectivity, buses evolved into more than just a transportation vehicle. They allowed communities to access things like e-learning and information about shelter-in-place orders.

Connectivity also allows transit systems to provide rider counts and reserve seats with social distancing in mind. If the bus coming next is full, there is always the opportunity to choose another one that has more room. Some agencies have started experimenting with pods on public transportation. And data from fare cards has already been tapped for contract tracing.

Get Creative New Business Models

As agencies are grappling with the reality of decreased ridership fees, new business models are needed. Ridership won’t be at pre-pandemic levels for a while (if ever). Agencies simply cannot depend on that revenue to carry them. Here too, connectivity is a cornerstone in new and innovative revenue streams, and agencies can use existing technology to boost revenue.

For example, a bus that has connected digital signage with GPS capability can offer ads for McDonald’s to its riders as it pulls up to a stop adjacent to that big golden arch. Another option is to use the surveillance cameras that most transit agencies have deployed for driver and passenger safety to save money by protecting the agencies from frivolous lawsuits.

Rethink Data Management

This public transportation evolution all comes down to data to Stan Lowe, Global Chief Information Security Officer at Zscaler. “In order to provide good management and good service you need access to data. In order to have access to that data you are going to need to install technology into your fleet into your buses, into your trains, into your taxi cabs,” he notes.

This flood of data will also force a change in how we think about cybersecurity. “A lot of people use mass transport, and it’s important that we change our mentality of how we think of securing this data and securing this technology,” said Lowe. Instead of focusing on building walls around enclaves of data, security now needs to think about how to protect that data at the point of access.

For many agencies, there isn’t the option to hire and train experts to manage this influx of data from new solutions. Instead, look for a cloud solution. The cloud makes it so one person can manage systems from a computer instead of sending someone out into the field to troubleshoot. A highly reliable solution that’s easy to manage will help to deliver the uptime and customer experience you are looking for.

COVID-19 has been a shock to the public transportation system. Many of us have had to scramble to come up with solutions, and many agencies that were struggling before are in dire straits. But in these immense challenges, there are opportunities. COVID-19 has forced the acceleration of much needed trends and offers us a chance to make transit better, more solvent, sustainable and community oriented. The pandemic won’t last forever, and the things we implement today can also help to provide a much better service in the future.

Explore more public transit insights by watching the on-demand version of our virtual event: Public Transportation in a Post COVID-19 World.

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