Smart Technology Can Help Us Fight Public Transport Inequality

Smart Technology Can Help Us Fight Public Transport Inequality

Social inequality presents itself in many ways – housing inequality, healthy food access inequality, and healthcare inequality just to name a few. One of the most painful ways is the inability of city authorities to give their citizens adequate public transit options. Depriving underprivileged groups of transit is not only reflected in their poorer access to means to get from A to B, but also in slower economy and less business development in whole areas. What can be done to solve public transport inequality and provide underserved riders with adequate, sustainable choices? Let’s find out. 

What are the challenges? 

Low-income and underprivileged populations face a multitude of challenges when they must move from A to B.  

  • Walking: the cheapest, yet not the preferable option due to the lack of sidewalks, vacant homes, lack of pedestrian crossings and more issues making walking unsafe 
  • Biking: many low-income areas lack adequate bicycle infrastructure; people report incompatibility of their work attire with biking 
  • Driving: prohibitive costs associated with car ownership and maintenance 
  • Ride-sharing: racial discrimination, barriers associated with trust in strangers and/or technology 
  • Public transportation: unreliable service 

It is obvious that these populations encounter a unique set of obstacles that leave them with almost no viable transportation options. Historically, it has been particularly important to devise a public transit strategy that can help regain their trust and provide an adequate solution no matter the personal circumstances. A strategy we are yet to see. 

Transit authorities need to overcome decades-long policies that favored the use of personal vehicles such as single-use zoning and disinvestment in public transit. It is now time to move forward and create a better transit industry for everyone – most importantly, for those who need it the most. 

A lasting impact on public transport inequality

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for the need to change many social policies. Public transit was hit hard and while in most cities a pared-down service remained in place for essential workers, most agencies had to shut down lines and introduce fare-free policies. Pandemic relief in the form of the CARES Act will certainly have a lasting impact on their operations. One of the best ways to make use of the funding is to invest in a robust digital infrastructure, necessitated by both the need for contactless options and the need for more, and more precise, data. 

Many cities were already on their way toward implementing more equitable policies before the pandemic. Detroit, where many people from the predominantly black community could not afford a car, had implemented night service as well as Lyft vouchers to make the journey home safer. This is not the only good example, but it is also not a part of a bigger strategy on how to tackle problems in underserved areas. What it does is put a patch on one symptom while disregarding the underlying problem. 

We can improve access to transportation and move towards sustainability at the same time 

Public transportation has also received renewed attention in connection to its sustainability. With a long-term strategy, public transportation can reduce air pollution and improve the mental and physical health of riders – all of this while providing them with a safe and adequate means to access jobs, education, and vital services. 

Building a better transit system for everyone

There are numerous ways in which transit agencies can up their game without relying on slow or nonexistent legislation aiming at improving housing equality or better infrastructure funding allocation. Change begins from within, right? We are firm believers that we already have many tools at our disposal to combat disparities in access to public transportation! 

Provide more ticket purchasing options to riders 

Low-income and other underprivileged groups, including black communities, have a long history of distrust in financial institutions. So, it is no surprise that they are less likely to own and use a credit card. This is why some transit agencies in areas where these groups are the majority of riders were slow to implement digital solutions. With modern account-based fare collection systems, access to fares becomes easier even for unbanked people.  

Rider accounts can be connected to a variety of fare media – including smartphones and smart cards, and then topped up using cash at ticket windows or at 3rd party vendors. In this way, underprivileged people can have better access to better fare products. 

Data: show patterns of use that can help better allocate resources/buses 

With a robust digital mobility infrastructure, transit agencies can collect and analyze pools of data that were impossible even a few years ago. This includes not only transaction data from online purchases, but also from cash purchases at the ticket windows and even from fareboxes! Another important data stream is validations – agencies can decide to use single tap validations or a check-in/check-out model for even more in-depth information about their riders’ habits.  

What can be done with data, you ask?  

  • Improve access to the most needed types of top-up options in areas with underprivileged groups: TVMs, 3rd party vendors, and ticket windows. 
  • Enhance digital products via targeted marketing campaigns in areas where their use is lowest. 
  • Design better routes. 
  • Design better schedules. 
  • Deploy more buses in peak hours based on real-time validation data. 
  • Why not even ask for riders’ opinions in-app? 

All data is processed anonymously and according to the strictest data privacy protocols. 

Flexible fares: fare capping can help people manage their public transit finances better 

Fare capping is one of the best ways to improve access to public transit for low-income commuters. Monthly or weekly passes are expensive and pose a barrier to riders who cannot afford to pay upfront, leaving them paying disproportionately more than other groups. With fare capping, they get the best fares possible even if they can only pay as they go. 

Another type of fare policy that can help reduce inequality is to provide flexible, time or distance-based options – especially in areas where riders need to make several transfers. In this way, they can be sure they are paying the best fare possible each time they ride. 

Enhance safety: real-time passenger information can reduce the time people spend at bus stops 

Real-time passenger information (RTPI) can provide riders with valuable data that can save them time and help them plan their day better. RTPI data can be pushed to mobile applications, web portals and digital signage and offers riders both convenience and safety because they no longer need to stay at the bus stop for prolonged periods of time. 

MaaS: enhance access to first mile/last mile options 

During the past two years, many micromobility and shared mobility providers had to pull out of lower-income areas (where they were underrepresented even before the pandemic). This took away another layer of options from people who desperately needed them. When implemented adequately, Mobility as a Service can provide great relief to riders who suffer from inefficient routes, giving them the opportunity to better plan their commute. A unified MaaS platform that incorporates all modes in a city will also be able to provide better-combined fares (best-fare policies and fare capping). 

Are we there yet? 

To put it briefly, no – we are not even close. But as agencies wake up from the pandemic nightmare, they are beginning to realize that if public transit has a place in the future, it must be inclusive in ways that were not possible before. Through digitalization, we can help them reach more riders today.