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3 Ways Data and Analytics Can Reshape Public Transportation Post-COVID

Published: July 30, 2020

We’re in a time where data is more important than ever before. Medical testing and analytical data are quickly helping the medical community understand a unique virus, while, through contract-tracing, geolocation data is used to monitor those who have been exposed and where they’ve traveled to prevent its further spread.

For the public transportation industry, the same is true – we need the best data now in order to leverage it in making better decisions. The coronavirus pandemic has increased the urgency to find technology-driven, innovative, and sustainable initiatives to keep riders and employees safe and create more efficient, customer-centric systems. We need a mobility revolution – and it must be driven by data.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of tap-in and tap-out data during lockdown periods, and a general lack of agency data on new mobility patterns, agencies don’t have the information they need the most. While agencies do have historical figures, this pandemic has changed rider behavior and urban mobility in ways cities and agencies can’t understand through historical patterns. The habits formed during the pandemic – working from home, staying home as much as possible and avoiding public spaces, especially public transit – may take a long time to break. 

Traditionally, transit agencies have worked off of a mentality of operational excellence, with service reliability benchmarks mostly surrounding on-time performance. In pre-COVID times, this was, to some extent, working. But post-COVID, that mentality needs to shift towards serving their citizens, determining the core challenges they’re facing now and helping bridge the gaps with adapted services. 

Collectively, we need to work to shift the mindset of the general public that public transit is what keeps the world moving when the rest of the world has come to a standstill. This is where real-time ridership data and urban mobility analytics is going to play a major role in enabling agencies to properly and promptly respond to changing rider needs. 

There is hope – and there is data. Moovit has been able to continue collecting anonymous people’s movement data even during the lockdown periods, and we’ve already helped several agencies reconfigure their systems to better serve their customers’ evolving ridership needs. Together, big data and technology will help agencies detect and support the needed changes that can be further optimized, as needs evolve. 

Here are three distinct ways where having the right data will enable cities and agencies to optimize their transit systems for the post-COVID world. 

Keeping Passengers and Employees Safe

Cities and transit operators will need to work together in implementing regulations to create a safe public transportation environment. Post-lockdown periods, maintaining the safety of public transit services will be crucial in the long term to ensure citizens don’t lose faith in public transportation. 

Even during the pandemic, essential workers with no other method of transport continued riding transit. Cities quickly adapted their fleets and services to allow only essential workers, protected drivers and employees with personal protection equipment, and closed off seats to encourage social distancing. These agile responses helped protect many people who had no choice but to continue working. In the New Normal, these protections will need to go a step further, and this is where data becomes essential to doing it right. To prevent overcrowding post-COVID, some agencies are introducing pre-booking to help manage capacity. It’s a great start, but if the demand is too high that available seats are constantly booked, it may be time to look at more holistic solutions. 

Space management has become an essential need that has never truly been an issue before. As part of the safety regulations, agencies and operators can use data to improve the management of passenger flows in order to avoid excessive crowding, whether on buses, trains or in the stations serving them. With accurate, up-to-date origin and destination data and insights into where and how people are moving in your city, agencies can better understand when and where crowding may take place. In addition, having real-time information on current occupancy levels can help understand where higher-frequency routes should be implemented.  

Keeping Cities and Citizens Moving

Public transportation needs to become a more modern system that truly serves the public while finding ways to maximize revenues in order to continue innovating. 

Using high-quality public transit data, cities can now ensure their systems are optimized to meet supply and demand in real-time. On-demand solutions are far more flexible and agile in responding to emergency situations such as the COVID pandemic, and with the right technological partner, an on-demand solution can replace or supplement underperforming routes. In the Israeli city of Haifa, Egged, the national transit agency, was able to instantly change their on-demand service zones at the outset of the pandemic to help essential workers easily get to and from their workplaces. 

To discover what routes are working and which aren’t, agencies can have their system thoroughly analyzed through origin-destination matrices that detect transit gaps, whether it’s first-/last-mile issues, transit deserts, or even, as we helped First Transit in Puerto Rico discover, stations where bus service ends too early for the amount of evening demand. With that data, First Transit was able to adapt its bus service to better meet the growing demand. 

With the right data, agencies can find which services are working and which are not, and adjust accordingly. In areas where demand is found to be much lower than pre-COVID rates, for example, suburban areas where much of the workforce is now working from home, an on-demand service could serve those areas, keeping transit available to those citizens while shifting the underutilized buses to support higher demand areas. On-demand solutions offer further technological advances such as the ability to automatically manage demand, ensuring no vehicle bypasses safety regulations. 

Keeping Passengers Informed

There’s no doubt about it: Reliable public transportation empowers communities with access to more jobs and resources. Post-COVID, ensuring citizens know that they can rely on public transportation will be one of the biggest hurdles for transit agencies and operators to jump over. But real-time data and communication with riders will go a long way in convincing them to come back. 

Accurate real-time information builds trust with riders and creates a positive passenger experience. Real-time data is useful for all users, including those who don’t have other options as well as ones that do, which means it can help win back riders you may have previously lost to more convenient transit modes.

Riders want to know not only their bus or train ETA, but also how crowded the approaching vehicle is, what safety precautions are being taken, and what the mandated regulations for taking public transit are. Take at least some of the stress of their new day-to-day by keeping passengers informed through several channels. In-app notifications and pushes have proven to be a major success for agencies around the world, such as the ATAF agency in Florence, Italy. To gauge how their lockdown and post-lockdown services were working for riders, ATAF sent surveys that received at least 10x the number of responses they had expected or received before. Overnight, ATAF’s mobile app became their number one communication channel with their riders, building trust and confidence in ATAF’s service. 

 

Having the right data will enable agencies to ‘build back better’ in the post-lockdown period. The ‘New Normal’ for public transportation is moving towards a higher level of service across the board. With aggregated, anonymized rider data, cities and agencies can closely monitor mobility patterns and adapt their services accordingly.

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