Rethinking Flexibility in Transit

Through digital solutions, flexibility can be injected into transit. We selected three strategies that can increase the chance of successful introduction of new tools.

Uncertainty has become a key characteristic of the pandemic-era. It has forced people to delay decisions and be prepared for last minute changes to plans. Many of us even learned to enjoy the flexibility that has come with this new way of living. These behaviour changes have undoubtedly been reflected in our travel patterns and will continue to impact traditional transit operations going forward.

Flexibility can be injected into mobility services in many forms. For example, on-demand taxis serving transit deserts with low population density have emerged in rural South Korea, replacing infrequent bus services to help the elderly maintain a self-sufficient, socially active life. Similarly, on-demand buses in New York and several Canadian towns efficiently filled service gaps during hours when demand is low or unevenly distributed, such as commuting for overnight workers.

Photo by abi ismail on Unsplash

Removing the need to purchase periodic and bulk passes can also give a great deal of freedom to people when their travel or commute patterns may have significantly changed. One way to build such flexibility into fare policy is to move away from transit passes to pay-as-you-go payments with a capped max fare, like the Central Ohio Transit Authority in the U.S. did. These flexible fare policies also require less upfront (financial) commitment serving low-income riders better, too.

While digitization has been a clear trend for many years, the pandemic has accelerated the impact on mobility services around the world. Public transit agencies are pursuing new solutions to longstanding challenges to services through digital means. For example, allowing customers to use a bank card or a mobile phone with internet connection to pay their fare. Some agencies, such as several in California, are going even farther by providing people who ride transit with digital payment options that can be used not only for public transportation but for all types of payments throughout their day. Transit can become a trusted gateway for people currently left out of the digital economy by providing an entry point to financial inclusion.

In our experience, those transit agencies that have successfully launched flexible, digital solutions have adopted the following three strategies:

  1. Knowing their riders: to efficiently design, build, and launch new solutions, agencies must have a thorough knowledge of their user demographics and travel habits. In turn, digitally-driven solutions like on-demand transit and pay-as-you-go fare payments will generate a great amount of data that can be used to further advance the understanding of service usage and rider preferences. For Rebel tips on how to advance your organization’s data agenda, check out this article
  2. Piloting before big bangs: testing solutions in small scale, short term pilots create the opportunity to learn without heavy investments or risk of failure. Setting quantifiable KPIs for pilot projects and drafting initial next steps for when the pilot ends can make the difference between a successful product launch and a never-ending pilot phase.
  3. Seeking partnership with the private sector: partnerships rely on mutual interest and aligned incentives. For example, when transit agencies partner with fintech companies to offer digital payment solutions, their interests are aligned: transit agencies wish to reach more transit users, while fintech companies can extend their user base. Clear documentation of demonstration goals, learning objectives and KPIs is a must have in to order to successfully partner with the private sector.