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.

Shifting from Transit to Mobility

To develop sustainable, equitable and livable communities, the transportation industry is moving away from a segmented view of the market to an integrated model. But where do we start?

Weekend trip in Milan? Nice. Upon arrival, you take the metro to your accommodation that you booked in a quiet residential area, to get away from other tourists. You settle for a 4-day public transport pass that’s valid for all public transport in Milan. Based on a local’s tip, you decide to make a daytrip to Como Lake. Wanting to use sustainable mobility options, you hop on a train at the central station of Milan. To your bewilderment, it turns out on the train that your 4-day pass covers all modes, except the regional train. And somehow, you were supposed to know that.

Happen to be in London? Got a busy agenda, moving around a lot? You just used your contactless bank card on the Tube, easy-peasy. Now, you want to stick to sustainable mobility modes for the rest of your journey. Great, you launch Google Maps and select Santander Cycles. Oh, you need to download an app, create an account and provide all your payment information. Ok, never mind. Maybe a shared e-scooter? At least it’s electric. You select Lime. Oh, you need to download an app again and go through the same process… hmm. Then let’s just hail a black cab and hope that you can pay for the ride with your bank card.

Currently based in San Francisco and travelling to Sacramento and Monterey for business? You’re already used to carrying a stack of transit cards for each of these regions, they’re all in your wallet. While having your breakfast, you are trying to remember whether you have enough balance on your transit cards after your last trip, or if you need to leave your home 10 minutes early to have time to top them up. You booked 2 hours of admin time in your calendar at the end of the month to arrange reimbursement for all your trips. Meanwhile, you can’t stop thinking about why this has to be so complicated? Why can’t you just simply link your trip expenses to your projects directly, as you do when using Uber?

These are mobility stories that sound all too familiar and share the same trait: a painfully segmented mobility experience by mode, geography, authority, or public and private operator. To develop future-proof mobility systems that make choosing sustainable options easy and contribute to a more equitable society, we need to establish a holistic view of the integrated mobility ecosystem. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

For customers, this means the ability to seamlessly switch between different modes of travel and have sustainable mobility options at their fingertips. Over the past year, we’ve seen promising developments emerging such as:

  • California is ensuring interoperability across transit agencies statewide without the need for one central fare collection system by enabling contactless open fare payment systems.
  • Universal basic mobility pilots in the U.S. have been launched with the goal of understanding how having a minimum guaranteed level of transportation could change the economic and social aspects of a person’s life for the better. 
  • London aims at altering its residents’ driving behavior by extending the city’s Ultra-low Emission Zone. By doing so, London visibly changed people’s mobility choices: in the week following the expansion, shared e-scooter companies noticed a 30% increase in the use of their vehicles.
  • The largest public transport operators in the Netherlands decided to organize a nationwide ecosystem for Mobility-as-a-Service, instead of only launching their own applications. The RiVier platform will connect any mobility provider with MaaS provider who play by the rules of the platform.
  • Paris recognized that to make people use their bikes instead of their cars, the infrastructure supporting these modes must give the same level of confidence to people and must ensure people can get from A to B, no matter where they are. Therefore, Paris is committed to making the city 100% bikeable.

These regions are making a serious effort to develop mobility systems that serve sustainable, equitable and livable communities, and continuing to explore options to align incentives to make it work. Learnings from other industries show that only those ecosystems are sustainable in which all parties are benefiting from participation. These ecosystems are characterized by a well-defined governance structure, clear interfaces, and viable business models and rules. The regions that will be able to organize for such mobility ecosystems are expected to show the way forward.

The jury is still out on who is going to crack the problem first, but it’s clear that the governance of mobility is crucial to enable such developments. Will it be a need for changes in mandates? Or in organizational structures? Will governments need to alter their way of collaboration with the private sector? Or the type of talent they employ?