APTA EXPO 2021 Recap

Dec. 21, 2021
The transit industry reunited in Orlando for the association’s event to learn and strategize about what is next.

The transit industry converged in Orlando, Fla., this past November for the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) 2021 TRANSform Conference & EXPO that had attendees reflecting and celebrating transit agencies’ efforts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as drumming up excitement for the years ahead

The event, like many other in-person meetings, was delayed more than a year and underwent a location change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite these initial hurdles, APTA reports nearly 10,000 professionals were in attendance, with this being the return to in-person events for many.

“We were confident about bringing transformational change to public transportation. Never did we imagine that transformational change would be thrust upon us by a global pandemic,” APTA President and CEO Paul Skoutelas told attendees during the conference’s opening session.

Skoutelas and APTA Board of Directors Chair of the Board of Directors Jeff Nelson encouraged attendees to think about what was overcome since March 2020, with the men calling the event a "reunion and a celebration."

The overall theme focused on “What’s Next” for the industry. The timing of the event lent itself for the theme to be showcased in several ways. The industry continues its pandemic recovery efforts and as ridership has started to return on many systems, it remains reduced overall. Mobility has evolved rapidly during the past 21 months from an acceleration of contactless technologies to more on-demand micromobility deployments.

Nelson noted the industry’s willingness to embrace new mobility concepts during the pandemic will help shape the future of transit.

“Creating greater connectivity among modes, transitioning from being a service provider to a mobility manager, making transit more convenient, flexible and customer focused – these are new mobility goals that are familiar to all of us, but they will require focus and funding,” said Nelson.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal was passed two days before the show’s opening sessions and with only a presidential signature remaining before the bill became law, there was considerable buzz about what was next for the industry and the $107 billion the bill included for transit and $102 billion included for passenger rail.

“The importance of this achievement for our industry cannot be overstated,” Skoutelas told attendees of the bill’s passage. “This portends a promising future for public transportation.”

The show also saw the release a new APTA report, “On the Horizon Planning for Post-Pandemic Travel,” which offered case studies from five transit agencies’ efforts to contend with operations during the pandemic and provided recommendations to ensure equitable access to mobility during and after pandemic recovery. Those recommendations included institutionalizing best practices from the COVID-19 period; more effectively prioritizing social equity; leveraging opportunities to expand ridership and keeping abreast of changing trends.

Transit equity

Several sessions during APTA’s TRANSform Conference approached the concept of equity from different angles. The conference included seven sessions that included presentations on the subject and how it related to organizational make up, new technologies and fare collection and how to prioritize and put into action equitable service.

This fall, APTA introduced its Racial Equity Commitment Pilot Program, where member companies are provided a tangible roadmap for advancing racial equity in their own organizations and supporting communities where they operate. The pilot program asks APTA members to commit to five core principles:

1. Make racial equity an explicit strategic priority for your organization.

2. Undertake an annual diversity, equity and inclusion climate assessment of your organization on the perceived employee experience of existing policies, practices, and procedures.

3. Review and analyze demographic data covering both what is internal as well as external to an organization to develop a baseline on how existing policies, practices and programs impact racial equity.

4. Put in place evidence-informed policies, practices, programs, and processes for creating and maintaining an inclusive and equitable environment for employees and customers including identifying best practices for responding to the use of hate-related behavior/language/signs.

5. Establish programs, tools and dedicated resources that engage executive and board leadership and staff at all levels on the meaning and importance of racial equity.

Following the two-year pilot program, APTA will publish a report that will include recommendations for improving the program and the association says the success of the program will be measured in member engagement, the effectiveness of peer learning mechanisms and educational resources provided, as well as tangible racial equity outcomes based on implementation of the core principles.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) says it was the first agency to sign the pledge with PSTA CEO Brad Miller explaining the agency had focused on creating a more equitable work environment prior to the pilot program’s launch.

“We've been working on this internally over the past 15 or 16 months. We basically started our program off with three main initiatives: recruiting, promotion or workforce development and then community engagement. I'm really proud that we're pretty far along on a lot of the initiatives and I was positive about APTA doing this as a big association,” said Miller during an exclusive interview with Mass Transit.

Miller recognizes the value of measuring the impact of efforts such as the APTA Racial Equity Commitment Pilot Program, but explains this commitment to racial equity doesn’t have an end; it has a permanent place among his agency’s values.

“I want to always try to inject some new energy in it to keep it alive, to keep it at the forefront of what we do, because we're very busy providing transportation. This is important,” said Miller. “Public transportation is a key component to how our community at large addresses, race, equality and equity.”

The Show Floor

More than 700 companies had their wares on display as part of the show’s exhibition with several themes emerging: products and services will continue to become smarter and more connected and the transition to electric fleets has entered a new chapter.

On the connected technology front, new fare validators and contactless ticketing solutions, as well as intelligent tire sensors, cloud services, data transfer technology and a contactless holographic stop button designed for use on buses were among the technologies on display.

Vehicle manufacturers attending the show brought a variety of models with many being electric powered. Most were electric buses, but one rail technology to debut at the show was Siemens Mobility’s S700 streetcar. The hybrid model entered service earlier this year in Charlotte, N.C. The streetcar is designed to run wirelessly and Siemens says the hybrid battery technology offers the same sustainability benefits as when the vehicle is operating with overhead wires. While Siemens notes the Onboard Energy Storage System allows the streetcar to operate wirelessly for more than half of a mile, John Lewis, CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System where the streetcar is in service, told members of the press during a tour of the EXPO floor that the transit system has run the vehicle offer wire for five miles.

EXPO attendees also had a chance to get up close and personal with several different technologies. This included a ride in two different zero-emission autonomous vehicles—one from Perrone Robotics and one from Beep, as well as a tour of the host agency Lynx’s electric bus charging station.

APTA also highlighted exhibiting companies that qualify as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises and offered educational sessions at five Learning Zones with themes including innovation, solutions, procurement and two for hot topics.

While the APTA TRANSform Conference & EXPO is typically a triennial show, the next event will be held in two years. APTA bring the show back to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., Oct. 8-11, 2023.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.