Five transit topics to watch in 2020

Jan. 2, 2020
New year, new projects, new challenges, new stories; here are the five topics the editors of Mass Transit will be following closely throughout the year.

The upcoming year will bring its share of new bus and rail line openings, new procurements that will be celebrated and legislative challenges and wins. When we pull back at a macro level, here are the five topics we believe hold great potential for the industry in 2020.

1. Integrated Mobility

It’s not simply a buzzy term seen in the tag line of Mass Transit or a pie-in-the-sky goal discussed at conferences. As a concept, a seamless transportation experience is a no-brainer win for all involved; as an executable goal, it’s much more complex. However, the idea of integrated mobility, how to deliver it and the path between the two are all maturing.

On a call in December with journalists discussing the upcoming year in transportation, American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President and CEO Paul Skoutelas relayed that he is pleased with how transit agencies have responded to the mobility challenge, noting that they want to be part of the solution. He pointed to the uptick in bus route redesign as an example of this in action.

Work being performed on the agency side, as well as the supplier/contractor side is expected to bring more stories in 2020 of different transportation providers collaborating on various platforms to deliver mobility solutions.

2. Rapid Development of Technology

Mobile apps became more common place among transit providers in 2019 and we expect this trend to continue, as well as expand in scope of app capabilities, such as the continued integration of first/last-mile solutions, fare-capping, increased adoption of gamification features and improved customer communication.

As transit agencies become more connected to their riders through apps, vehicles are expected to become more connected to other vehicles and municipal communication networks. These connections should deliver better movement of vehicles and people around cities, as well as improved safety.

These new connections also provide the foundation for expanded autonomous vehicle development. There are many autonomous demonstration projects in operation and one of interest is set to begin in Scotland where a fleet of five full-size driverless buses will operate on a 14-mile route.

All of the above is made possible through data. We expect the industry to further enhance what data is collected and used to better serve riders, improve service plans and find efficiencies in maintenance practices.

On one last note, Dec. 31, 2020, is the deadline where all eligible railroads must have Positive Train Control (PTC) implemented. The safety overlay system is a complex technological feat and while many commuter rail providers lagged in initial progress, it is anticipated all will meet the end of the year deadline.

3. Social Responsibilities of Transit Providers

Providing a service designed for everyone can mean societal challenges morph into transit challenges. Some of those darker challenges, such as homelessness and human trafficking, are not new, but recent efforts have brought a new approach to providing solutions on transit property. Transit agencies have been more proactive in training employees to spot the signs of human trafficking and in 2019, the Federal Transit Administration launched a Human Trafficking Awareness and Public Safety Initiative, which included making $4 million in funding available for safety initiatives. Agencies have also changed their approach regarding the issue of homelessness, such as in New York City where a pilot program looked to try intervention practices rather than punitive ones.

Tackling mobility gaps and access equity also falls into the category of transit social responsibility. And a recent topic to rise toward the end of 2019 is the debate of fare-free transit. While many agencies have worked to provide free fares for students, some have taken the steps to pilot a fare free model, which some see as a point of no return.  

4. Transit’s Greening Future

In 2019, Mass Transit published nearly 150 stories concerning zero-emission buses compared to 34 stories covering gas, diesel or CNG vehicles. Zero-emission buses make up a relatively small percentage of all transit vehicles in operation, but as a report from CALSTART found in October, they are being adopted at a healthy pace. Additionally, there are robust grant programs at both the state and federal level that can limit the risk transit agencies expose themselves to with a technology that has not reached its full potential.

In Canada, the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration and Integration Trial, led by the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, launched in 2018 and saw progress through 2019 with funding commitments from the governments of Canada and Ontario.

Transit’s greening future isn’t limited to fleets. In December 2019, TriMet released a plan consisting of eight actions designed to reduce the agency’s carbon footprint. The plan set a new milestone for how a transit agency could integrate sustainable initiatives throughout the organization and included everything from converting the MAX light-rail system to wind power to only procuring zero-emission buses after 2025 to applying a carbon lens to big decisions.

Additionally, the focus on transit-oriented developments is a plus for transit providers, municipalities and the environment.

5. Legislative Landscape in the U.S.

Any presidential election cycle is considered a big election year, but 2020 will keep the focus on the nation’s capital for many reasons. In November, the United States will be deciding 35 of the 100 Senate seats, all 435 House of Representatives seats and the presidency. While potential transit-focused ballot measures are still developing in municipalities across the country, the question will be if those measures put to the electorate this year can meet the high passage rate of 80 percent seen in 2019. 

Surface transportation reauthorization will also be a hot topic this year with the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act set to expire Sept. 30, 2020. APTA is hoping whatever new bill is proposed is one that contains significant new investment for transit, including ways to encourage agencies to experiment with new technology and tackle the State of Good Repair backlog. As was the case in 2019 where the year began amid a government shutdown, 2020 is beginning with an impeachment in the House and a looming trial in the Senate, which is guaranteed to bring tumult to the news cycle. The challenge will be keeping the focus of elected officials. 

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Editor in Chief

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the magazine’s editorial direction 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.