What Will Transit and Mobility Look Like After the COVID-19 Crisis?

April 23, 2020
There is a great opportunity for transit agencies to embrace new technologies and new approaches to improve customer experience.

Public transit agencies’ focus on the customer experience can slip with competing priorities during normal times.

In many cases, they don’t have to be focused on customer experience: they hold the exclusive right to serve a particular urban center or region, and people without a car who need to get from point A to point B have little choice but to use their service – regardless of whether the buses or trains periodically run late, arrive in a less-than-clean condition or otherwise provide a suboptimal experience.

The COVID-19 crisis, however, has brought these agencies and operators the unimaginable: almost no customers. Witness New York City, which has seen ridership levels on its subways and commuter rail lines drop by as much as 90 percent. These numbers paint a bleak picture for transit agencies and operators.

The numbers also paint a bleak picture for any city that wants to chart a sustainable path forward. While other modes of transport are certainly available – taxis, car sharing services and bicycles come to mind – these are not a complete solution. Bicycles are impractical for many types of trips or weather conditions and not everyone can afford a taxi or car service – not to mention the fact that too many cars on the road leads to increased traffic congestion.

And this congestion is no small matter. In the United Kingdom, for example, air pollution from vehicles is estimated to cost nearly £6 billion (US$7.47 billion) in health bills every year. Ultimately, a sustainable city depends on people using mass transit services.

So, how will the agencies and operators convince people to get back onto their trains and buses and ferries in this new era?

Going Digital to Outsmart the Virus and Win Back the Customer

In the midst of the distress and disruption the COVID-19 crisis has created, there is a great opportunity for transit agencies to pause, rethink the way they’ve been doing things, and embrace new technologies and new approaches that will not only create a better customer experience, but allow them to safely navigate the COVID-19 crisis and emerge stronger than before.

One of the first things agencies need to do is to start making better use of data. By collecting and leveraging real time data about their operations, they can start to address the primary concerns of their customers, so that they feel comfortable embracing transit again.

For example, if I’m a bus rider, I might not want to hop on a crowded bus in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis because it would not allow for the proper amount of social distancing between passengers. But what if the transit agency was clever enough to know both when people got on their bus, as well as when they got off – and they were able to share that information in real time? I, as a bus rider, would know that the next arriving bus was only 1/2 full – and that it would offer enough space to ride while keeping a safe distance from other passengers.

Better yet, the agency could keep a tab on how full buses were on a particular route, and make adjustments in real time. For example, sending a longer or higher capacity bus to a route that had been filling up faster than expected, or increasing the frequency of buses on a line to ensure social distancing guidelines could be met. Likewise, the agency might ensure a bus is taken out of service to be cleaned or disinfected once a certain threshold of passengers has been reached.

Gathering this type of data requires new ticketing systems that are primarily digital and software based (think: apps on mobile devices or online ticket websites), in contrast to the hardware based systems that have long dominated mass transit (think here of physical cards or transit passes and the physical machines that read those cards).

These digital platforms – which are capable of spanning and connecting multiple modes of transportation that typically exist in fragmented silos – are the key to understanding ridership patterns and the flow of people and then making informed decisions off of that data, like the ones outlined above.

This type of digital ticketing system can also provide a safer and more pleasant ticket buying experience. Customers can purchase passes from an app on their phone or online from the safety and comfort of their desktop computer if they’re purchasing in advance. In a time when COVID-19 seems to be lurking around every corner, these purchasing scenarios are far preferable to visiting a crowded ticket office or having to use the touchscreen of a ticket vending machine.

The bottom line? Transit agencies need to start providing a vastly different kind of experience if they hope to win back customers. This focus on customer experience might not have been necessary in the past, but now in a world that has been turned upside down by COVID-19, it is essential to their survival.

The COVID-19 crisis won’t last forever, but customer expectations will permanently be altered by it. As a result, the need to use data in an intelligent manner will persist long after the virus has dissipated. Those transit agencies and operators who can harness real-time data and use it to guide their operations will be able to successfully navigate this crisis and attract ridership.


Paulo Ferreira dos Santos is the CEO of Ubirider, the developer of the Pick independent digital transportation platform.
About the Author

Paulo Ferreira dos Santos

Paulo Ferreira dos Santos is the CEO of Ubirider, the developer of the Pick independent digital transportation platform.