Keeping London at the forefront of global business
working with and for the whole UK
Mind the gap: the future of mass transit systems
23 July 2020
As coronavirus-related government restrictions ease, social distancing requirements pose enormous challenges for the operators of mass transit systems, many of whom have also seen a huge drop in farebox revenue. Given the critical importance of public transport in cities, AECOM’s Veronica Siranosian and Joe Seymour say proactive action is needed to support its long-term resiliency.
Transit agencies across the world are facing unprecedented challenges due to coronavirus. Operators must schedule for new and uncertain travel demand while winning back riders and getting them to where they need to go, safely. That’s no easy task given that most mass transit systems were designed in direct opposition to the tenets of social distancing. Typically, transit operators’ mandates are to increase ridership by moving people as efficiently and compactly as possible. This challenge is coupled with the related issue of the financial sustainability of those transit agencies given the drastic falls in ridership due to the economic shutdown and health concerns.
The role of mass transit
The stakes are high, economically, socially and environmentally. Historically, the development of cities has been intertwined with the development of their mass transit systems. For dense urban centers to recover, they will need public transport systems to be sustained and kept healthy. There are important equity considerations too: without public transportation, many will be simply shut out of opportunities. The societal and equity costs of inaction are too high.
As transit agencies develop plans to shape a safe return, there are several important considerations:
Understanding and responding to passenger needs is critical. Traditional approaches to service planning using travel demand models do not accurately depict riders’ needs during this unpredictable time. Near-real time data can be leveraged and combined with scenario planning tools such as AECOM’s Mobiliticsthat allow transit operators to make faster and better-informed decisions on where service is needed most, while respecting the rights of privacy of individuals.
Integrated technology solutions. Agencies will have to build upon their existing systems and integrate new solutions to manage safety and a quality experience. Many of the technologies and solutions already exist and can be leveraged, such as automatic passenger counting, cameras, and touchless fare payment systems. However, an integrated and intelligent solution such as AECOM’s Transportation Resilient Integrated Passenger Solution (TRIPS) can make this process easier to manage and safer.
Finally, there is an opportunity to rethink the allocation of space in cities. With fewer vehicles on the streets, Transport for London (TfL) and several other cities across the UK and Ireland have commissioned AECOM to engineer temporary cycle lanes to support flexible and dynamic use of infrastructure to enable social distancing, use of active transportation and reduce pressure on public transit systems. If cities jump on this now, before cars come back, there is an opportunity to both make the way we travel more sustainable and equitable, while simultaneously improving the quality of urban life.
We don’t know what the demands on future mass transit systems will be, but if we act now, we have an opportunity to shape them. Transit authorities should take this opportunity to consider different potential scenarios of what the future could look like in order to inform policies, investments, and services today.
Using scenario planning and near real-time big data to dynamically understand and react quickly to our fast-changing world, new technologies offer the opportunity to enhance transit’s critical role of providing a safe, efficient, sustainable and equitable service. The future health of our cities – economically, socially and environmentally – depends upon it.