3 ways to improve public transportation with technology

Author: Rose de Fremery

Date published: January 8, 2024

When it is thriving and healthy, public transportation can serve as an economic driver for an entire region. According to the American Public Transportation Association, long-term investment in public transit generates a 5-to-1 economic return. Accordingly, state, city and local governments are always considering ways to improve public transportation and boost ridership.

Technology can play a valuable role where this is concerned, enabling governments to enhance the services they provide and compete more effectively with alternative modes of transportation. Now that increased funding for public transportation is available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), governments have a unique opportunity to make timely investments that will have a transformative impact on the communities they serve and help enhance existing infrastructure with the right connectivity. 

Discover ways to improve public transportation with technology

According to an article by Government Technology Insider, “For local and state agencies, the focus needs to be placed on the network to guarantee continuous operations.” Public transportation technology, like IoT sensors, smart cameras, LiDAR, and others, can help governments improve public transit in several ways. Security innovations like near real-time response analytics make it easier for public transportation and public safety authorities to keep their transit systems safe and secure, while convenient mobile apps streamline trips and enable contactless digital payments. All of these advancements make public transportation more attractive to potential riders who might otherwise opt for other modes of transportation or simply stay home (if they have that choice). Here are 3 ways to improve public transportation when using the right network and the right technology.

1. Strengthen security

Passengers, public transportation leaders and public safety leaders are concerned about rising crime in the public transportation systems, particularly in large cities. According to a study by the Mineta Transportation Institute, the United States now ranks first among economically advanced countries when it comes to the number of attacks and fatalities on public transportation passengers and employees.

However, new public transportation technology can help improve passenger security in several ways.

  • Positive train control (PTC) continuously tracks train movements and monitors rail tracks for emerging risks, such as trains that are traveling at unsafe speeds or a mainline switch in an improper position and can help monitor and/or maintain the distance between trains. In such a scenario, the PTC can automatically trigger a train's braking system or prevent a collision with another train that is traveling on the same line.
  • Air monitoring sensors are essential to public safety in public transportation systems, especially in large cities. They can provide a crucial early warning in the event that a biological or chemical attack is underway, helping public transit systems, public safety officials, public health officials and first responders marshal a prompt response that increases the chances of saving lives.
  • Real-time response systems bring together data from a wide range of sources and technologies—such as computer-aided dispatch, video sensors, record management systems and third-party databases—to provide a holistic view of the safety and security conditions across a public transportation system at any given moment. They give public transit and public safety leaders crucial situational awareness to make timely decisions about potential threats. Real-time response systems also support better interagency collaboration, which also makes it possible to organize a prompt response when needed.
  • Intelligent video analytics capture high-quality video, which can then be analyzed to spot unusual or abnormal behavior and trigger alerts. Public transportation conductors can also use these kinds of analytics to find out when the vehicle is at capacity, allowing them to take the necessary measures to prioritize passenger safety in near real time.

2. Simplify trips

Ride-hailing services have made private transportation far more convenient than it used to be, allowing passengers to quickly book rides with a simple app. Public transportation systems have struggled to compete, in some cases losing riders to these services. Innovations like mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) help improve ticketing for public transportation and make it more competitive and attractive, for example, by allowing commuters to purchase one ticket that covers their entire trip instead of requiring them to purchase individual tickets for specific portions of the trip. A city in Austria has taken this concept a step further with its app, which allows users to plan, book and pay for various modes of transportation in one place. Users can see all of the transportation options available—including public transportation, ride-hailing services, taxis, bicycles and walking—and purchase tickets or book rides as needed.

3. Enable contactless digital payments

After the COVID-19 pandemic began, more businesses began implementing contactless payment solutions to keep their patrons and customers as safe as possible. Public transportation systems, for their part, are also increasingly embracing digital payment options—not just for public health reasons but also to make transit more convenient. Many bus, train and subway systems now allow passengers to pay for trips using their smartphones instead of inserting a ticket or swiping a card. For example, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) offers an app called OMNY for this purpose, while the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MTA)'s mTicket app provides similar features for commuter rail passengers in the Boston area. 

Federal funding is available to improve public transportation

State, city and local governments that are trying to figure out ways to improve public transportation have a rare opportunity to make meaningful investments in public technology through the IIJA. This once-in-a-generation federal funding opportunity provides approximately $400 billion in funding for transportation alone. The IIJA's objective is to support transformational projects that make the nation's transportation systems safer and more resilient, and public transit is included in the use cases that are eligible for funding. Public transit authorities may wish to pursue IIJA funding to improve safety, accessibility and convenience across the services they offer.

Public transportation technology can help make trips safer and smoother

Public transportation systems are at a pivotal moment. It's important to understand how to improve public transportation. Having suffered a precipitous decline in ridership at earlier stages of the pandemic while also losing customers to ride-hailing services in some cases, these vital drivers of economic growth have been looking for effective ways to boost ridership and improve service. Public transportation technology offers several routes for accomplishing these goals.

For example, public transit authorities can use innovative solutions like intelligent video analytics to improve safety and security for passengers, increasing the likelihood that they will feel comfortable using public transportation. They can also pursue enhancements such as apps that provide a comprehensive view of all transportation options available, allowing users to plan complete trips using multiple modes of transportation from within a single interface. Federal funding from the IIJA can help make all of these improvements possible, ultimately benefiting the riders on which these public transportation systems depend.

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The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.