Can Technology Make Public Transit More Alluring?

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Would they get out of their cars if they could surf the Web on the bus?

A recent article in USA Today looks at technological fixes for environmental problems — including traffic — caused by America’s exploding consumption of resources.

The USA is growing more rapidly than any other developed nation and is
projected to gain another 100 million people by 2040. That will put new
pressure on a public infrastructure that’s already stretched thin….At
today’s consumption rates, the nation will need another 280,000 miles
of highway, and 78 million more cars and trucks will jam roads by 2040,

according to the Federal Highway Administration and the Center for
Environment and Population, a non-profit research and policy group in
New Canaan, Conn.

Measures aimed at reducing traffic include some predictable technology designed to speed drivers. But some communities are actually trying to lure customers onto public transit with high-tech infrastructure:

The Utah Transit Authority, which manages public transportation in the Salt Lake City area, is testing electronic wireless credit and debit cards on 44 buses. Credit cards can be waved in front of a machine to pay fares. There’s no fishing in your pocket for change, no need to swipe a card and wait for approval. Using the "contactless" cards can save up to one minute per passenger who would normally pay cash. About 135,000 residents in the six counties the Utah authority serves — or about 3% of the area’s population — use public transit each day. The agency hopes to boost ridership 7% a year.

The American Public Transportation Association says a key to getting more people out of their cars and onto buses and trains is to expand bus and rail systems and make them quick and convenient to use. Buses and trains increasingly are being equipped with global positioning system devices. They help pinpoint underused and congested routes and enable agencies to map routes and draft more precise timetables for riders.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen transit systems from Pompano Beach, Fla., to Reno are offering Wi-Fi access on buses and trains to attract commuters who want to surf the Internet on their way to work.

Houston TranStar, a group of transportation agencies in the Houston area, this summer will try to speed up bus and rail fare payments by replacing more than 60 current ways to pay fares (monthly passes, visitor passes, student passes, senior passes, etc.) with three: cash, the smart "Q Card" and "Metro Money," a temporary smart card that can be purchased in stores. Smart cards are swiped at stations or on buses and the fare is automatically deducted from a rider’s prepaid account.

Whether such innovations will get more people to ride trains and buses is unclear. "You’re going to have to see gasoline go over $10 a gallon," Daniels says.

Photo: Stromo via flickr 

  • janis

    The MTA is already experimenting with that in NYC. Citibank paid to install smart card readers that accept PayPass on the Lexington Avenue line. The subway can also be paid for by cellphones with embedded chips.

  • Charlie D.

    The MBTA in the Boston area recently upgraded their entire fare collection system across the subway and buses (commuter rail is in progress) to a contactless smart card technology. Using a CharlieCard, riders just tap it at a faregate or farebox to pay the fare. A CharlieCard can hold a combination of cash value and passes (weekly, monthly, etc). It has GREATLY decreased boarding times, especially on buses, as most riders have one of these cards and no longer need to fish for change or try to stuff dollar bills into the fareboxes.

  • Professor Daniels says that gasoline is going to have to go over $10 a gallon for people to switch to transit. But the price of gas isn’t the first consideration for most people. The much more important factors are speed, convenience, comfort and safety. Status and image play a role, too, and that’s where marketing comes in.

    The Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s latest report was released today: Valuing Transit Service Quality Improvements. Todd Litman writes,

    Comfort and convenience significantly influence transportation decisions. … Yet, planners lack guidance for evaluating such factors. This leads to underinvestment in transport comfort and convenience for modes that depend on public support, such as walking, cycling and public transit.

    This report identifies ways to account for qualitative factors in transport project evaluation by adjusting travel time values to reflect comfort and convenience. This can help identify innovative solutions to problems such as traffic congestion, and increases support for alternative modes, which tends to achieve both equity objectives and increased economic efficiency.

    Litman develops an illustrative example showing that transit service impovements have the best cost/benefit ratio by far, compared to highway expansion or even to new transit lanes.

  • P

    gasoline is going to have to go over $10 a gallon for people to switch to transit.

    Having drivers pay for the true cost of parking would get to that point faster. The value of the parking required for each automobile trip is much higher than the value of the gasoline- even at recent higher prices.

  • d

    P, that might be true in places like New York or Boston where street parking is scarce and private lots are expensive, but in places like Atlanta or LA, where businesses have on-site, off-street parking lots, there is no real cost of parking. In those cities, it would take tolls and high gas prices to get people to switch to mass transit.

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