The latest figures from the National Transit Database report that from the onset of COVID (between February 2020 and November 2020), the number of public transit users in the United States fell by 62 percent, or 482 million rides. While some agencies are focusing on screen dividers and regular sanitation to protect staff and riders, many are looking to contactless technology to facilitate distancing and remove the need for physical cash and fare collection.
With many industries pivoting during the pandemic to offer distanced, virtual and touch-free services, physical interactions have become something to avoid where possible. The apprehension to use physical money is warranted as researchers have found flu viruses can survive on bank notes for almost 17 days, and the act of passing over money makes social distancing very challenging. With many reasons, both internal and external, to shift away from the physical collection of cash and fares on public transit, the door has been opened to digitally transform the industry.
As safety is now the number one concern for almost all public transit agencies, several, such as Lancaster and Reading PA, have already made the move to address this concern by adopting mobile ticketing and fare collection. This isn’t dissimilar to what we’re seeing in other industries too. In fact, contactless payments are already present in healthcare, retail and food services, and now two out of three consumers would prefer to buy from businesses that offer contactless payments instead of using physical cash.
With adoption rates of contactless technology soaring, public transit riders now expect the option to pay with their mobiles on the bus as they would in any grocery store. Not only does this alleviate hygienic concerns for riders, public transit agencies have much to gain too. Research has shown that implementing more convenient and tech savvy services are an effective way to introduce younger generations to public transportation. In this way, transitioning to contactless technology can satisfy everyday passengers while also attracting a new group of riders.
Although it may seem that pandemic pressures are forcing the hand of public transit to make rapid changes, there are also a vast number of benefits that come from adopting this smart technology. For one, it opens the door to integrating other modal options such as e-scooters, rail, and even parking, creating a one-stop shop for all mobility needs. This technology can also dramatically reduce costs for transit agencies by removing the need for cash fareboxes which require regular maintenance and lack real-time data insights.
Removing these boxes and replacing them with electronic fare validators allow public transit agencies to gain insight into their ridership patterns. They can also use this data to determine which new routes should be created based on rider demand, or even which ones should be removed based on total ridership. This system also provides location tracking for the public transit vehicle and can be used to update schedules in real-time and provide riders with estimated arrival times for their journeys.
In addition, the system can help riders plan their trip from point A to B, offering different routes, and if integrated, different mobility options to get them where they need to go. While it may seem like an unapproachable task at first, digital transformation can be exactly what the public transportation industry needs to bring riders back onboard.
The pandemic came as a shock to all, and for public transit it completely upended the industry. While this disruption has caused significant shortfalls in revenue for agencies, it has also catalyzed the demand for contactless fare collection. Now, there are opportunities to bring about significant changes on public transit, ultimately reducing costs for agencies operating the vehicles, while increasing the functionality and accessibility for users. Digital transformation in the industry should no longer be a question of why, but a question of when.