Inclusive, affordable mass transit: how do we get it right?

It's not a new issue. Providing mass transit service for vulnerable, underserved populations and low-income populations is a global concern for cities that want to provide those residents with safe, affordable, convenient transit options. An interactive panel discussion featuring three transportation issues identified who those populations are (not as simple as you might think) and strategies to ensure they had the same options for affordable, convenient, safe and reliable transit service that is available to other residents. The Smart Cities Week panel discussion was a cooperative effort by panelists and audience members. You can read the results in the story below. It's a good example of what cities want to do—are doing—and why. — Doug Peeples


Who are we serving?

What are we trying to do?

Which partners can be engaged?

The questions are simple. The answers? Not so much. At least not when you're trying to identify who mass transit needs to serve if it's going to be truly inclusive and equitable to all of a city's citizens.

The three questions are summarized versions of questions Smart Cities Week panel moderator Melanie Nutter, a consultant, wrote out to kick off a discussion on how all of a city's residents can benefit from smart city transportation investments.

Panelist Charles Ramdatt, director of Smart Cities and Special Projects for the city of Orlando, made it abundantly clear that the people who could be considered "vulnerable" or "underserved" can come from a surprisingly broad spectrum of the population—far more broad than most of us would think. Disadvantaged, low-income and elderly people probably come to mind first. But Ramdatt also includes students, event patrons, tourists, largely because he considers them all to have specific needs unmet by most transit providers.

Transit ridership has fallen for some time for several reasons, including less service to outlying areas and lower quality service attributed to budget restrictions and other factors. Ridesharing and ride-hailing services are taking a large bite out of transit ridership even though those services are very new and haven't claimed a large share of the urban transportation market. And people who own personal vehicles see driving as more flexible and convenient than riding.

In that context, Ramdatt asked, "What can we do to make transit more appealing?" Among his answers to his own question were to align transit service in a way that it connects low-income people to jobs, education and entertainment. "We want to give them the same opportunities everyone else has."

Kiana Taheri, smart city coordinator for the city of Los Angeles. LA is unique. It's been ranked as the country's most congested city for the past two years. As Taheri pointed out, Angelenos spend 100 hours per year in their cars and like other cities people who use ridesharing and similar services have reduced mass transit use by 6%. Other challenges for the region's transportation network and serving all residents and visitors? There are 12 times more jobs accessible by car in less than 60 minutes than there are by transit. Add to that 13.5% of LA households have no car.

There's more for cities to worry about
Cities don't need any more challenges to their efforts to provide equitable, inclusive transit options, but they're coming anyway. Autonomous vehicles won't be on city streets in appreciable numbers anytime soon, but now would be the perfect time for cities to plan for how they'll accommodate them and fit them into their urban planning strategies. And 5G promises to be a game changer in telecommunications within the next year in many parts of the world. With those changes coming, Nutter asked "How can we work with the technology companies to prepare, and do it right?"

But there are ways to strategically solve those challenges, Nutter said. She outlined six critical elements to include in the strategy and invited comments and suggestions from the audience. In very abbreviated form, the strategy looks like this:

  • Embed equity (programs for the underserved are essential)
  • Shared assets (manage streets to accommodate transit, bikes and pedestrians—not cars)
  • Electrify vehicles (incentivize EV adoption and expand charging infrastructure)
  • Seamless systems (provide riders route information, booking and payment options)
  • Data exchange (share data with other agencies and service providers)     
  • Enact systems policies (pricing schedules and related measures to reduce traffic congestion)

There are, of course, more questions to ask and more solutions to be found and adapted to the unique needs of individual cities. The future of transportation is coming on fast so the time to act to ensure equitable, inclusive transportation is now.