How Personalization Can Level the Playing Field for Public Transit

July 7, 2024
  • Reliable public transportation is crucial for public health, providing access to medical appointments, healthy food, education, and jobs, as highlighted by a CDC report.
  • Inconsistent public transit leads to missed connections and job insecurity, particularly affecting those with lower-paying jobs who rely on timely transportation.
  • Public transit is often seen as unreliable compared to rideshare apps, contributing to a decline in ridership and preventing a return to pre-2019 levels.
  • To compete with rideshare services, public transit agencies should prioritize ease of use, reliability, and real-time communication, offering a personalized experience for each rider.
  • AI can tailor recommendations and alerts based on individual rider routines and preferences, enhancing the overall transit experience.
  • Smart transit apps can provide personalized route suggestions, highlight events, and identify local businesses to streamline and enhance the rider's journey.
  • Providing real-time, accurate travel information helps reduce anxiety, builds trust, and positions transit agencies as reliable sources of truth.
  • AI can deliver relevant, personalized information to riders about arrivals and delays, avoiding systemwide announcements and focusing on individual needs.
  • Intelligent transit apps can offer detailed guidance, such as stop locations, transfer points, accessibility features, and optimal exits, improving the rider experience and sense of care.
  • Smart transit apps can facilitate social connections by coordinating group travel and keeping everyone informed, making transit feel like it adds value and time back to riders' lives.
  • ProfitOptics offers digital solutions to improve the rider experience, including journey planning, real-time information, seamless fare payment, and communication systems, preparing public transit for the future.

Solving the problems that face public transportation today isn’t just a matter of protecting the environment and creating less congested, more liveable cities: It’s a matter of public health.

That’s the takeaway from a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this year. The report found that millions of Americans lack access to reliable public transportation, making it harder to get to medical appointments and limiting their access to healthy food, education, and jobs.

The impact on employment is particularly significant when the trains and buses don’t run on time. As Megan Latshaw, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, puts it in a discussion of Baltimore’s public transit system:

“In Maryland, if a bus is less than seven minutes late, it’s considered on time. But if you have to transfer to another bus and your first bus is seven minutes late, you’re probably going to miss your second bus. In a lot of lower-paying jobs, if you’re late to work three times, you’re out of a job. And so here we are in America, a country that’s all about jobs and economic access, but we’re not even getting people who want to work to their jobs. We are throwing these barriers in their way.” 

The Power of the Perception of Unreliability

The sense that public transit isn’t reliable and that it may even jeopardize your job combines with the inroads that rideshare applications have made in pulling riders away from public transit. Research published in 2022 found that ride-hailing is the most significant contributor to transit ridership decline.

Rightly or wrongly, people view public transit as cumbersome and unintuitive. They see rideshare apps as more reliable: you summon a car, you can track its progress every step of the way, and it gets you where you’re going on time.

All of this may help explain why public transportation commuting in the United States hasn’t rebounded to its 2019 levels, even as many workers have returned to the office.

So, what can be done to combat the perception of unreliability and win back the trust of riders — so that they’re willing to make public transit their first choice for getting to work, school, or a can’t-miss doctor’s appointment?

The Vision: How Personalization Can Level the Playing Field

Let’s start with the proposition that ride-sharing services have changed the landscape. To stay competitive, public transit agencies need to follow their lead by prioritizing ease of use, reliability, and clear, up-to-the-minute communication.

Public transit agencies need to focus on personalization. Instead of approaching mass transit riders en masse, each rider needs to feel empowered by a personalized experience that gives them the kind of transparent, real-time info they need to make confident choices about their journey ahead — and also adapts to and centers their individual preferences and routines.

From there, it’s possible to develop a vision of how transit agencies can draw on the latest developments in software and AI — coupled with their informational and infrastructural advantages — to create a smooth, reliable, rider-centric transit experience that positions them to begin beating rideshare apps to the finish line.

A few principles to focus on:

  • Personalized Service. The learning part of machine learning means that transit software can use AI to understand each rider’s routines and preferences — and then deliver recommendations and alerts tailored to their own individual needs, helping them solve problems and making them feel seen in the process.
  • Individualized Planning. As the app becomes familiar with each rider’s daily route, travel times, and other preferences, it can make smarter suggestions to shave time off their journeys or avoid obstacles and delays. It might figure out a better and more streamlined daily route, suggest a concert or a baseball game you might want to attend along with the best way to get there, or even flag local businesses that can help you get your errands done faster with just a slight tweak to your usual travel plans.
  • Transparency in Travel. A lot of the anxiety riders feel about transit has to do with feeling like they’re in the dark. Emphasizing the transparency of the journey by giving riders information faster and more accurately than they can get it from news services or third-party apps not only helps take the worry out of the experience — it gains their trust by demonstrating that the transit agency is a reliable and second-to-none source of truth.
  • Customized Communication. It’s important to make sure that riders feel fully and specifically informed about when their bus or train is due to arrive, as well as any potential delays along the way. One useful goal is to make those communications relevant to the individual rider, rather than bombarding them with systemwide announcements. AI can be used to surface and prioritize the most relevant information for each rider based on their location and transit patterns.
  • Granular Guidance. Another way that intelligent transit apps can help take the anxiety and friction out of the journey is by letting riders know things like how many stops away they are from their destination, where they need to transfer, accessibility features, and even which exit they should take from the station to be closest to where they’re going. You may also want to share location of police officers on the platform or activity in or outside of the station. These little touches can have a big impact, and go a long way toward making transit journeys smoother as well as helping riders feel like they’re being taken care of.

As an example of how this might all come together, imagine that you’re meeting a group of friends for dinner. With a fully realized smart transit app, you’d be able to send them an invitation that tells you all the best ways to get to the restaurant where you’re all converging — and then keep each other informed of each person’s progress and any delays they might encounter, helping everyone meet up more easily and relieving some of the communication burden along the way.

Goals like this are important because they emphasize the value of human experiences and the bonds between people — whether friends, family members, or work colleagues. And instead of feeling like transit is taking time out of their lives, riders may begin to feel like it’s giving them time back, which means more time to spend with the people they care about.

How ProfitOptics Helps

At ProfitOptics, we’ve already begun this journey. ProfitOptics can help you improve every aspect of the rider experience, from planning journeys with real-time transit information and seamless fare payment to rider communication systems and accessibility features.

If you’re interested in learning how ProfitOptics can help you leverage digital solutions to prepare for the future of public transit, contact our team.

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