How to Boost Public Transit Ridership by Helping Riders Feel Better Informed and Safer

June 3, 2024
  • Riders should have the right to travel safely without risking their life, health, or property. They also need accurate, timely updates on bus and train arrivals and disruptions to plan their journeys effectively.
  • Better information directly enhances safety by allowing informed decisions. Transparency and communication reduce fear and anxiety, ensuring safer and more predictable journeys.
  • Post-COVID, public transit faces safety and convenience concerns. Despite overall crime reduction, transit-specific crime, especially in cities like New York, deters riders. Addressing these perceptions is crucial for increasing ridership.
  • Technology improves the transit experience with proactive news from agencies, real-time updates through push notifications, detailed incident information, and AI-driven personalized route planning, making navigation easier and less stressful.
  • Detailed, accurate information builds rider trust, encouraging frequent use and positive word of mouth. Keeping riders informed allows staff to focus on resolving issues, enhancing the system’s reputation and attracting new riders and tourists.

What would it look like if we could design a Bill of Rights for public transit riders in 2024? Crucial benchmarks like accessibility, cleanliness and sustainability would definitely make the list, as would smooth journeys with reliable schedules and outstanding customer service.

But at the very top of the list would have to be safety: the right to travel and arrive at your destination without feeling like you’ve put your life, health or property in danger.

Close behind that would be the right to an informed and more predictable journey. The right to know how soon your bus or train is arriving with the same level of specificity and accuracy you’d get from a rideshare app. The right to be notified of service disruptions as soon as information is available, with enough context about what’s happening and how it will affect your journey to allow you to make solid decisions about what to do next — including whether your route, your destination and maybe even your plans for the day or evening need to change.

On Parallel Tracks: Safety and Better Information

In fact, those two items are closely linked because the right to an informed journey — and the transparency it depends on — play a major role in making sure your journey is safe as well.

Although technology alone can’t solve all transit safety issues, it can go a long way toward improving communication, visibility and routing. It empowers riders with the information they need to make better decisions so they can get where they’re going safely and with less fear and anxiety.

These are not just abstract issues. Getting these things right is crucial to boosting ridership and achieving the full potential of public transit in the post-COVID 21st century. As transit systems across the country struggle to rebuild ridership to pre-pandemic levels, public perceptions that transit systems are either unsafe or less convenient and reliable than rideshare services are among the most important obstacles that need to be removed.

Transit Safety Challenges: Perception and Reality

The sense that public transit isn’t as safe as it should be isn’t just a matter of rider anxiety: Even though crime overall is down in the U.S. — with a historically low murder rate and the lowest rate of violent crime in 50 years — public transit has been an exception.

This has been particularly acute for New York City. Data from the NYPD released earlier this year found that transit crime was up nearly 50% across the city in January 2024 compared with the same period the previous year.

Coupled with the news that the city spent more than $150 million in overtime pay for NYPD officers to patrol the subway system in 2023 and wall-to-wall news images of heavily armed National Guard members in NYC subways, this can’t help but boost anxiety and sharpen the perception that transit isn’t as safe as it needs to be.

And it’s not just New York. According to a study by the Mineta Transportation Institute, the United States has the most attacks and fatalities of public transportation passengers and employees when compared to other economically advanced countries.

Public perception goes hand in hand with that reality. According to a YouGov poll reported in 2023, two out of five U.S. adults (39%) say that city transportation is very or somewhat dangerous — with that belief being highest among those who never use public transportation. That’s a big chunk of the population who might be more willing to join the ranks of transit riders if they felt safe and confident about doing so.

How Can Technology Help? Digital Transformation for Transit Agencies

Here are a few ways that better and smarter transit software can put transit agencies on the track toward where riders are comfortable making public transit their first choice — because riders are confident that it will get them where they’re going smoothly, safely and on time.

  • Proactive News: Instead of having to frequently check new sources (which may at times overdramatize situations to boost views and ratings), riders can get better, faster and more reliable information that comes directly from the transit agency.
  • Real-time Updates: Public transit organizations can use push notifications to alert people to system-wide issues and situations that may affect their local station or route. Getting a timely heads-up not only allows riders to adapt to situations on the fly, but also gives them more time to check in and communicate with others, whether it’s their supervisor or colleagues at work, or friends they’re meeting for dinner. That can go a long way toward minimizing the impact of delays.
  • Confidence-Building Context: Specificity matters. It’s not enough to just vaguely tell riders that an incident has occurred. Knowing the source and nature of the issue is key: whether it’s something as simple as a track that needs to be cleared because a tree fell on it or a train that needs to be cleaned versus a medical emergency, accident, altercation, more serious maintenance issue or even a violent attack helps riders feel empowered to make the right decisions rather than being left in the dark — which could lead them to avoid traveling by transit altogether.
  • Intelligent Route Planning: Artificial intelligence (AI) can learn riders’ daily routines and then make helpful suggestions or push relevant information to their mobile devices. Once AI has learned where you tend to travel and when it can surface the most important updates and flag them to your attention. It may also offer you an improved route that gets you around any potential logjams without you having to expend problem-solving energy, thus taking stress and hassle out of your day.

An essential principle here is to take the problem-solving out of taking public transit. Riders shouldn’t have to work any harder to plan their subway or bus routes than when they summon a vehicle using a rideshare app. Evening out that disparity can help level the playing field for public transit.

Mind the Gap: Repairing the Trust Deficit

Keeping riders informed results in a win-win, benefiting the rider and the transit agency. By getting more detailed, accurate and up-to-date info out there to riders, the station’s staff can focus on handling the issue rather than spending their time on customer service, explaining the situation to passengers who want to ride the train. This benefit extends to emergency and maintenance personnel who also need to respond to incidents.

Central to all of this is the issue of rider trust. Keeping riders informed improves their experience, which helps build trust. And trust gives riders the confidence to become more frequent riders and generates positive word of mouth.

That, along with the absence of negative news coverage, makes it possible to boost ridership numbers by attracting new riders and even tourists back into public transit systems — all of which depends on building and maintaining a positive reputation.

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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