Creating a digitized transit system can move everyone forward

November 23, 2020 | By Will Judge

A city only works when it moves. Trains, buses and other public services are what enable residents to be productive, stay connected and enjoy the diverse culture of cities.

But for years, officials and planners have struggled to match these transportation networks to the needs of growing populations. All too often, these shortcomings come at the expense of underserved people, such as those who can’t afford cars or live on city outskirts that aren't connected to transit networks – so-called  transportation deserts. Before the pandemic, the rise of private-sector ride-hailing and bike-sharing services helped fill these gaps. But COVID-19 health concerns about mass transit have opened the door for truly multi-modal systems of transportation.

These new transit networks could help get people to their destinations safely and seamlessly, with the ease of using just a single payment card. Most importantly, these systems could get our cities moving again amid the pandemic and afterwards make them more inclusive for city dwellers.

This type of transportation transformation won’t happen overnight, but there are steps cities – in partnership with technology providers and private service operators – can take to make this door-to-door mobility a reality:

Digitize fare collections

Offering contactless and in-app payments make sense in a world still troubled by COVID-19. It protects drivers and passengers from exposure, disburses congested lines and makes paying transit fare as easy as a tap of a card, smartwatch or phone. For cities that can’t switch quickly to transit apps, mobile ticketing services using bar codes or QR codes on a passenger’s phone can be rolled out in weeks. Riders can also knit together a journey from a subway to a bus or bikeshare without juggling multiple tickets.

Harness data insights

Right now, most transport systems are running at about 50% their usual capacity, leaving cities to guess where gaps in service lie. By accessing data about economic activity in neighborhoods, cities can see where more transit service is needed, as well as which areas could use extra recovery assistance. Data could also reduce stress for commuters. For instance, in Chicago, a data-based initiative in 2017 that targeted public transit helped 18% of participating riders avoid peak post-work rush hour that coincided with Cubs games through a messaging platform that alerted riders to Cubs games and encouraging an earlier or later commute, sometimes pairing the alerts with fare rebates or charitable donations. 

Deliver holistic solutions

The pandemic left many vulnerable city dwellers in more need than ever. One efficient way to reach them is by distributing a card that not only allows people to pay for transportation, but also provide their identity, access government services, accept and make payments and manage other essentials of daily life. Using a single card, residents could hop a bus to work, get their children treated a healthcare facility, vote in an election and receive city subsidies.

Fix transportation deserts

With the pandemic stretching transit budgets even tighter than before, it’s time for cities to get more creative about serving their most underserved areas. One option would be to collaborate with the private sector. By subsidizing ride-hailing companies to provide on-demand services to residents in transport deserts, cities could free up high-capacity public transport providers to focus on urban centers. That would create a coordinated, reliable way to get people from home to anywhere in the city — and back.

Like every aspect of our post-COVID recovery, none of this will be easy. However, some of society’s greatest accomplishments were borne from its darkest moments. And, if we use this time of rebuilding well, we can create a transportation system that gives everyone everywhere the opportunity to unlock their potential, creating limitless possibilities.

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Will Judge, Vice President, Global Automotive Partnerships, Mastercard