A few weeks ago, while I sat in the back of a Lyft car on the way to my teaching gig at UCLA, I listened to a live webcast put on by the Washington Post. Titled Washington Post Live: Transformers Cities, the broadcast featured a discussion with three very interesting panelists.
Raj Kapoor, chief strategy officer from Lyft, Jessica Robinson, the director of city solutions for Ford Smart Mobility (a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company), and Jeff Tumlin, a principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates. Since I've had the pleasure of speaking and/or working with two out of three of these panelists during my career, I was excited to tune in. And, since I wasn't driving the car myself, I felt safe and sound kicking back and watching on my phone. Ahh, the joys of not driving.
The Role of Public Transit
There was the usual discussion of how autonomous vehicles were going to shake up the way we get around, but I want to focus in on the question of the role of public transit. Many people have rightly pointed out that the increase in VMT (number of vehicle miles of travel) and vehicle trips we are seeing in cities across the US is directly linked to the gain in popularity of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, and is also directly linked to the marked decline in public transit ridership.
Let's face it, there are a vast number of people who take an Uber or Lyft every day simply because it's easier than walking or waiting for the bus or train. For myself, just last week I know I was riding the train home when the operator announced that there had been a mechanical failure and the train would not be continuing. As I walked off the train, amongst a few hundred disgruntled passengers wondering how long we'd have to wait for the next one, I simply pulled out my phone and hailed a Lyft. I had to be somewhere at a set time, and I couldn't afford to wait around. Well, that sentiment is not unique to me, and there is a direct link to the decline in public transit ridership across the US because of that sentiment.
Back to the WaPo panel — when asked the question about the role of public transit in an AV world, Mr. Tumlin said, jokingly, that, "it will require public transit operators to start thinking about their customers."
That point struck me — public transit agencies are in a bit of a pickle simply because they have such a hard time defining who their customers are.
In the private sector, and in business school, we focus on understanding our customer and then delivering value to that customer. This is why companies create personas when developing marketing campaigns, and why people focus so much on the U side of UX.
In public transit, however, the customer is everyone ...
Think about it — Title XI of the Civil Rights Act requires public transit operators to provide the same service, at the same price, to all people regardless of their abilities, economic status, race and many more factors. That means the persona of a public transit customer is everyone.
This would cause most chief marketing officers' heads to explode and is likely why it is so difficult to develop solutions for improving public transit.
So rather than define who their customers are, I'd suggest that public sectors define what their customers want. Aside from public transit geeks who ride public transport just to check it out, and the few people who ride to seek shelter or simply because they have no other place to go, the vast majority of public transit riders WANT TO GO SOMEWHERE and THEY WANT TO GET THERE IN THE SHORTEST AMOUNT OF TIME POSSIBLE. If I were developing a marketing campaign for a new product, I'd want to hone in on those two aspects of the customer I was targeting — that they want to use public transit as a viable, cost-effective transportation option.
This is where the panel discussion came back into focus.
Mr. Tumlin pointed to Seattle, which many people in the transportation world have been doing recently, because Seattle appears to be one of two major US cities where public transit ridership is increasing. Mr. Tumlin said this was because the City of Seattle and the public transit operator changed the way they measured success — that they focused on person throughput, not just the movement of cars.
As a traffic engineer, this line of thinking cuts both ways, as it has been unfortunately used as a bit of a bludgeoning tool to decimate a profession, and at the same time is a very logical and correct approach. To keep everything perky, I'll focus on the latter.
Mr. Tumlin went on to suggest that all public transit agencies have a flaw — they don't control the operating environment. He said public transit agencies need to have better partnerships with the cities they operate within, and that cities need to help transit agencies provide faster, more frequent service. Mr. Tumlin indicated that there is a role for the private sector here — that Lyft and Uber are good for serving first/last mile, low-density areas in off-peak times and not so good at busy peak commuter needs in dense urban areas.
So here is where cities could strike a balance.
Striking a Balance
The challenge is going to come back to serving the customer. Already we have seen reports that the business model for TNCs is on par with that of public transit agencies, mainly due to the cost of human drivers. If TNCs are operating at the same "farebox recovery" levels as public transit, is it really a sustainable option? Are the people using the TNCs today the same people that would be taking public transit, or are they of a different economic status (e.g., they aren't as price sensitive).
After listening to the webcast I formulated the following two recommendations for public agencies as they relate to public transit and AVs:
■ Cut the signal from the noise – focus on what you do today and what your customer values. The public transit customer values two things: movement and time. Make the movement of public transportation vehicles smoother, more frequent and more reliable. Make public transit more desirable by reducing travel times – provide more dedicated bus lanes and enforce those protections!
■ Automate enforcement – we have the technology, we can rebuild our transportation system. So much of our current roadway congestion is caused by incidents created due to human error and simply people behaving badly. We sparingly use red-light photo enforcement systems, and we need to expand that — automated speed enforcement, automated enforcement of curbside parking/loading areas, and more.
The two points above seem to more closely match what the City of Seattle is doing, as they have expanded transit service and made it more frequent and more reliable along their busiest routes. Even places like Orange County, where locals are typically more apt to ride in their shiny cars than get on a bus, the public transit operator has found that by providing more frequent service along the busiest corridors they are seeing an uptick in ridership on those lines.
The Bottom Line
For public transit agencies, the path to increasing ridership is clear, and it doesn't necessarily rely on what the private sector is doing. Rather, it means focusing on what the public transit agencies do best, and leveraging that with what cities and law enforcement agencies have a duty to do their best at.