It’s a few years in the future, and you’re planning a trip across town.
You open an app that you use for getting around and tell it where you want to go. It knows how you prefer to travel. It gives you a recommended route that involves three different modes of transport — a short hop on an e-scooter, followed by a few kilometres on an LRT, and finally a ride-share service that will take you the last few blocks to reach your friend’s front door. And you pay for the whole voyage in that one app.
Cities are looking beyond familiar methods of transit (buses, trains and the like) and payment methods (cash, tokens and cards) to incorporate everything from bicycles to ferries to payment directly via smartphones into the public-transportation network. These new technologies and imaginative experiments in transit delivery won’t just be a frill for Canadian communities. So-called “multi-modal mobility” can help transit authorities address challenges introduced by COVID-19 — and in the long run could help them deal with demand that has been projected to rise in the coming decades.
By thinking about mobility as a public service that can be delivered any number of ways — using technology as the glue that fits it all together — transit authorities could potentially bring public transportation to people who would otherwise go unserved, says Sean Hertel, a Toronto-based urban planner with an expertise in transit-oriented development.
“We’re talking less about infrastructure and more about mobility,” Sean says. “Transit agencies are thinking of providing services that are just in time and suited to people’s needs at different times of the day.”
Recovering from the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in reduced ridership numbers in cities across Canada as people switched to working home. But cities are now working toward a day when transit ridership will stabilize and begin to increase again. The familiar arguments in favour of improving public transportation — including cleaner air, more vibrant local economies and less traffic congestion — are still persuasive.
As commuters re-emerge from their home offices, transit experts are predicting they’ll want to have a lot of choice in how they get around. This could mean seamlessly switching between whatever modes of transport make sense in the moment, as in the scenario from the beginning of this article. There are already reports that transit authorities in China and Europe have started to reshape their cities by embracing non-traditional public transport vehicles — such as shared bicycles.1
Experiments in ‘mobility as a service’
Even before the pandemic, riders around the world were showing a growing preference for revamped transit and mobility options, as well as innovative ways to interact with their transit systems, including contactless payments.
As of late 2018, commuters in London, England, have been able to use contactless cards — including their bank cards — to rent a bicycle.2 Transport for London has recently increased the number of bike stations near transit hubs, in an effort to better integrate bike-sharing into the everyday transit experience.3
Experiments in mobility as a service are happening closer to home, too. Since 2017 the Ontario community of Innisfil has been one of the first municipalities in the world to partner with a ride-sharing service to move residents around.4 Passengers book their rides through a dedicated Innisfil Transit app, which offers them the advantage of a discounted fare.
Innisfil undertook the experiment because staff believed that subsidizing ride-sharing trips could deliver the same service at a lower cost than one or more new bus routes. Partnering with a ride-share service can be a smart way to serve a small pocket of riders “if it makes sense from a service perspective and it makes sense from an economic perspective,” Sean explains. “We have to ask ourselves: Is the role of transit to run buses or trains, or is it to provide mobility services?”
Solutions like these are sometimes referred to as “microtransit.” The term refers to small-scale services that offer fixed schedules or on-demand transportation on a small scale. As well as partnerships with private ride-share services, microtransit can include the use of small neighbourhood shuttle buses.5,6
And if passengers are moving between different forms of transport more frequently, then sophisticated, frictionless payment systems will be crucial to make the various legs of the journey fit together.
As the situation stands now, our hypothetical commuter who’s planning a trip across town has to navigate a patchwork of payment methods, fare systems and apps. Even crossing an invisible municipal boundary line can force a rider to pay double. (To give one example of what could be accomplished using payment systems that integrate fares across boundaries: One study suggested that Toronto and Mississauga could increase daily ridership by 26,000 by 2031 if the adjacent cities harmonized their fare structures — which could be possible via a shared app.7)
Commuters want a convenient future
Canadians already believe that paying for transit ought to be easier. Four out of 10 people who took part in a recent survey by Interac said they find paying for public transportation to be cumbersome at least half the time, and 68 per cent agreed that boarding a transit vehicle should be as easy as paying for a morning coffee.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has also made Canadians opt for contactless payments over cash. As municipalities continue to grow and ridership trends evolve, contactless payments can help provide safe travel for commuters.
From a technological standpoint, transit authorities can start creating these kinds of seamless experiences today. Eventually, riders will be able to choose from a range of transit options using their existing payment cards and mobile wallets — in other words, the same products and devices they use to pay for that coffee — while receiving receipts, tracking and balances in real time.
As transit authorities and other mobility providers work collaboratively with government, technology and payment providers to make moving from place to place convenient and safe, riders can only stand to benefit. As a guiding aspiration for our growing cities and communities, imagine the day when a single journey will mean a single, unified fare — and limitations that are present today won’t exist at all.
5 https://www.marsdd.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Microtransit-report-2016.pdf [PDF] — see Executive Summary
7 Raw report: http://www.metrolinx.com/en/regionalplanning/fareintegration/GTHA_Fare_Integration-Concept_Evaluation_Backgrounder_EN.pdf (daily ridership increase figure is on p. 11) Summarized here under point 1: https://www.pembina.org/blog/5-reasons-we-should-get-excited-about-transit-fare-integration