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Mass Transit Accessibility

6 Ways Proximity Data Can Enhance Mass Transit in Underserved Areas

Equitable mass transportation accessibility is crucial in the regional development of urban landscapes. A recent study by VIA found that 87% of mass transit passengers rely on public transportation for transport to work and local businesses—like medical appointments, grocery stores, and churches. Moreover, every dollar invested in a transportation network can result in up to a four-dollar return on investment to the local economy.

However, transit deserts hinder access to essential services, disproportionately affecting low-income and marginalized communities. These transit deserts—areas with limited or no access to public transportation—pose significant challenges, especially in underserved communities. On average, American households spend nearly 16% of their income on transportation, which can be a significant burden for low-income households that rely on public services that impact their daily lives when they fail to function effectively or reliably. 

Initiatives to create equitable and efficient transit systems aren’t just noble, they’re essential to reducing the barriers of inequity in low-connectivity environments to breathe new life into local economies and flourish. While some funding barriers are a real problem, affordable, effective options for transformative tech are readily available for implementations that can deliver early and extensive value to transit systems.

TLDR; Key Takeaways

  • Transit deserts hinder access to essential services, disproportionately affecting low-income and marginalized communities.
  • Initiatives to create equitable and efficient transit systems are needed to reduce the barriers of inequity in low-connectivity environments and improve local economies.
  • Secure, contactless transactions enhance safety and usability in low-connectivity environments and even expand on-demand transit services to improve responsiveness and adaptability.
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Top Mass Transit Solutions for Underserved Communities

One potential solution that can help fill the gaps in older infrastructures or underfunded transit programs is to investigate how newer, frictionless technology like proximity verification can be used to enhance transportation equity and efficiency. The modality used to detect passenger or operator presence can be a difference-maker, as well. 

For example, proximity solutions that use ultrasonic technology can function in online or offline environments on any device with a speaker or microphone. While older technologies or solutions dependent on less flexible modalities like NFC or Bluetooth limit the applications of use for real-time proximity data, ultrasonic technology (also referred to as “data-over-sound”) can facilitate practical and proactive real-time applications that enhance the accessibility, efficiency, and security of passenger throughput while delivering personalized communications and loyalty programs that impact revenue, engagement, and customer experience.

#1: More Flexible Payment and Ticketless Access Systems

In underserved communities, ticketing systems at transit facilities often utilize a combination of manual and digital processes. Manual systems typically involve cash payments and paper tickets. Digital options, when available, may include electronic ticketing machines or mobile apps. These systems may not always support seamless multimodal transit access, where a single ticket can be used across different modes of transportation, such as buses, trains, and trams.

Challenges with Ticketless Access

Underserved areas often lack the infrastructure to support more modern ticketing systems, leading to inefficiencies, reduced accessibility, and reduced revenue. Also, traditional “ticketless” systems rely on internet access or NFC-enabled phones, neither of which is universally accessible.

How Proximity Verification Helps Facilitate Ticketless Payments and Access

The opportunity to deliver a Be In, Be Out (BIBO) experience can positively impact revenues while keeping fares reasonable. Integrating ultrasonic proximity verification technology is necessary to facilitate a seamless BIBO travel experience across different modes of transportation, reducing the need for physical infrastructure like ticket machines. This flexibility is crucial in underserved areas with limited infrastructure investment. 

For example, ultrasonic proximity data can enable advanced ticketless payments and access, allowing users to travel seamlessly without physical tickets. Leveraging real-time data for payments and access control can lower operational costs for transit systems, resulting in more affordable fares for passengers and enhancing user convenience so that multimodal mass transit is accessible to all. 

#2: Secure, Contactless Transactions

Passengers might use various methods for payments, including cash, traditional ticketing, or electronic options. Contactless payment and transaction capabilities at transit facilities in underserved communities is limited, however. When available, these systems commonly rely on NFC-enabled devices or internet connectivity. 

Challenges with Implementing Contactless Transactions

In environments with low connectivity and high noise levels, traditional contactless payment methods that use NFC or the Internet to authenticate may be ineffective. Other traditional alternatives like QR Codes and Bluetooth are prone to fraud and interception and also rely on traditional connectivity mechanisms like cell phone signals or WiFi connectivity, neither of which is universally accessible.

How Proximity Verification Impacts Contactless Transactions

Proximity verification technology that uses ultrasonic signals to authenticate presence and transactions can provide secure and reliable transactions even in challenging transit environments – with or without an Internet signal. Proximity data is essential to delivering seamless, secure, contactless payments, which have a direct impact on accessibility and the friction that typically accompanies access at transit stations.

#3: Implement On-Demand Transit Services

On-demand transit services are consistently seeking new ways to improve the responsiveness of public transportation in underserved communities – from adjusting routes and schedules to addressing specific needs of the community that impact accessibility and equity. On-demand transit services in underserved communities may not be widely implemented; however, when present, they may rely on advanced data collection and communication technologies for delivery.

Challenges with Providing On-Demand Transit Services

Static routes and schedules often fail to meet the dynamic needs of underserved communities, leading to inefficiencies and insufficient insights. For example, in some instances, the ability to collect and harness actionable real-time demand data on transit systems, traffic patterns, and passenger throughput is dependent on systems that can function in environments where there’s intermittent connectivity.

How Proximity Verification Impacts On-Demand Transit

Ultrasonic proximity verification for on-demand transit services can facilitate real-time data collection, allowing for dynamic adjustments to operations. For example, an on-demand transit app could use ultrasonic data to identify passengers who need assistance, track real-time passenger presence, and adjust routes and schedules accordingly to meet the actual needs of the community. 

#4: Support Future Innovative Transit Services

Transit facilities in underserved communities have limited budgets and personnel to implement new technologies and support future innovations at varying levels. However, investing in pilot programs or small-scale implementations of advanced solutions such as smart ticketing systems, autonomous vehicles, or real-time data analytics could prove to be transformative to operations efficiency and revenue generation, both of which are needed to grow the business.

Challenges of Innovating in Underserved Communities

Implementing innovative transit services in underserved areas is challenging due to the lack of technology to conduct passenger identification and authentication and the extraordinary costs of using traditional modalities like Bluetooth and NFC to serve this level of real-time data. Traditional modalities also rely on technology that is available only on some smartphones, and while adoption is growing significantly, the levels of adoption needed for equitable access are insufficient in underserved communities.

Areas Proximity Verification Can Impact Future Innovation

Proximity verification technology that uses ultrasonic data supports the implementation of innovative transit services by providing a secure and efficient method for rider identification and authentication. For instance, an autonomous shuttle service could use ultrasonic signals to verify passengers’ presence, ensuring secure and efficient boarding processes.

#5: Deliver Personalized Passenger Communication

Communication with passengers in underserved communities often utilizes traditional methods of delivery. These can include on-premises signage, public address systems, and updates on transit websites or social media channels and cover schedule changes, route diversions, service disruptions, and safety announcements.

Challenges with Passenger Communication

Personalized communication with passengers is challenging, especially in underserved areas with limited connectivity. Presently real-time updates or offers are primarily delivered through the transit website or on-prem signage, which can be overlooked or ignored. More advanced delivery mechanisms for personalized communication are needed for practical and safety reasons, as well as for the enhancement of the overall passenger experience. Alongside this, real-time data is needed to facilitate personalized notifications, location-based offers, and travel tips directly to passengers’ phones.

How Proximity Verification Can Help Enable Personalized Passenger Communication

Ultrasonic proximity verification data can be used for real-time, location-based communication with passengers, providing them with relevant offers and travel information. For example, transit authorities can deliver personalized messages and updates based on the passenger’s exact location for things like service changes, estimated arrival times, and nearby points of interest. This makes the travel experience more interactive and informative while fostering a sense of connection and reliability with the transit system.

#6: Enhance Marketing And Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs in transit facilities serving underserved communities are less common but can exist in manual formats, using physical loyalty cards that passengers present to earn rewards. These programs may also be managed digitally where infrastructure supports them. 

Challenges with Delivering Loyalty Programs

Often, in underserved markets, transit is more utilitarian, and funding to implement and boost the effectiveness of loyalty programs can get cut for essential services and programs. In place of more automated programs, transit systems in underserved areas have to rely on manual check-ins or physical loyalty cards which are burdensome for passengers and staff.

How Proximity Verification Can Work with 3rd Party Marketing and Loyalty Applications

Personalized marketing and loyalty programs have the potential to boost user engagement and loyalty to the transportation system. Loyalty programs encourage repeated use and loyalty to the transportation system, improve overall engagement, and reduce the need for additional, physical staff members to maintain. Proximity verification with ultrasonic data can be used by marketing and loyalty programs to detect on-prem presence and usage and automatically credit users with points or rewards based on their activities. 

The Future of Equitable Mass Transportation

Looking ahead, mass transit providers in underserved communities face a dual challenge: securing funding and implementing innovative technologies to enhance service delivery. While limited infrastructure and budget constraints are significant hurdles, these challenges also present opportunities for creative solutions and strategic investments.

The first step is to investigate the potential costs of these strategic investments and identify their operational impacts, allowing for the creation of a robust business case for designing and implementing future upgrades. Prioritizing research into alternative funding sources for equitable initiatives is also essential. For instance, the state of Tennessee in the U.S. has established Transportation Equity Funds, and many other states and national governments offer similar programs. (Here’s a list of funding resources to explore for public transit operators, including federal and state grant programs.)

Emerging technologies, such as real-time proximity verification for on-prem passengers, hold the potential to bridge the equity gap in mass transit. By offering advanced solutions for ticketless payments, secure transactions, and real-time data collection, these technologies can make transit systems more efficient, accessible, and user-friendly for multimodal travel. As communities and transit authorities collaborate and explore new funding avenues, there is a promising future where innovative tech can transform the transit landscape, ensuring equitable and reliable transportation for all.