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Smart transit: The future of commuting

Transit adviser Pierre Bourbonnière considers the rise of smart transit in the face of post-COVID-19 shifts

TTC bus

Public transportation experienced a substantial shift over the course of the global pandemic. In the current climate, there are fewer riders due to remote home-based work but still considerable congestion in some cases with a transition from public transit to personal cars. To assess the impact of this change and how it prompted a re-imagination of the role of public transit, we spoke with Pierre Bourbonni re, former President of the Canadian Urban Transit Association (Quebec chapter) and advisor to ISR Transit and BusPas, tech solution companies specializing in public transit.  

While public transit is still being asked to show a return on investment, that yield is increasingly influenced by factors like sustainability and passenger needs. In fact, only 63% of Canadians want to return to their physical workplace—meaning buses, streetcars and subways will be less full. However, working from home in the suburbs also means a redesign of public transit systems to focus more on local mobility solutions, as there is a need for more than just commutes into a city centre.  

Only 63% of Canadians want to return to their physical workplace

“In Montreal, like in the rest of the world, buses, metros and trains are running half empty!” says Bourbonnière. “Waiting for the bus at the corner will no longer do the trick. Expectations are increasing, from the point of view of reliability, comfort and security, as well as the need for integrated fare payment solutions, real time information and recovery when things go wrong. Transit agencies need to leapfrog into a new era.” This is particularly true now, as pandemic concerns have left Canadians weary of crowded public spaces, such as buses. In fact, 72% report feeling worried about taking transit. A new approach to travel can help quell such fears.

The idea of catching a bus at a specific time on a set schedule may soon be a thing of the past. “Personalized transit gives passengers the best transportation options whether that’s a car, a bike or a bus,” explains Bourbonnière. Providing a menu of options for passengers is the future of personal transportation. 

The idea of catching a bus at a specific time on a set schedule may soon be a thing of the past 

Bourbonnière offers his view of future transportation by introducing what he calls “Smart Transit 1.0” where operators can use technology to predict individual needs to optimize operations, introducing what he coins ‘’REAL-REAL’’ time information to customers. By this he means virtual reality where a passenger sets the time for travel and a bus arrives accordingly, even allowing for pre-boarding via an app.  

“Smart Transit 2.0.’’ takes this even further and focuses on the rider’s experience, which is referred to as “smart mobility.” By understanding the needs of passengers individually before they decide to travel, transit authorities can customize the route and personalize the type of vehicle, so it accommodates each person. This also includes the integration of mobility partners such as bike and car share, on-demand transit, taxi, ride-sharing and others. This needs to be done with a unified form of payment, at an affordable price and with one integrated app.   

“Up until recently, public transit operators have been measured by kilometers, passengers or revenue data, but things have changed,” says Bourbonnière. “Ridership and revenues are no longer reaching pre-pandemic levels but there is still a need for a comprehensive transit solution. New measures of performance should be more in line with reducing congestion, accidents and everyone’s carbon footprint.’’ This also aligns with the increasing eco-consciousness of transit users. To avoid running empty buses, leaders need to reduce service at off-peak hours, which is where on-demand transit can play a big role. 

“New measures of performance should be more in line with reducing congestion, accidents and everyone’s carbon footprint” 

A number of operators have already introduced new elements into their system, with positive results. It's not unusual to see AI displays on bus stops, updating passengers on the arrival of their next bus, instead of static signage. This mechanism uses both sensors and cameras to relay up-to-the-minute information. The same technology can be used to offer alternative suggestions such as ridesharing or taxis. Passengers are quick to change their habits and adapt to new tools –and are just waiting for municipalities and transit operators to follow suit. 

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