The transit industry has operated in largely the same way for the majority of its history. People interested in transit found their way to and through the system by consulting static schedules, first printed and then online, or speaking directly with an agent or customer service representative to identify the route and timetable they needed. With the introduction of mobile technology, riders can now install an app on their smartphone that is location-aware and, in seconds, identify the closest bus stop, see which routes service that stop, find when the next bus will arrive for each route, and watch the bus move toward them on a map in real time.
The rapid and exponential growth of mobile has been a game-changer, not just for transit but for every industry, affecting the way we consume, purchase, and interact with our world. A 2014 Nielsen study shows smartphone penetration is now at 77 percent, with that number over 85 per-cent for Gen Y. From 2006 to 2013, AT&T alone saw a 50,000 percent increase in cellular data growth.
Where mobile apps and access were once seen as a luxury or added bonus, no industry can afford to ignore the implications today. The sec-ond-quarter 2014 Cross-Platform report shows U.S. adults 18+ spent an average of 43 hours and 31 minutes per month connecting with content through an app or mobile web browser, up from 33 hours and 48 minutes per month in the same quarter in 2013.
Apps within Transportation
The transportation industry has sought to offer rider-focused apps that appease this demand and offer some virtual brand presence, but this falls short of mobile’s full potential to offer two-way communication and data-gathering tools. This is the challenge of the changing technology: How do we create apps that go beyond simple, one-way communication but instead work for the end-user and the provider simultaneously?
Mobile devices offer transit providers real estate in their riders’ world—data and insight to better understand their needs, perpetual face-time for credible messaging, a touch to let riders know their voices are being heard. The key to unlocking this value is a high-quality mobile app that offers desirable information and an amazing user experience to encourage return usage, like live maps, and arrival predictions.
With consistent usage, a well-designed app can offer intelligence to understand where riders are coming from, where they are trying to go, and how well a service meets their needs. This is invaluable when optimizing existing service or determining the demand for new service, as well as addressing safety concerns and ADA compliance.
The two-way communication and user intelligence also allows you to provide specific, targeted messaging that is relevant and earns credibility with the user. Compare this to a system-wide blast for every detour, adjustment, and notification that buries the pertinent and the urgent alike in a sea of unread or ignored messaging. Complaints and incidents go down, and the reliability perception—and potentially ridership—increases as users are informed and better-equipped to ride.
Ask for Opinions
Another evolution of the two-way communication channel is the ability to survey riders directly from the app. You can effortlessly collect input from a broad swath of returning users across days, weeks, or months, and interacting with riders in a familiar mobile interface allows users to be more comfortable and candid while giving them a platform to speak and be heard. If 85 percent of your riders are interacting with your agency via their smartphone, how much staff time, effort, and data collation could you save by eliminating paper-and-pencil surveys?
Looking forward, one of the biggest challenges in the transportation industry will be meeting the expectations of a mobile generation for transit focused around them. This can be seen in the rise of private, on-demand transportation options to fill in the gaps of fixed routes and service.
The good news is that with the right technology partner, the advances in mobile technology and apps can position agencies to meet this challenge head-on with a technology platform that brings together the best of fixed-route and on-demand services. Not only does this make university transit services competitive for the long run, it also ensures that consistent and across-the-board access remains an option for all students while reducing safety-related concerns.
Universities serve a diverse population, and it’s important to have the right tools in place to support riders’ needs. One of the best ways to do this is to keep up with technology. Today’s students consume large amounts of technology and are very discerning, so they won’t use something that doesn’t work as well as it could or should. Using technology correctly, however, allows universities to play to their strengths and learn how to best understand and communicate with their riders.