How transit can finally solve the first-mile, last-mile problem, attract more riders and boost satisfaction
This guest post was written by Kimberly Slaughter, a 29-year veteran of the transportation industry and the national transit/rail market sector leader for HNTB, a leading infrastructure solutions firm serving public and private owners and contractors for more than a century.
Mobility managers have a unique opportunity to elevate customer service to its highest level yet. How? Consider transit’s longstanding goal to meet the mobility needs of all potential riders with easy access, convenience, affordability and safety. Our industry has made tremendous progress toward that goal, but the first-mile, last-mile problem has eluded us. Until now.
Transportation Network Companies could be the solution we’ve been searching for. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and others all have a common denominator: Their models are customer-centric. Transit agencies are customer-centric, too, but the TNCs have taken this approach to a new level:
- They go to the customer – no matter the customer’s point of origin.
- Service is on-demand, according to the customer’s schedule, not theirs.
- Scheduling a pickup is done in seconds.
- Customers know exactly when their rides will arrive.
- Payment is completed with a tap or swipe.
- The fare is seamless because customers can use their own credit cards, not separate reloadable media.
Transit agencies can borrow best practices from the TNC business model. And what we can’t replicate, we can leverage. Here’s how:
- Explore partnerships with TNCs.
Imagine a daily commuter, a parent with two small children or a senior citizen standing at their front doors, about to embark on a trip. A local TNC picks them up and drives them to the nearest transit station and drops them off in time for the next bus or train. They pay for the entire trip with one tap or one swipe.
Think of the new markets this multimodal approach could attract: senior citizens, disabled, millennials who don’t own vehicles, Gen Xers who like to multitask. We could welcome these customers and others on to our buses, streetcars and light-rail lines.
Integration is becoming a theme in transportation, driven by customer demand. Take the toll industry, for example. Multiple toll systems now are interoperable. Then there are the one-stop-shop travel websites, where customers can book and pay for airfares, hotels and rental cars with a few clicks.
Transit agencies are working toward this level of simplicity. Some have made multimodal trips more seamless through integrated fare systems and real-time arrival/departure information pushed to people’s smartphones.
We can do more. By understanding people’s travel goals, expectations and real or perceived hurdles, transit can refine or redefine service to elevate the customer even more. Quality data sharing between the TNC and the transit agency can lead to insights about customers’ behaviors and help predict how these behaviors might change in the future based on decisions the transit agency makes today.
Other possible data sources:
- Researchers may be able to amass a nationwide repository of vital rider data to analyze and boost rider experiences.
- Wireless carriers could ask their customers to share their travel patterns with the local transit agency. Carriers could position data-sharing as a community service that enhances quality of life with improved local transit service.
- Emphasize convenience, comfort
How can transit reflect these values and attract ridership?
- Increase safety and lighting around stations to make transit a 24/7 option.
- Push for contiguous sidewalks and station/stop connectivity to improve universal accessibility.
- Add power outlets and Wi-Fi, so customers stay connected during their trips.
- Encourage commercial development in and around stations. Storefronts or kiosks that let customers grab coffee or a sandwich, drop off dry cleaning, ship a package or pick up a few groceries for supper boosts trip value.
Considering customers’ door-to-door needs transforms transit from a mode to a means. They can be more productive, save time and money and feel safe doing it. And, if customers perceive more value, they might be willing to pay more for it. As a bonus, this type of partnership may provide more opportunities for paratransit system customers to use fixed-transit service.
- Experiment with flexibility
TNC’s on-demand service and lack of fixed routes appeal to people. Bus systems have the same baked-in capability. Perhaps a weekday bus route adds a pilot program, offering service to accommodate people who work, shop or visit family on Saturday, Sunday or both. In certain areas, buses could even provide on-demand front-door or nearby pickup (flex routing) within a narrow band of their main routes.
- Engage the public regularly
Transit agencies traditionally have reached out for input when considering service modifications or new investments. This engagement is critical, but communication shouldn’t end there. Transit agencies should communicate frequently with the public to understand their needs, discover what’s working and what’s not and learn why customers value transit.
It is critical to engage heavy users like commuters to increase transit’s viability as part of a region’s multimodal transportation network. But agencies should strive to include a broader universe of stakeholders, such as social service organizations, school administrators and other interest groups.
Expanding your target market can result in breakthrough ideas and synergies. These untapped audiences might be more likely to explore transit or vote for ballot initiatives that enhance the transit experience.
When we put customers first, we come out ahead
Transit agencies must continue to play to their strengths — offering efficient, reliable and safe transportation options on a mass scale — but we have a historic opportunity to improve our service by learning from and leveraging TNCs.
When we elevate the customer, people who have never used transit may try it. Existing customers may become loyal riders, and we could see increased support for transit initiatives at the ballot box. Everyone wins.