Here at Genfare, we talk a lot about equitable mobility. We define equitable mobility as fair access to transportation resources without regard to race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. To us, this isn’t just a buzzword, but something we are passionate about. It’s the center of our mission, and a driver of how we operate. 

In short, we believe that to achieve equitable mobility, the best approach is better service that’s customer friendly and transparent. Of course, it’s a lot more complex than that simple explanation, but it starts with enabling the transit agency to understand its community and tailor solutions to meet the needs of everyone in it, with particular attention to those with limited resources – the unbanked, the underbanked, the transit dependent, the anonymous rider. Essentially, who do you serve in your community today and what behavior do you want to influence to improve their experience?   

Equitable mobility is built on three pillars: 

  1. Understanding and meeting community needs 
  2. Building multi-modal end to end solutions 
  3. Realizing value and being cost effective 

In this blog post, I’ll be going deeper into the first pillar: Knowing your community. 

Evaluating the value 

Before we begin our discussion about knowing your community, let’s start by taking a moment to think about the value we place on public services. Consider the price you (personally) pay for public services and what they are really worth. 

For example, I can spend a few minutes of my time in line at the post office and pay less than a dollar for a postage stamp, which buys the ability to brighten my mom’s day with a Mother’s Day card delivered to her home. I pay property taxes on my home for the priceless benefit of primary and secondary education for the children in my school district, including my own, as well as the peace of mind that the safety provided by well-funded municipal fire and police departments brings me.  

When it comes to transit, the $2.50 I pay for my fare on the bus, train, or light rail buys me more than a ride – it gives me freedom to roam and explore the city and region. Clearly, the value of public transit far exceeds the small fare I pay for it. I am a choice rider – I can pay by mobile or open payment, but in some cities, I still like paying by smart card. More often than not, I pay for bus fare with cash. You can imagine how many .25 and .75 transfer magnetic cards from transit agencies across the country sit in my desk today!  

That brings us to the value of the farebox. I’m a firm believer in the important role of fare collection in raising the perceived and actual value of public transportation. After all, the farebox is central to collecting revenue to support transit operations. 

However, today’s advanced fareboxes also collect something even more valuable than money: Information. I’d like to make an argument that the data alone – when it’s used effectively – is worth the cost of implementing and administering a modern fare collection solution.  

Fare collection is more than just for collecting money; it’s a tool for creating better and more effective operations. It enables thorough, data-driven planning to meet the demonstrated needs of the community the agency serves, making your public transportation network even more valuable. 

Which brings us back to knowing your community. 

21st Century solutions to 21st Century challenges 

Historically and currently, transit agencies across the U.S. are primarily focused on asset management. Capital budgets have long been easier to fund than operational budgets, just look at how the IIJA funding is set up. Planning tended to be ad hoc; focus groups and best guesses were used more than data to make route and scheduling decisions. Transit agencies are collecting data, but often don’t use it to influence decisions that impact operations, cost savings, or route analysis. This keeps transit behind the times when compared to other data-driven industries. Over time, the negative effects of uninformed planning piles up, resulting in outdated routes that no longer meet the needs of the community, decreased ridership, and glaring financial deficits. 

Compare this to the use of data in other industries. What I see in my social media feeds is determined by algorithms that use data about posts I have interacted with before. My Target and Amazon apps know my purchasing habits and make it easy for me to reorder the things I use the most. If I sit down with my family to watch a ball game on television, I am inundated with statistics that help me understand the game (not to mention nearly every decision made by the team’s coaches and management was data driven). 

Today’s world is run on information, and as an industry, we need to get on board with this. The technology we need to shift to data-driven transit planning is readily available, and in many cases, data is already starting to be collected. We just need to get better at using this data effectively. Seeing the value in data and investing in not just collecting it, but using it to make decisions, is imperative. 

While the industry is slowly trending in that direction, it’s lagging well behind both the capabilities of technology and the ways private industry is using data. Fortunately, we are seeing an increase in the number of transit agencies that have leadership who are comfortable with data and who understand the value of it 

Get your head in the cloud 

Today, a cloud-based system is the smartest way to collect and analyze rider data. It allows for centralized reporting from all points of contact to give you a better sense of your riders. Data can be continuously transmitted from everywhere it is collected. At the most basic level, it can clearly show who is riding which routes, where they are getting on and off transit, at what time of day, and how often they ride. It can show you how riders react to changes, weather, events, and other variables in real time. You can see how and where riders are purchasing their fares. It demonstrates how various fare structures, including reduced fares for students or seniors, targeted free fares, fare capping, and multimodal options affect ridership. 

More than ever, ridership data can be linked to individual riders, providing more opportunities to analyze and target the various rider personas you serve. This can help you provide a service of greater value to attract daily commuters, tourists, students, low-income workers, or even people who only ride transit when it helps them avoid traffic or parking headaches. 

We should all be slicing and dicing this data to inform route, schedule, and fare planning so we can better serve our communities. This data can be used not just to plan where your buses are going and when, but what forms of payment you are accepting and where and how riders are purchasing fares. 

For example, your data may show that in certain parts of town, more riders are using cash on the bus, while in others, open payments are more utilized. This information may lead to a decision to create more opportunities for unbanked riders to digitize cash, such as ticket vending machines and retail point of service terminals, in some areas, while determining that in other neighborhoods, signage promoting the ability to tap your bank card on the bus is the best approach. 

What about free or cash fares? 

I will never stop advocating for every transit agency to continue to accept cash fares. Accepting cash is vital for equitable mobility, despite the reduced data collection available from riders who pay in coins and bills and the cost of collecting and counting cash. 

At the same time, I am all for making it easier for unbanked and underbanked riders to digitize cash onto a mobile app, smart card, or other fare media. This has several advantages for the rider (allowing cash riders to take advantage of reduced fares, fare capping, and other fare structures that save them money) and the agency (reducing the burden of collecting cash and preventing theft). But most importantly, digitizing cash allows for more robust data collection.  

When it comes to fare-free riders, I strongly recommend utilizing validating fare media rather than a universal free fare or a visual inspection of ID by the rider or conductor. This will result in a reduction in fare evasion as well as better data collection. This can mean working with local schools to allow students to tap their ID cards or scan QR codes on transit, or with social service agencies to distribute free or funded fare media to their clients. Or if seniors ride free, make it easy for them to get a contactless smart card by mail or at a local library or community center. 

There are many options available to get to know your community, even when riders are unbanked or are not paying a fare. The technology for collecting this data exists today and is tested and proven. There are also low-tech options for learning about your riders and community, such as “secret shoppers,” meet and greets with management at transit hubs, focus groups, and surveys. Together, they can give you a full picture of the community so you can meet their needs. 

We can help you know your community 

I invite you to have a conversation with me or your Business Development Director about how you can leverage your fare collection technology to get to better know your community.  The solutions that can help with data collection and monitoring to make these data-first decisions are available today and are likely compatible with the technology you already have in place. Please reach out!