There’s no doubt in my mind that transit enriches people’s lives. A robust transit system allows all members of a community to access places important to them, whether that’s a job, groceries, recreation, or time spent with loved ones. That’s true whether the rider – who could be a student, a senior, a disabled person, or anyone else – depends on transit or if they have options for getting around.
I’ve spent my career helping to make transit more accessible; and while there is tremendous value in that accessibility, I’m no closer to being able to assign a dollar value to the many ways in which transit improves communities and the lives of their residents.
Sure, we can look at data to learn that 87 percent of trips on transit directly benefit the local economy, but from my point of view, the true impact of transit is a lot more individual. After all, how can we determine the value of a young person being able to commute to their first job or a worried patient getting to her doctor’s office for a follow-up visit?
The three pillars of equitable mobility
At Genfare, we talk a lot about equitable mobility and its three pillars:
- Knowing your community
- Building multimodal end-to-end solutions
- Realizing value and being cost-effective
This philosophy is more than just talk – it’s at the heart of what we do and why we do it. We don’t just build fare collection solutions; we aim to help our transit agency customers be better partners in their communities. Efficiency isn’t just about dollars or return on investment – it’s more about meeting the needs of the transit dependent and attracting choice riders at the same time.
I get a lot of job satisfaction from helping transit agencies of all sizes all over the central U.S. identify and address the needs of their communities. I get to make transit easier to use through fare collection solutions that accept whatever form of payment is in the riders’ pockets. This allows transit to reach more people and go more places, thereby raising its efficiency and value to the community.
In this post, I’ll expand on what my colleague Jennille Logan said about pillar 3 of equitable mobility in a blog post earlier this year:
“For transit to be valuable it must provide value to riders, agencies, municipalities, and taxpayers. Value isn’t only about cost – it goes so much deeper. For example, a quality transit system can attract and retain coveted employers, which then drives economic development to the area. That said, cost-effective, value-added equitable mobility solutions are available to meet the needs, schedules, and budgets of agencies of any size. Even though transit agency budgets are currently strained, to put it mildly, creating a clear plan that increases revenue while leading to equity for all stakeholders is an achievable goal.”
Accessible transit is necessary to achieve equitable mobility
A community’s infrastructure must be accessible to all to be equitable. For our team at Genfare, that means continuing to accept cash as well as making it easy for unbanked or underbanked riders to take advantage of fare structures that can save them money. It also means increasing service to underserved communities so residents can access food and jobs that might not be available within their neighborhood’s boundaries.
Imagine you are an urban single mom, and you must take your child to daycare and get downtown to your job – if the bus routes and schedules are not convenient, your commute time can be as long as someone driving from the far-flung suburbs. Routes should be planned to get riders everywhere they need to go at frequent intervals – not just in spokes to and from the city center once an hour. Multi-modal integrations can make the first and last mile parts of the riders’ journey faster.
Or consider your city is trying to attract a major employer who offers 4,000 jobs, but only 2,000 parking spaces are available nearby; the city could lose out on the economic development they could bring. An automated transit benefit coupled with direct routes to the site could attract a diverse workforce from around the region and reduce traffic congestion while solving the parking issue. It’s hard to put a dollar value on those scenarios, even though it’s clear they both have a lot of value.
I attended a transit conference in Kansas, where I heard a speaker explain that every county in the state was experiencing population declines – except for its two metropolitan areas. While economic opportunities are a big reason that young people leave rural communities, the lack of options to access healthcare or to shop for food and other essentials without driving is causing longtime residents to move away as they age. The lack of transit is causing established citizens and taxpayers to move away.
Cost-effective fare collection leads to cost-effective transportation
Genfare partners with more than 400 agencies, which allows us to develop high degrees of fare collection functionality, durability, security, and integration without tying the burden of development to new projects. We have the privilege of witnessing many types of community needs and a great development team who are constantly answering these challenges. This helps us cost-effectively bring a wide range of the latest revenue technology to agencies across North America.
In addition to new fare collection hardware and software being reasonably priced, the latest technology can also reduce the cost of collecting fares. In short, upgrading fare collection equipment can offer more capabilities at a lower upfront cost and lower operating costs.
- Across the industry, fare revenue collection equipment made up just 1 percent of the $23.7 billion in capital expenditures for public transit in 2020.
- Using a cloud-based platform and digitizing fare collection significantly reduces costs for an agency’s IT platform and support, particularly for 24/7 support for rider websites and mobile apps.
- Now that credit and debit cards may be accepted onboard, the cost of pass distribution can be significantly reduced for the agency. When combined with fare capping, it’s possible for agencies to reduce or eliminate the sales of traditional monthly passes and day passes, which typically are labor-intensive to administer.
- Having all forms of fare sales and collection managed through one central system accessible to all authorized users on their own computers reduces the cost of IT resources and eliminates system integration challenges.
Eliminating barriers to equitable mobility
While we advocate that continuing to accept cash and coin at the farebox is essential for equitable mobility, we also believe in eliminating barriers to digital payments to lower costs for agencies and riders alike. To do this well, we need to reduce the role of transit agencies in staffing and maintaining extensive distribution networks by decentralizing the means for riders to fund their cards or accounts.
For example, we can provide retail point of service terminals and coordinate relationships with third-party retail networks so riders can top off their cards or accounts at convenient shops or community centers near their bus stop instead of having to travel to a transit hub to use a ticket vending machine. We also make it possible for riders to pay their fares using their smartphone, even if they don’t have a bank card to attach to an account.
One of the things I think we do the best is automate the processes for the transit agencies who are working with organizations such as schools or social service agencies, enabling more relationships and better tailored programs for their constituents. The transit agencies are more efficient in reaching out to the community with subsidized, reduced, or free fares. There’s tremendous value in that outreach.
There’s real value in perceived value
When it comes to dollars, of course we have our eyes on it with comprehensive capabilities. Our consolidation bins make it easier and less expensive to count cash. Our cloud-based reporting is simplified to save a lot of staff hours. But value isn’t always measured in dollars.
Paying a fare increases the perception of the value of transit. Some agencies who adopted universal free fares during the pandemic experienced an explosion of non-destination riders. Safety, cleanliness, and quality of service complaints went up, deterring choice riders and making it more difficult to recruit bus and train operators. A well-structured fare system that is easily accessible to residents and community partners will ensure that access to transit services can be provided to all eligible riders, particularly for those who qualify for reduced- or no-fare privileges.
Partnerships with food or housing programs can give credentials to the people without the means to buy fares, without burdening the transit agency with administering every aspect of its free and reduced fare program. It also keeps valuable ridership and route data coming in to help plan more efficient schedules.
Real-time monitoring and fare capping: Additional ways to increase cost-effectiveness
Earlier this year, Genfare installed new fareboxes for Pace to replace the 30-year-old fareboxes in its suburban Chicago buses. The legacy Genfare fareboxes were still functioning but needed modernization to not just improve reliability and be ready to accept more forms of payment, but to streamline maintenance. If a Pace farebox needs to be serviced, embedded technology will instantly alert depot maintenance staff of what needs to be done when the bus returns at the end of the operator’s shift, saving thousands of hours of labor with real-time monitoring.
As noted before, fare capping increases both efficiency and rider equity. Fare capping provides the savings of a monthly, weekly, or daily pass without the up-front cost of printing the passes. Capping has a huge value for all types of riders, whether they have trouble coming up with the $65 for a monthly pass at the same time their rent is due, or they just don’t know how many rides they will take over the month. Once they have completed enough $2 rides to meet the monthly pass cost, the system stops charging them until the next month. Choice riders and visitors don’t have to calculate how many rides they plan to take — the system automatically provides them with the best value.
Equitable mobility fits into the equation of calculating value – by making even more services and benefits available to all riders, regardless of their ability to pay with a bank card or with an up-front investment. Genfare looks forward to continuing to provide the tools each partner transit agency can use to serve more riders and more communities, at less cost, with less of a burden on agency staff.
Larry Chefalo is Genfare’s Business Development Director for the Midwest region. He is a 30+ year veteran of the transit industry. Larry can be reached by email or at 847.871.1130.