Author: Josep Laborda (Factual)

Public transport ridership globally has suffered a dramatic drop to an all-time low due to the COVID-19 crisis. As lockdowns ease, there is now an impending need to imagine, and implement novel, effective ways to recover confidence from travellers using public transport — while saving public finances, the climate, and rebuilding the economy at the same time. A huge challenge, indeed.

What now for transport in the time of COVID-19? is a common theme of many articles published these days. It proposes a few interesting recipes aimed at the recovery of public transport, some of which are “common sense”, such as accelerating the pervasiveness of contactless ticketing to avoid infections.

Among these, we especially like and support the idea, in the referenced article, that…

“… to reduce crowding on public transport, transport providers could provide incentives to reduce the impact of crowding in carriages, such as reduced fares at quieter times or rewards such as vouchers from surrounding businesses”

This is beautifully linked with the idea we at FACTUAL advocate of nudging travellers away from their private cars (which are perceived by many as being safer for keeping social distancing) and into the closest public transport hub (related: While the world is temporarily closed, how can we rethink public transportation and shared mobility?). To achieve this bold aim we propose to implement dynamic, highly customizable micro-subsidies covering part of the cost of using a commercial transport service provider (ride-hailing, taxi, micromobility, i.e., whatever option is available in a given geographic area) to cover the first or last mile of a multimodal trip, where public transport must provide a portion of the trip. We want to drive more travellers to a bus stop or train station (which is typically not easily accessibleor not walking distance). Under the scheme we’re proposing, a public authority (a city, a Public Transport Authority, …), or even a private company (for instance the user’s employer) would cover a portion of a transportation service provider’s fare to conveniently connect those users to public transport, without using a private vehicle. This also links to our idea of “flattening manifold curves”, such as those of demand and supply of public transport, or commuting times to avoid crowds in rush hour, and so faciliate adherence to new social distancing requirements.

The article also claims that MaaS must be “an integral part of the mix“— and we fully agree. Moreover, we’re delighted that it highlights “CORE MaaS – COvid-19 REsilient Mobility as a Service”, a project being developed by our colleagues from Iomob, where we at FACTUAL helped prepare a proposal “to create a platform to provide intermodal routing algorithms to allow users to select available mobility options within a selected geography that optimize social distancing, as a prioritized parameter, enabling passengers to choose the least crowded route“.

A coalition of public transport industry leaders, spearheaded by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) have recently called on the European Commission (EC) and EU member states to support public transport through the COVID-19 crisis and to encourage modal shift to fulfil the objectives of the EU’s Green Deal. One of their principle demands urges more economic and financial support. The declaration reads: “public transport operators are finding themselves in a contradictory situation where, on the one hand, they have to provide the same level of services as before the crisis, but on the other hand, they are facing a dramatic cut in their incomes which are based on the level of usage and dotation from local authorities…“. Moreover, “it is evident that receiving not more than 10 percent of ticket revenues while maintaining on average between 70 to 100 percent of the service is not financially sustainable“.

We assert that we can nudge more users onto public transport by providing the right incentives (including to “new” users who were previously relying on private cars, so overall we will also reduce vehicles kilometers travelled in low-occupancy vehicles), while providing more ridership for PTAs/PTOs. The disruptive part of our idea is in how to allocate public subsidies (not “only” directly in public transport), where we think that placing highly targeted, efficiently managed economic incentives into private commercial mobility services can deliver an overall positive outcome, benefitting public transport ridership, and public finances. This is a win-win-win business model: for end users, for public finances, and for public transport. Add sustainability factors, i.e., fewer vehicle km travelled, less congestion, lower air pollution, and the “wins” increase!

Someone said, once: “Never waste a crisis!”. We add: let’s not pretend that things can ever be the same, some things can even get better! Think of the clearer air in many urban areas during lockdowns. So let’s design the “next normal” where public transport is in a top spot on the EU agenda, and let’s collaborate rather than compete with commercial transportation service providers in this endeavour to promote more sustainable mobility of citizens, employees and customers.

We want the mobility industry to understand it pays off to invest in this idea. And we have the digital platform to address this opportunity: FACTUAL’s Harmonised Transportation System (HTS), a SaaS platform, micro-subsidy calculation engine (currently at TRL6), comprising a database with geographic information describing eligible areas and a rules engine that can be configured to ensure micro-subsidies fill gaps in public transport and support wider policy objectives. HTS is designed along open access standards to be available to any MaaS or proprietary TSP platforms.

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