What does the future hold for public transport in major cities?

Although it may seem hard to believe for anyone who’s recently travelled on train or bus during rush hour in cities such as London or New York, journey numbers on public transport systems in major UK and US hubs are currently falling - but why is that?

In this article you will learn:

  • The true extent of passenger decline on global transport networks.
  • Why millennials are responsible for the biggest shift.
  • What it means for the future of public transport.

Transport for London (TfL), the London transport authority, are currently in the midst of the tricky process of reconfiguring a number of their bus routes across the capital, which could mean up to seven per cent of services being cancelled altogether. They have also been forced to scrap a number of planned upgrades to the underground network, as the authority prepares itself for the reported £1 billion deficit it faces next year after an unexpected fall in passenger numbers.

In the US there’s a similar story, as Washington DC’s Metro service experiences an even greater fall, with daily passenger numbers dropping from 750,000 in 2009 to 626,000 in 2018. Meanwhile in New York, The Metropolitan Transportation Authority registered almost 30 million fewer rides on the subway in 2017 compared to 2016.

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For frequent users overcrowding is a longstanding problem, which makes the thought of fewer people on your tube carriage or morning bus rather appealing. However with practically every major transport network in need of upgrades, drops in passenger revenue will ultimately only worsen the problem.

The reasons behind the widespread decline in journey numbers are no doubt varied, but as with so many of the changes we’re seeing across society it’s millennials who are said to be the driving force behind the shift. In the case of the Washington DC Metro, passengers below the age of 29 took 21 per cent fewer trips on weekdays and a staggering 40 per cent fewer on weekends in April 2018 compared to April 2016.

An obvious place to start when assessing this generational culture shift is the proliferation of smartphones and the subsequent emergence of the 'Uber generation', where affordable and on-demand taxi journeys suddenly became an option for millions more people. Initially, at least, these types of services were viewed as a good option for weekend, off peak, travel. However many ridesharing apps are now deliberating trying to lure people away from public transport systems for weekday commuting. The recently launched ViaVan app offered users in London rides to or from Zone 1 for just £3, compared with £4.90 for a equivalent journey on the underground network.

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Human-powered transport options have also multiplied as of late, with pay-as-you-go scooters having huge take-up in cities such as San Francisco and pay-as-you-go bicycle hire schemes rapidly multiplying across London.

If the decline in bus and train passengers is to reverse, it’s clear changes need to be made to modernise the services. One way to achieve this will be through a greater use of data, which the likes of TfL have long been encouraging through the use of their open API, inviting developers to create new, innovative ways to serve customer travel information to those using their network. However the businesses that have been formed off the back of this data stream, such as Citymapper, are now ready to take things to the next level.

The public transport app was recently granted a license to run its own smart bus fleet in the capital, using the information it had gathered around user journeys to identify where and when extra routes were in demand. According to Citymapper 'Project Grasshopper' will see "the entire software stack for running and operating a bus reinvented". The Citymapper smart buses still run on a fixed route, using regular stops, however the smaller and more nimble size of the vehicles means they are better equipped to navigate crowded cities, whilst coming with added extras such as USB chargers, smart displays and free WiFi.

There’s no doubt that public transport systems will continue to have a long and, most probably, crowded future - but they make look and feel quite different to what you might well be using as you read this article.

Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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