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The Imperative of Reimagining
Public Transportation

by Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., Chair, APTA
CEO, Jacksonville (FL) Transportation Authority

The public transportation industry is in the midst of the greatest transformation of our generation. Our collective place in the emerging mobility landscape will be defined by how well we employ modern technologies, forge unique partnerships and explore new ways of delivering an array of public transit options.

Shaping this new mobility paradigm is the cornerstone of my five priorities for the year as APTA chair, and strategizing how best to anticipate and meet the evolving needs of riders is being played out both at home and further afield.

This past month, I had the distinct honor of representing APTA at the European Mobility Exhibition in Paris. This biennial exhibition, organized by our French partners GIE Objectif Transport Public, brings together the French Transportation Authorities Association, or Groupement des Autorités Responsables de Transport (GART), and the Public and Rail Transport Association, or Union des Transports Publics et Ferroviaires (UTP).

The exhibition was an ideal occasion for me to discuss how the shared economy, automation and modal integration are providing both opportunities and challenges for public transportation in the U.S. I highlighted several examples of where this is already happening across the nation. For example:

* New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is undertaking a top-to-bottom redesign of its bus network that includes new state-of-the-art buses, additional bus lanes and all-door boarding;

* Dallas Area Rapid Transit is improving its GoPass app to offer riders first- and last-mile options based on price, travel and arrival times, and the ­ability to pay for trips with the app;

* King County Metro Transit in the Seattle area is working with app designers to create a service that incentivizes carpooling as an option for customers; and

* The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which was honored at the European Mobility Exhibition, is integrating bikesharing into its TAP fare payment system, cultivating ideas from the private sector through its unsolicited bid processes, and launching three microtransit pilot projects to provide flexible, on-demand mobility services.

Ford represented APTA at the recent European Mobility Exhibition in Paris.

While at the exhibition, I gained some excellent insights into Europe’s best practices in mobility and public transit. For example, France has developed a national strategy for automated vehicles. During the event, French Transportation Minister Elisabeth Borne announced a national “Mobility as a Service” strategy with the goal of providing nationwide access to data on all available mobility services.

What was most valuable was the first-hand view of the French market structure as well as the emerging mobility practices and pilots that are underway across European cities. There is clearly a strong emphasis on redesigning and restructuring networks to meet the modern needs of the customer. Initiatives include greater system integration, more efficient fare collection and boarding, the testing of automated vehicles and a focus on low-to-zero emissions.

All of these efforts have resulted in greater service availability in many French cities and towns, and ultimately a modal share of public transportation, including intercity passenger rail, as high as 20 percent in many major cities and on average nationwide.

From the piloting of autonomous vehicles as an integral part of the public transit service in Lyon, to the plan to fully electrify the bus fleet in Paris by 2025, to the on-demand mobility pilot using electric autonomous vehicles in Rouen, there is much to learn from the French.

I was especially impressed by the customer-centric approach and strong focus on not only the why, but the how, as publicly funded agencies move away from traditionally administrative functions and adopt a more dynamic, entrepreneurial corporate culture. Public transit is not viewed as a commuter service, but rather as a service for all.

We, too, must evolve our public structure here in the U.S. to allow for an integrated, holistic mobility governance. One approach may mean putting in place more regional transportation authorities with full control of the many factors that ensure a highly efficient and fully integrated mobility system: public transportation services, oversight of shared modes, traffic management and parking, street design and road building.

Most of all, the exhibition reinforced the notion that the future of our industry will be determined by our ability to fully embrace a culture of innovation and smart risk-taking. Yes, we need the political support and long-term funding to do so, but we also must demonstrate leadership in our own right. It will require all of us working together to create an integrated and sustainable ecosystem of mobility services with public transportation at the core.

We can transform our future if we think of ourselves as service providers, integrators and coordinators of transportation choices rather than as operators of buses, trains and trams. As I stated to exhibition attendees in Europe, “To prepare for this new paradigm, we need to develop a shared, holistic vision of mobility across all modes that helps us position our industry to move people in the most efficient way possible, with transit as the backbone of a multimodal lifestyle.”

In that context, I am very much looking forward to convening public transit industry leaders at APTA’s “The Future of Mobility – From Transit Authority to Mobility Integrator” summit, July 12 in Washington, DC. For all of us, this event represents a major step forward on the exciting transformational journey to reimagine public transportation and how we serve our communities. Welcome aboard!

"Commentary" features authoritative points of view from various sources on timely and pressing issues affecting public transportation. APTA would like to hear from you. If you are interested in submitting a original, thought-leader Commentary for consideration, please contact Senior Managing Editor David A. Riddy.
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