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Meeting Changing Mobility Needs Key to Public Transit's Future Success

Chief Executive Officer
Pierce Transit
Lakewood, WA

The public transit industry of today is vastly different from the one I joined almost 30 years ago. Back then, the focus was on providing straightforward fixed-route service and moving people to and from the locations our agency chose. People had few other transportation alternatives to reach their destination.

Today’s world is radically different. People want—and have—choices for how they move around their community and region. Rideshare companies are thriving, other app-based transportation options are gaining traction and driverless vehicles are already here.

At Pierce Transit, we are focused on providing innovative transportation options that will entice our neighbors onto affordable public transportation and keep them there. One example is our new partnership with Lyft that gives people first-mile, last-mile connections to public transit.

Through a “Limited Access Connections” pilot program funded by an FTA Mobility on Demand Sandbox grant, Lyft is providing free rides within specific zones to select transit locations. We are also giving students at a local college a free ride home or to the nearest transit center after their bus route closes for the evening.

The project’s goals include meeting transportation challenges for those with limited or no transit access, addressing at-capacity park-and-rides, reducing congestion by increasing transit use and giving remote riders more transportation options. Once the pilot is complete, we will explore ways to continue this type of service, whether it means operating our own on-demand service or contracting to provide it.

Pierce Transit is also planning South Puget Sound’s first BRT line to better connect the outer reaches of our service area with the main population center. The line will serve three colleges/universities, thriving downtown Tacoma and its burgeoning business districts, and the region’s main transit hub, which connects people with light rail, regional bus service, commuter trains, Amtrak and other transportation options.

Convenient connections are important. That is why we are planning ahead to help people access an extended light rail system under development and coordinating closely with our regional partner, Sound Transit, to ensure timely and easy local bus connections.

We are also making fare payment more convenient. Last year we launched PiercePay, a mobile ticketing system that accounted for more than 6,100 monthly boardings just three months after its launch. Our customers can also use the regional ORCA farecard, which can be used on seven public transit systems throughout the Puget Sound region.

At Pierce Transit, we are looking at traditional solutions in non-traditional ways. One example is our Vanshare program, which picks up riders at their homes in a van that takes them to catch public transit. Another is our plan to begin offering all-electric vanpool vans, heightening the program’s visibility and giving a traditional program a hip and non-traditional flair.

In addition to pursuing innovative new transportation options, it is also important for agencies to take a careful look at their standard service. In 2016, Pierce Transit conducted a comprehensive analysis of our bus routing system, seeking extensive public input and examining ways to provide current and would-be riders with transit that goes where they want, provides more direct routes and faster service, and offers the additional frequency and later-in-the-day service people desire.

In 2017, we introduced a vastly improved routing system and added service hours, capping off a 16 percent increase in service since 2015. The public has responded by ­riding, with ridership up 3.6 percent January through May 2018 compared with those months in 2017, a turnaround from prior ridership losses of about 10 percent a month in late 2016.

Meeting the mobility demands of a changing populace is key to remaining relevant and growing ridership. Furthermore, embracing partnerships for solutions and providing our communities with transportation options that may not fit into the traditional role of public transportation are key factors as we proactively plan for this new paradigm and master it.
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