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How Cities Are Leveraging Transit Modernization to Fuel the Post-COVID Economy

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated public transit in cities all over the world, completely changing the transportation landscape.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated public transit in cities all over the world, completely changing the transportation landscape. Ridership on subways, trains and buses plummeted in many urban centers, and it will likely be years before those numbers return to some semblance of normalcy.

One analysis by the New York City MTA, for example, suggested ridership there might return to about 80 to 92 percent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2024.
The most important thing is restoring peoples’ confidence in using transit again,” says former U.S. Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx, now a chief policy officer at Lyft. “I think it's going to take a while for people to get comfortable [doing] normal things again.
Still, transit authorities have reason to be optimistic. There are positive signals across the country, such as new federal funding efforts and the lifting of many restrictions related to the pandemic.

But transit agencies need to embrace new strategies and technologies as the new federal funds flow and as riders begin to come back. It's more vital than ever for agencies to focus on infrastructure modernization, not just in terms of capital infrastructure but also rethinking the role software and technology innovation in general play in the foundation of the future of transportation.

Transit plays a crucial role in the U.S. economy, and modernizing transportation technology will be a key component of helping cities thrive in a post-pandemic era.


There’s no question the pandemic and the shift to work-from-home models have had a dramatic impact on transportation and will likely shape the future of urban transit for years to come. Millions of people stopped taking mass transit, either because they no longer needed to commute to work or for health safety reasons.

As communities and businesses begin to reopen, the return to a sense of normalcy needs to include a focus on boosting citizens’ confidence in public transportation, says Eve Machol, transportation industry director for business applications, data analytics and AI at Microsoft, who joined Foxx and other speakers in a recent Government Technology webinar on public transit modernization.

“How do we motivate and provide confidence to both our employees and our citizens that public transit is safe and appropriate at this time?” Machol says. Part of the answer, she says, is improving experience through a focus on cleanliness, sufficient staffing and “journey management” through tools such as route optimization.

Even prior to the pandemic, the industry had been exploring intelligent transportation systems and the integration of data on multimodal transport, including buses, trains, taxis, ride-share and scooters.

These developments “will enable the traveler to make these intelligent decisions on how to get around,” Machol says.

With emerging hybrid work schedules and expected increased ridership, there will be a recognition across different transit organizations of the need to share data to improve service.

"I think the benefit — if we can say that — of this post-pandemic life is that those events of 2020 have created that disruptive landscape or disruptive force to enable stakeholders to be more collaborative, in the interest of improving the industry," Machol says.


Citizens have come to expect enhanced services made possible by technology, including the delivery of mobile apps for trip planning and ticketing.

On the agency side, one area of increased focus will be around predictive maintenance and leveraging technology for better real-time awareness of the condition of assets such as roadways, railways, bridges, tunnels and even elevators and escalators at stations, according to Machol. All the data gathered by the growing number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, along with the application of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and cloud-based cognitive services, provide the potential to improve services even further.

“Agencies have so much data, but it needs to be operationalized, and we need to extract context from it to not just make better decisions, but to drive more progress,” Machol says.

Government leaders are engaging in a “visioning” process around public transit, says Nick Lyell, co-founder and chief impact officer at CivStart, a company that guides and accelerates the adoption of technologies at the local level by connecting agencies, startup companies and corporate partners. This visioning creates opportunities to think differently about how public transit operates, how different systems operate together and how data interoperability works, he says.

The private sector plays a big role in transit modernization, offering innovative technologies such as automated bus lane enforcement using AI, dynamic tolling and all-electric mass transit.

"We're seeing a lot of need for solutions that [are] game changing, really affordable and maybe also generate revenue," Lyell says.

Any kind of technology that helps make mass transit more convenient and reliable is going to help bring ridership back, he adds.

“As anybody who has waited for a late bus on their way to work [knows], reliability and convenience is really important,” he says.


Urban planning in recent years has shifted away from marquee physical projects such as stadiums or neighborhood redevelopment and toward foundational areas such as the safety of sidewalks, crosswalks and streets, says Renee Autumn Ray, strategy and innovation leader at software company Conduent Transportation Solutions.

Technologies such as asset management and image recognition software enable cities to collect useful data in a way that's much less labor-intensive for municipal employees to get a comprehensive understanding of the physical environment. This makes it much easier for cities to prioritize funding and make improvements to the transportation infrastructure, Ray says. Cities will look to enhance the convenience and safety of buses and train rides and the supporting infrastructure.

“That's going to make people feel welcome and safe if they want to use transit,” she says.
Being able to capture that data in a much less resource-intensive way can be a really important piece of making those infrastructure improvements.
As with any major improvement effort, one key issue is funding. State and local transit agencies have a number of options available, including help from the federal government.

For example, the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law in March 2021, includes about $30.4 billion that will be available for public transportation, says Pete Sklannik, a project management oversight consultant for the Federal Transit Administration and an adviser to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Whatever the technology leaders are thinking about within their organizations, they need to make sure they work with the grants folks in the organization and their funding partners” in the federal government to ensure any ideas or applications for a grant are well thought out and don’t fail to follow procedure, Sklannik says.

This will help ensure the implementation of technology initiatives can occur on a timely basis, Sklannik says, adding that federal government plans to up the nation’s infrastructure is “an incredible, wonderful opportunity” for public transit providers.

“We now face a situation of having to make up lost ground by reinvesting in existing infrastructure,” he says.

As government leaders across the spectrum look to rebuild the economy, it’s clear transportation modernization will play a central role, says Foxx. That presents valuable opportunities for both public-sector organizations and the private-sector companies they partner with.
I'm excited that the ecosystem of transportation is evolving,” he says, “and I think that one of the important roles of government and transit agencies is helping to ensure the private marketplace is creating solutions that are useful to our public sector.
Hayden AI was founded on the belief that by combining mobile sensors with artificial intelligence, we can help governments bridge the innovation gap while making traffic flow less dangerous and more efficient.