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Zipper: Promote 'Uniqueness' of Public Transit Service; Addresses Opening Session at APTA Summit

If public transit agencies are going to keep up with the redefinition of transit to include ridesharing, bikesharing, scooters and other new modes, they must “lean into their discomfort” and learn from other sectors that have gone through similar changes.

That was the message of David Zipper, a fellow in the Urban and Regional Policy Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, at the Nov. 28 Opening General Session of the APTA Industry Leadership Summit in Washington, DC, as this issue of ­Passenger Transport went to press.

“Don’t lose sight of what makes public transit unique,” he said, citing how independent bookstores have rebounded in the 20 years since the launch of ­ and e-readers. “With their backs against the wall, they played up their unique characteristics, like book readings and the pride of shopping locally,” he said.

Public transit professionals attended APTA’s Industry Leadership Summit to examine new ways to approach innovation and disruption in public transportation.
Leadership Summit photos by Steve Barrett Photography

Zipper explained that—after decades when personal cars and bicycles, taxis, buses and rail were the only modes—the “flowering of new modes” began around 2000 and continues today. While these new modes mean increased competition and more ways to keep private vehicles off the road, he said this is not necessarily good or bad.

Some changes he noted are less about the mode of public transit than about the technology controlling its use. He noted that services such as Transportation Network Companies, which he said were “born from smartphones,” update their apps much more frequently than public transit agencies and noted the “Walled Gardens” business model, where users have to go to a specific tech company (for example, Apple or Uber) to access apps.

He listed what he called constructive options for public transportation:

1) deciding whether to be an operator of transit assets or a mobility platform that offers broader services;
2) examining how users decide which mode to take; gaining city and state support for agency efforts;
3) understanding that they may become one element of a mobility company’s app rather than standing alone; and
4) looking for ways to “surprise and delight your customers.”

In his welcoming remarks, APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas noted that ridership on public transit over the past 20 years has grown by 30 percent, compared with a 22 percent growth in the U.S. population.

Citing the 83 percent success rate of public transit-related ballot measures in 2018, part of a 10-year trend, he added, “In communities across the country, large and small, people want more mobility options.”

Skoutelas said the public transit sector has “good reasons to be optimistic” regarding federal funding levels and advances in infrastructure efforts.

He also reported on APTA’s “ambitious mobility action plan” to move the association’s efforts into new forms of mobility. “Nearly every industry is being disrupted by external forces,” he said. “The ones that embrace change will become stronger. The ones that deny, defer or delay are likely to become irrelevant.”

APTA Chair David M. Stackrow Sr., former board chairman of the Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, NY, continued Skoutelas’s emphasis on innovation.

Describing the APTA three-year strategic plan now being created, he said, “If we’re going to redefine the future, we better have a solid strategic plan to guide us … re-examining APTA’s mission and vision and taking a fresh look at what we need to accomplish for a vibrant, successful future.” He invited association members to help “reinvent the public transportation industry” at listening sessions in the coming months.

Look for more insights from APTA’s Industry Leadership Week in the next, Dec. 17, issue of Passenger Transport.
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