Levelling up public transport

Rahul Kumar and CJ Bright from Keolis North America tell Intelligent Transport about Keolis Evolve, a new tool to help transit agencies and authorities gain a better understanding of passenger travel in their communities.

How Keolis North America is working to level up public transport

How did Keolis conclude that Evolve was needed by the transit industry?

Rahul Kumar: Travel habits have changed dramatically over the last 15 months or so, but even before that people were not travelling in the same way that they were. CJ and I have been involved in public transit planning more than 30 years between us, and what we’ve seen is a lack of evolution in public transit agencies’ mindsets in how they design systems. That’s not for a lack of effort – many systems around the globe have really tried to improve, adapt and create new modes. A lot of the work has been infrastructure heavy, adding new bus‑only lanes, express services, new fleet types in big cities and new mass transit systems like subways, but, ultimately, it has been a challenge to keep up with how people actually travel. The pandemic has exacerbated that and, as a result, CJ and I put our heads together and worked with our group to create what we’re calling Keolis Evolve.

CJ Bright: We believe that Keolis Evolve can essentially be the start of a new mobility revolution. It is designed to help inform public transit authorities how people are truly moving around their community. It is not necessarily for just existing riders either, but considers the totality of mobility needs across the community, whether people drive or take public transit to their destination. Evolve is really geared to help enable liveability; there are lots of people who, whether by choice or by situation, do not have access to a car, but that shouldn’t mean that they can’t have the same level of access to everyday life. Our goal is to help cities to design more comprehensive mobility ecosystems so that people have the freedom to choose how they want to travel.

Kumar: We look at sustainability pretty seriously as part of this – it’s not just a buzzword. If we think about the single best way for people to move sustainably, without question it is public transportation. However, that’s probably the least personal way of moving, too. Keolis Evolve tries to bridge that gap by giving cities the data that they need to make their systems more personal, but operating them in a way that’s more akin traditional mass transit.

Why is now the right time to begin focusing on these challenges?

Kumar: There is a small element of opportunism here, however, CJ and I have been working on this now for two years, and it just happened to coincide with us having the cycles available with our digital team to actually build the tool.

Aside from this, if we look at the demographics of mass transit users and what that tells us about accessibility and equity, almost 70 per cent of American bus riders and transit riders are black and brown populations. What’s more, almost three quarters of them live on below $30,000 a year. As we look at the future of transit, especially in the United States, when we talk about service cuts, when we talk about reducing frequencies, there’s a real concern that the disparity between frequent transit users because of situation and the rest of the population is only going to grow. There’s talk of a K-recovery from the pandemic, where some have made a lot of money and others are just struggling to get by – that is reflected in our mobility situation. For those that don’t have access to a car and rely on public transportation, the K-curve is very real and they will be disparately impacted by service cuts. 

What kind of data capture and analyses are at play here?

Bright: Keolis Evolve uses quite a lot of GPS location-based data to analyse all of the movements across a given community. That data is then calibrated with the automated passenger counter data that’s available onboard transit vehicles to understand the specific ‘ons and offs’ of existing transit users. We also calibrate it with census data so that we understand the demographics of the communities that the buses are serving.

As an example, at one location we found that the most popular destination was outside of what you would expect, which is the traditional downtown area; it was actually a shopping centre on the edge of town. We were able to identify a disconnect with the service design, where people who were travelling to that destination had to go out of their way on transit to reach it. If they drove, they could get there in 20 minutes, whereas transit took upwards of an hour.

An output of that conversation is investigating and creating routes and services to better connect people to where they truly want to go to reduce travel time. We’re also looking at micromobility and the possible implementation of more on‑demand services that can supplement the fixed-route network. We’re not looking to replace the agency service planners, we’re just providing them with more information to make the most effective decision they can, because they are the ones who are closest to the pulse of the community.

What can you tell us about the initial rollout and the results you’ve seen so far?

Bright: So far, we have completed two studies, with a third hopefully completed in the next couple of weeks. One was in North Carolina for the city of Greensboro and the Greensboro Transit Authority. This was where we found the prior example around travel habits out to the shopping centre, which really spurred the conversation about looking to create additional fixed-route services, but also looking at how to add on-demand services.

The second study we completed was for the RTC of Southern Nevada, which covers Las Vegas. That proved to be a very interesting study because of Las Vegas’ diverse population and travel needs. It has essentially two different travel needs, one for residents and one for visitors. We were able to identify through the study that you almost need two networks to fully capture the true demand across the Valley.

We identified that 15 per cent of the total travel demand for residents was not being not served. We recommended that RTC further research introducing on-demand services, given the potential size of the communities on the edge of the city that could need it.

For the visitor market, we noticed one of the main visitor routes – the Deuce on the Strip – could potentially provide a significant increase in ridership, just by extending it a few miles further south. That’s the level of detail of the data that we’re trying to provide agencies – not everything has to break the bank for authorities, or require the building of new infrastructure. Small tweaks to the system could actually have a big impact on the market share of transit in a given community.

Keolis Deuce on the Strip

Both Greensboro and Las Vegas had an idea of what we would find because they know their communities, but what they’d lacked to that point was the data to actually back up what they thought they knew. Now they have that reinforcement, they’re in a much stronger position to make decisions about the shapes of their networks and services for the future.

Kumar: Coming back to the data, transit has been a data-driven sector for a very long time, but it’s all been operational data. The gaps are around the passengers – sometimes, agencies don’t even count actual passengers, and without that you can’t understand what the users actually need. Every agency can tell you exactly what a bus did from the second it left the garage to the first stop, how many turns that took, where it sat with the doors open, what the temperature of the vehicle was – even how heavy the vehicle was at a certain point. What they can’t do is tell you is why somebody rode the bus and so, in that respect, data in transit is finally evolving with some of this work.

Where do you think Evolve can have the biggest impact?

Kumar: I ran a start-up for a few years and our investors asked us to sell into New York, San Francisco, Toronto – some of the largest agencies in North America. In most cases, cities that size already have the innovators and technologists they need, so just getting in the door of those places is difficult.

When we look at tier two cities – and there are hundreds of them across North America – their transit systems don’t have the population density of the tier ones, and we think that is a real target market for Evolve. The benefit of having long-term investors like we have at Keolis is that we don’t have to only target tier ones, we can go to places where we think we’re going to be able to make a real difference and build up from there.

Bright:  The reality is that we’ve already worked in Greensboro, which has a population of 300,000 people, and we’ve worked in the Las Vegas Valley, which is home to 2 million people, and both agencies found value in what we did. There is no upper limit to the size of the population or agency, but, to Rahul’s point, we may be more impactful with agencies where there’s more potential for increased ridership because those places are so car-centric currently.

If we look at the impact of the studies we’ve conducted already, even during the pandemic, we’ve managed to identify ways in which agencies don’t just recover, but also grow. We want to help them to understand that in some of these communities, the nine-to-five job commute is not what’s driving mobility needs among residents – it’s going to the mall, going to a doctor’s appointment or going to school. We want to help design services that can truly capture those market needs because that’s ultimately how those agencies are going to make a difference in their communities.

How do you identify areas for growth for transit systems during a pandemic that has hit North America especially hard?

Kumar: There are three phases: restore, restructure and revitalise. We’re in the service restoration phase right now, but rider habits have changed dramatically, so as services are restored, they also need to be changed. The restructure phase is where we come in to do a Keolis Evolve study, give an agency the tools they need, help them launch the services they need to operate to carry their population. Revitalisation is where the new modes come in and where more personal services are launched. These are the three phases that we’re going to see agencies going through during the next three to five years. 

Bright: We’re not just looking at modernising mobility needs, we’re looking at how agencies can get those new services to the people that need them faster. A study that is completed today is useful right now, it’s not a year or two out of date. In Greensboro, we showed them a snapshot based on their 2019 data, but the indication of the study showed that riders were already moving towards a service-oriented travel pattern. 

Kumar: We truly believe mobility is a fundamental right – it’s the great democratiser. In a world where we have woefully vast levels of inequity, public transportation can level up a city. Whether it’s through Keolis Evolve or cities rethinking the way they do things, this is an unrivalled opportunity for transport agencies and authorities to make a difference in their communities.

Rahul Kumar is Executive Vice President of Market Development and Innovation at Keolis North America.

CJ Bright is Keolis North America’s Director of Evolving Mobility.

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