Community

Using Data to Increase Access: Improving Post-COVID Travel Options

Community

Using Data to Increase Access: Improving Post-COVID Travel Options

In this post:

  • COVID has spotlighted structural inequalities of all kinds, including who can access public transit and why

  • Increasing the availability of trip data would be helpful for advocating for more equitable access to transit

  • Building safe infrastructure for active modes of travel like e-bikes, cycling, and walking also creates more space for people to make the choices around travel that are best for them.

SteveFarber-headshot

Dr. Steven Farber, University of Toronto. Photo courtesy Dr. Farber.


In part 1 of our interview, Dr. Farber pointed out that those who have choices in transit use have a social responsibility to make space for those who have fewer choices about when and where they travel on public transit. In part 2, we talk about what we can learn from the data being gathered during the COVID crisis.

Dr. Steven Farber is a professor at the University of Toronto, a quantitative transportation geographer, and a spatial analyst. His research program investigates how land use and transportation systems affect social and economic outcomes of urban areas.

RM: Do you think any cities are doing a good job overall in providing access to transit for people, especially in low-income areas?

I’m not usually a big fan for like who’s doing it well and who’s not doing it well, but I can say that in our region, we don’t have a horribly unjust transportation system. There are injustices and not enough is done to specifically address those injustices but I think it’s starting to change and even before the pandemic, TTC adopted a policy to look at Neighbourhood Improvement Areas when trying to decide how to adjust levels of bus services and things like that.

I commend them for doing it now but I also think that it’s very indicative of the transit industry, in general, to be a couple of decades behind the curve in terms of really trying to focus in on those social equity issues. We don’t really have regulations in Canada that enforce the equality or the fairness of the distribution of transit resources in a city. We don’t have those policies here. We happen to have a responsible government here and a functioning government and a pretty healthy democracy where good things still tend to happen without those fears or strong regulations but more is still needed.

I think that the COVID pandemic has really put a spotlight on all structural inequalities, structural racism, and structural inequalities in the transportation system and in all of our social systems. I think it’s a great opportunity to say, “Look how much more we know right now, let’s act on this information.”

RM: Then in terms of acting on that information, what kind of role do you think apps like Rocketman – not necessarily just us but others as well – could play in helping to create equitable access to transit? Is it just about getting the right data and advocating with that data or is there some other steps?

Let’s talk about data first because we are in a very data-rich world, but locally, we’re actually in a pretty data-poor city when it comes to transportation. There have been major advances in transit systems around the world, where access to their smart card data and the quality of the smart card data is way more comprehensive and available to the research and advocacy communities in comparison to say the quality of the Presto data collection and how it’s available.

What that means is that we have really, really poor data to describe the conditions of users on the transportation network. We really don’t know what trips are being made end to end and what the experiences of those travellers are. We just have a huge hole in our data system that describes what users are actually doing.

This is where I think some of the app data could be super interesting either by having a record of which OD (origin-destination) patterns are being demanded by your users and, if you’ve got the real-time navigation features of your apps, then converting those real-time traces into a database of trips taken. Then researchers and advocates can look at the travel times, wait times, transfer times of different people’s trips over time and try to address quality issues or inequalities that we see in that data. I think that those are some really important data opportunities for Rocketman-type data to help out in this space.

I know that we’ve also discussed things like information on crowding and how apps are going to be so much more important in delivering and enabling riders to have a predictable experience in the age of limited-capacity buses. I think that to the extent that information can be made available, it’s going to help tremendously with the user experience on that front. It won’t solve the problem, but unreliability and not knowing is a big part of not wanting to take transit. I think, on the other hand, data that you collect on your app, if you know where people are, and when they’re waiting for buses and have more real-time access to demand, that information needs to be fed back to the agencies.

If the transit agencies aren’t going to be able to provide mobility in this period of time to transit-dependent people due to the COVID outbreak, then that information can be used to help contract out services to third-party providers who we’re going to have to subsidize in order to keep the population moving and participating in the economy and in health activities, in school activities and so on. If we don’t do that, the differences between those with and without good alternatives are going to grow and exacerbate existing inequalities in our system.

I don’t think that’s ultimately going to be an app company’s role and responsibility, but I think that it’s one way that the data can fit into this ecosystem is, “Okay, can these app companies feed that demand information into other mobility providers’ hands in order to increase the capacity for people to travel when we know that the transit system just won’t be able to if the exposure risks are too high?”

RM: Are there any other steps you would take to make travel easier in cities?

So going back to when we were talking about people with choices and needing to make space for those without choices, especially during the peak demand periods: part of having a choice is those choices need to be made available to people. A lot of people feel like they don’t have a choice. We see this around employers changing their work-time requirements – that’s about making choices available to people. The other side of this is on infrastructure and supply and making choices available to people so that during this limited time period, we don’t have to put undue health risks on people who need to use transit.

I think that a lot of data and evidence is out there that shows a huge number of trips could be made by active travel modes, by bicycle, by walking. People simply don’t do that. One of the main reasons that people aren’t doing that is lack of safe and comfortable infrastructure for pedestrian and cycling trips inside the Toronto downtown core but especially outside of the core. This is where government, I think, can also play a huge role in helping people stay off the bus and stay safe if they need to and make room for those who don’t have a choice.

I’m saying that with full knowledge that the evidence of the risks of transit and disease transmission is still really, really limited. There’s not a lot of evidence that shows that outbreaks have been caused by transit use and things like that, but it’s also pretty reasonable to think that exposure in crowded buses is a real threat. If that evidence gets more and more firm, I think there’s going to be more and more impetus to provide options for people.

I’m thinking about bike lanes, I’m thinking about massive e-bike incentive programs. A lot of people can’t bike also, and e-bikes are very expensive, but I think that subsidizing e-bikes, even subsidizing motorcycles could make a lot of sense right now and shift society in a more sustainable direction overall if those types of alternatives are made realistic and affordable today.

Rocketman: I really appreciate you having this conversation with me. I think people are really going to want to hear that there are things that we can do as individuals and there are things that we can do as companies, as transit agencies, as the city, as society at large. I think that that’ll be really helpful, so thank you so much for sharing all of that.

In this post:

  • COVID has spotlighted structural inequalities of all kinds, including who can access public transit and why

  • Increasing the availability of trip data would be helpful for advocating for more equitable access to transit

  • Building safe infrastructure for active modes of travel like e-bikes, cycling, and walking also creates more space for people to make the choices around travel that are best for them.

SteveFarber-headshot

Dr. Steven Farber, University of Toronto. Photo courtesy Dr. Farber.


In part 1 of our interview, Dr. Farber pointed out that those who have choices in transit use have a social responsibility to make space for those who have fewer choices about when and where they travel on public transit. In part 2, we talk about what we can learn from the data being gathered during the COVID crisis.

Dr. Steven Farber is a professor at the University of Toronto, a quantitative transportation geographer, and a spatial analyst. His research program investigates how land use and transportation systems affect social and economic outcomes of urban areas.

RM: Do you think any cities are doing a good job overall in providing access to transit for people, especially in low-income areas?

I’m not usually a big fan for like who’s doing it well and who’s not doing it well, but I can say that in our region, we don’t have a horribly unjust transportation system. There are injustices and not enough is done to specifically address those injustices but I think it’s starting to change and even before the pandemic, TTC adopted a policy to look at Neighbourhood Improvement Areas when trying to decide how to adjust levels of bus services and things like that.

I commend them for doing it now but I also think that it’s very indicative of the transit industry, in general, to be a couple of decades behind the curve in terms of really trying to focus in on those social equity issues. We don’t really have regulations in Canada that enforce the equality or the fairness of the distribution of transit resources in a city. We don’t have those policies here. We happen to have a responsible government here and a functioning government and a pretty healthy democracy where good things still tend to happen without those fears or strong regulations but more is still needed.

I think that the COVID pandemic has really put a spotlight on all structural inequalities, structural racism, and structural inequalities in the transportation system and in all of our social systems. I think it’s a great opportunity to say, “Look how much more we know right now, let’s act on this information.”

RM: Then in terms of acting on that information, what kind of role do you think apps like Rocketman – not necessarily just us but others as well – could play in helping to create equitable access to transit? Is it just about getting the right data and advocating with that data or is there some other steps?

Let’s talk about data first because we are in a very data-rich world, but locally, we’re actually in a pretty data-poor city when it comes to transportation. There have been major advances in transit systems around the world, where access to their smart card data and the quality of the smart card data is way more comprehensive and available to the research and advocacy communities in comparison to say the quality of the Presto data collection and how it’s available.

What that means is that we have really, really poor data to describe the conditions of users on the transportation network. We really don’t know what trips are being made end to end and what the experiences of those travellers are. We just have a huge hole in our data system that describes what users are actually doing.

This is where I think some of the app data could be super interesting either by having a record of which OD (origin-destination) patterns are being demanded by your users and, if you’ve got the real-time navigation features of your apps, then converting those real-time traces into a database of trips taken. Then researchers and advocates can look at the travel times, wait times, transfer times of different people’s trips over time and try to address quality issues or inequalities that we see in that data. I think that those are some really important data opportunities for Rocketman-type data to help out in this space.

I know that we’ve also discussed things like information on crowding and how apps are going to be so much more important in delivering and enabling riders to have a predictable experience in the age of limited-capacity buses. I think that to the extent that information can be made available, it’s going to help tremendously with the user experience on that front. It won’t solve the problem, but unreliability and not knowing is a big part of not wanting to take transit. I think, on the other hand, data that you collect on your app, if you know where people are, and when they’re waiting for buses and have more real-time access to demand, that information needs to be fed back to the agencies.

If the transit agencies aren’t going to be able to provide mobility in this period of time to transit-dependent people due to the COVID outbreak, then that information can be used to help contract out services to third-party providers who we’re going to have to subsidize in order to keep the population moving and participating in the economy and in health activities, in school activities and so on. If we don’t do that, the differences between those with and without good alternatives are going to grow and exacerbate existing inequalities in our system.

I don’t think that’s ultimately going to be an app company’s role and responsibility, but I think that it’s one way that the data can fit into this ecosystem is, “Okay, can these app companies feed that demand information into other mobility providers’ hands in order to increase the capacity for people to travel when we know that the transit system just won’t be able to if the exposure risks are too high?”

RM: Are there any other steps you would take to make travel easier in cities?

So going back to when we were talking about people with choices and needing to make space for those without choices, especially during the peak demand periods: part of having a choice is those choices need to be made available to people. A lot of people feel like they don’t have a choice. We see this around employers changing their work-time requirements – that’s about making choices available to people. The other side of this is on infrastructure and supply and making choices available to people so that during this limited time period, we don’t have to put undue health risks on people who need to use transit.

I think that a lot of data and evidence is out there that shows a huge number of trips could be made by active travel modes, by bicycle, by walking. People simply don’t do that. One of the main reasons that people aren’t doing that is lack of safe and comfortable infrastructure for pedestrian and cycling trips inside the Toronto downtown core but especially outside of the core. This is where government, I think, can also play a huge role in helping people stay off the bus and stay safe if they need to and make room for those who don’t have a choice.

I’m saying that with full knowledge that the evidence of the risks of transit and disease transmission is still really, really limited. There’s not a lot of evidence that shows that outbreaks have been caused by transit use and things like that, but it’s also pretty reasonable to think that exposure in crowded buses is a real threat. If that evidence gets more and more firm, I think there’s going to be more and more impetus to provide options for people.

I’m thinking about bike lanes, I’m thinking about massive e-bike incentive programs. A lot of people can’t bike also, and e-bikes are very expensive, but I think that subsidizing e-bikes, even subsidizing motorcycles could make a lot of sense right now and shift society in a more sustainable direction overall if those types of alternatives are made realistic and affordable today.

Rocketman: I really appreciate you having this conversation with me. I think people are really going to want to hear that there are things that we can do as individuals and there are things that we can do as companies, as transit agencies, as the city, as society at large. I think that that’ll be really helpful, so thank you so much for sharing all of that.

Don’t have Rocketman? Stay on top of your commute by downloading it:

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.

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