Pittsburgh is bucking the US trend on transit ridership numbers. How’s it doing it?

Pittsburgh. Image: Getty.

It’s no secret that public transit in the US is struggling to grow. There are, however, a few cities, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that are managing to slow the downward trend relative and provide strong rider experience that is keeping more riders with the service.

What is this Pennsylvanian city doing to keep people riding at a rate that’s 92 per cent higher than the national average? It is continuing to implement new solutions and not shying away from the challenges that transit agencies face. This is where Pittsburgh’s Port Authority and city government excels, and their success provides key lessons that other cities and transit agencies should heed.

With the 26th largest public transit system in America – largely reliant on buses – Pittsburgh is a bit of an unlikely candidate for such a high rate of ridership. When looking closer, it becomes apparent that the city and Port Authority’s continued commitment to address issues and develop new strategies and services makes this transit system stand out.

Ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, have varying impacts on transit ridership around the country. The effects differ depending on location and mode – with bus networks seeing more of a negative impact than rail due in part to their first/last mile focus that directly competes with the ride hailing model. Pittsburgh has been lucky, because studies have found that the apps are having negligible impacts on transit in the city – except late night-buses and a bus route to the airport, which have seen declines.

Rather than accept that riders will continue to choose TNC’s over public transit, the Port Authority is actively working on ways to bring riders back and is evaluating better ways to co-exist with ride-sharing companies. One such example is adding luggage racks on buses that travel to and from the airport, to improve the experience for riders who might be lured by the ease of taking an Uber to the airport rather than dealing with where to store suitcases on a bus.

The city also recently appointed a mobility & infrastructure director, Karina Ricks - to work with residents and transit agencies to figure out the best way to improve transportation throughout Pittsburgh. The city’s mayor Bill Peduto created the Department of Mobility & Infrastructure and appointed Ricks as the Department’s director, after a study found that none of the city’s government agencies had direct oversight of transportation issues. This willingness to find solutions and restructure government agencies to better serve transportation needs is a great example of what makes the city excel.


Innovative new services are also integral to Pittsburgh’s success. The Port Authority recently rolled-out a bus-to-bike option for commuters that will allow them to switch directly from a bus to a bike offered through the city’s bike share, for a free ride to their final destination. Seamlessly combining different transportation options directly benefits riders by providing a better overall experience. The simpler an agency can make the journey for riders, the more inclined riders will be to use the service – especially when it’s often a much more economical option than alternatives like ride-sharing.

This innovation isn’t limited to the Port Authority. Mayor Peduto’s office also hasn’t hesitated to implement new ideas that might improve rider experience. One such initiative involves a partnership between the mayor’s Office and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership that will rearrange traffic flow for vehicles, buses and pedestrians on the city’s busy Liberty Avenue. The project will add a dedicated bus lane for outbound buses – minimising delays – and add a sidewalk extension that separates pedestrians from those waiting for a bus, reducing sidewalk bottlenecks.

The end result should provide a much needed reduction in congestion for the thousands of Pittsburgh commuters that walk or ride along the street each day. The mayor’s willingness to invest in new ideas and take calculated risks to improve traffic flow is the type of initiative that other cities should replicate to solve their own transportation dilemmas.

Pittsburgh has managed to become a top city for public transit use due to the willingness of city officials to collaborate, experiment and face challenges directly. It’s a sentiment that cities around the country should replicate as they  combat the downward trend that plagues many transit systems. Recent budget cuts to the Port Authority threaten Pittsburgh’s success due to imminent service cuts, but the city’s proven track record of innovating in response to challenges positions it well to find cost-saving ways to mitigate issues and continue to improve service for riders.

Brian Zanghi is chief executive of the transport ticketing company Masabi. 

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.