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How Mass Transit Can Build Back Rider Trust Post-COVID-19

Transit authorities can take four main routes rooted in data and technology to safely move people again

Brian Clarey
Brian Clarey
Lynn Lannin
Lynn Lannin

Like many consumer-facing industries, mass transit is faced with the urgent need to digitally transform due to COVID-19. Unlike some of these industries, mass transit directly powers communities and economies. So as stay-at-home restrictions loosen and mobility increases, all eyes will be on how cities and their transportation systems gradually, safely and literally take us back to life and work in a post-COVID-19 world.

This process won’t be as easy as returning to the status quo, where riders leave their homes 30 minutes ahead of the time they need to arrive, buy a ticket using a touchscreen kiosk, pass through fare gates, take the first train that arrives and hope for an empty seat. When sectors, cities and states begin to reopen, social-distancing guidelines and mask requirements will remain in place, especially in major cities. Regulations for capacity management will be enacted and routes and schedules are likely to change. Many riders will continue to fear exposure to the virus. For example, according to the MTA and Streetlight Data, New York City subway ridership isn’t growing as fast as car traffic—subway ridership is up 32 percent, while car traffic is up by 58 percent since shelter-in-place began.


Magda Stefanski

The Road Back

1:45 To build back trust post-COVID-19, mass transit needs to ensure rider safety with the help of data and technology. We show how that can happen.

Mass transit authorities can take four main routes to safely move people again, and the focus will be on rider recovery—how to make riders feel confident and safe. By using technologies and services that riders are familiar with, mass transit companies can meet riders where they are to help them navigate their communities in a more informed, integrated manner.

Trip planning

Trip planning apps for getting from A to B via public transportation are nothing new, but with added functionality, riders can get information that will help them make smarter decisions on their commutes. Many cities are operating their public transportation at half capacity as they begin to resume regular service but rely mainly on riders to abide by those guidelines. Google and Apple have made mobility data publicly accessible, allowing transit authorities to predict capacity at specific times throughout the day and incorporate that into trip-planning apps and within stations and stops. Some cities also have weight systems that inform capacity of each car.

“Mass transit is a critical component of the mobility ecosystem of all large cities, so as cities begin to cautiously re-open, encouraging riders back will require that organizations use technology and data in new ways to support the end-to-end rider journey, in order to ensure rider safety and increased confidence in using transit again."

Brian Clarey
Brian Clarey , vice president, managing partner

The city of Auckland, New Zealand feeds data from riders tapping on and off buses and trains with their transit cards to their trip-planning app in order to show how many seats are available. Riders are also encouraged to register their charge cards to help with contact tracing. With the app, riders can find the best route to their destination, track their bus or train in real time and get notifications when their bus is one stop away and when it’s time to get off. In Los Angeles, the city’s app integrates 25 transit systems on one platform and can provide riders with suggestions and incentives for taking alternate modes of transportation during peak hours.

Train and bus timetables and real-time tracking augmented with capacity data will allow riders to make better decisions on when to leave, which train to board, when to exit and whether to switch to a different mode of transportation—preventing crowds from forming and riders from spending unnecessary time on public transport.


In addition to physical precautions like face masks, gloves and sanitation, public transit authorities can limit rider exposure by going contactless. Some cities like Auckland are not allowing cash payments while COVID-19 still poses a threat to the population. Instead, they are relying on transit charge cards that can be refilled from riders’ smartphones or a third-party retailer ahead of time (riders can find a nearby retailer on Auckland’s app). Cities like London and Los Angeles have implemented this technology. Others like New York City and New Delhi that had committed to going contactless before the pandemic hit, are now rushing to put this type of payment in place.

Contactless payment can also help do away with fare gates, another source of contact. Olso, Norway and Seattle’s Sound Transit removed fare gates and replaced their systems with reloadable tap-and-go cards. Crowding from passengers passing through fare gates was alleviated, and cities saw faster, smoother boarding and more frequent, on-time service. Concerns about fare evasion were mitigated when data showed most people follow the rules when random spot checks are a possibility. The elimination of fare gates and ticket kiosks make for fewer surfaces that transit authority employees have to disinfect.

“This doesn’t have to be a massive investment. We break these programs out and component-ize them so public transit authorities can get these new experiences and functionalities to customers quickly, and evolve over time.”

Lynn Lannin
Lynn Lannin , state and local government lead


Those who normally relied on public transportation may fear exposure to the virus when getting back on trains and buses. Public transit authorities will have to demonstrate what they’re doing to maintain cleanliness, safety, social distancing guidelines and capacity. Alerts for disruptions and changes of service must be immediate and delivered directly to riders.

Successful communication can help prevent spread of the virus while working toward rider recovery. Relying on riders to visit a transit authority’s website is not enough—communications should meet riders where they are including email, text and social media. Publicis Sapient has helped several cities listen and communicate with their citizens during critical times like major sporting events, natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. Our Crisis Management Communication Platform can help in three major ways:

  • Communication between transit authorities and citizens via in-depth incident reporting, email alerts and social listening and response management via the Social Studio Command Center
  • Active monitoring of incident cases from inception to resolution is in real time—cases are logged straight away and receive immediate attention
  • Seamless coordination of management and distribution of resources

“This doesn’t have to be a massive investment. We break these programs out and component-ize them so public transit authorities can get these new experiences and functionalities to customers quickly, and evolve over time,” said Lynn Lannin, state and local government lead at Publicis Sapient.

Los Angeles: Modernizing the mass transit experience

Mobility services

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the transportation and mobility industry was experiencing a shift to services like car, ride, bike and scooter sharing. Consumers are looking for more flexible and alternative transportation options in addition to or in lieu of vehicle ownership. Many commuters will opt for individual, or micro-mobility, modes of transportation to decrease exposure to the virus and avoid changes made to bus and train schedules and procedures.

“People will want to control as much of the experience as they can. They can disinfect scooters and bikes on their own and be confident in the time it will take them to get from point A to point B. The more public transportation authorities and mobility sharing companies can ensure people are in a clean, socially distant environment, the more they’ll see ridership grow. But growth will be slow as people learn how the new system works,” said Alyssa Altman, transportation and mobility lead, North America.

Regardless of whether mobility services are public or private, cities can integrate all public and shared modes of transportation on one platform to respond faster to disruptions, increase ridership and improve customer experience. Juniper Research recently found that the revenue generated by mobility services, which integrate different transport services (including buses, trains and taxis) into a single app, would exceed $52 billion by 2027, up from $405 million in 2020. While investment is expected to slow down in 2020, the industry is likely to rebound in 2021.

Riders won’t go back to “business as usual,” and public transportation can’t either. By making digital strides to better serve and keep customers safe, transit authorities can bolster rider recovery now and sustain ridership in the future. “Right now is the time for it. And in the long run, these are the types of programs that will get funded through The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and stimulus funding”, said Lannin.

Brian Clarey
Brian Clarey
Managing Partner, Business Development, Transportation & Mobility
Lynn Lannin
Lynn Lannin
State and Local Government Lead

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