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Getting passengers back on board - the global roadmap to recovery: Five key takeaways

Getting passengers back on board - the global roadmap to recovery: Five key takeaways
When and how citizens use public transport has changed since pre-pandemic, and transport operators have to move with the times – but they require a robust data strategy and assistance from governments and local authorities to tempt people to use public transport. 

How has the demand for public transport changed since the start of the pandemic, and how has the supply been forced to evolve?

What does the market look like now, almost three years exactly since the start of the coronavirus crisis?

And what steps need to be taken to transform public transport services so that they are fit for purpose today and tomorrow?

These were among the central questions in the opening panel session at Transport Ticketing Global, held at London Olympia in early March 2023. 

The session, Getting Passengers Back On-board – The Global Roadmap to Recovery, was moderated by Enrique Fernandez-Pino, London-based Director of Simpler Change. 

He was joined by Ting Chen, Chairwoman at Easycard Corp in Taiwan, Andrew Anderson, Head of Customers Payments for Transport for London, and Stephen Cooles, Visa’s Global Head of Partner Development (Urban Mobility). The other two members of the five-person panel were Dr Rayan Alhazmi, General Director of Studies and Transport Economics at the Transport General Authority in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Javier Cancela, CEO of Recaudo Bogotá SAS in Colombia.

Here are the five key takeaways from the hour-long session.

Ridership levels are almost back to pre-pandemic rates – but evolution has been required

Unsurprisingly, ridership nosedived when lockdowns – designed to limit the spread of coronavirus – came into force roughly three years ago around the world. Ms Chen revealed the number of passengers in Taiwan initially dropped to about 25% of the pre-pandemic level. Now, though, ridership figures were up to about 90% on the February 2020 level, before the crisis took hold.

Mr Cancela said the recovery level was about 90% in Bogotá, too, although it sunk further, to just 10%, in 2020. However, all panellists agreed that the effect of the pandemic fallout had led to a slower rebound than everyone wanted. For instance, people in Taiwan largely stopped taking bus transport for fear of a lack of social distancing, and tourism was down. 

Numbers were slowly returning – in no small part thanks to a greater emphasis on safety and security through increased signage and marketing. But, for various reasons, people who could afford it moved away from public transport and into cars, pointed out Mr Fernandez-Pino. He suggested that this habit would be hard to break but argued that governments could play a key role here.

Demand patterns have changed – and service providers must move with the times

Mr Anderson revealed TfL data that indicated differences in how, when and why people used public transport in Greater London compared with pre-pandemic behaviours. Although “leisure traffic” has largely returned, there has been a “dampening in commuter traffic”, symptomatic of the hybrid and remote working trends spurred by events of the last three years. “The pandemic solidified these trends and accelerated them,” he said.

Mr Cancela agreed that “demand patterns” clearly indicated “the way people move around the city” had changed, as had their reasons for using public transport. For instance, the rise of online shopping meant physical stores had to update their offering – it was the same for public transport operators, he stated. Rush hours were still happening but were not as busy as in early 2020.

Ultimately, people wanted flexibility, said Mr Cooles. With working policies shifting to be less rigid, season tickets for trains, for example, were not as attractive as pre-pandemic. 

Events of the last three years have strengthened the case for contactless ticketing

With convenience and safety the two primary desires of riders of public transport, there was no surprise that contactless had become more prevalent. Mr Cooles said that, on balance, investment in contactless solutions was a win-win scenario for travel operators and riders. Without having to operate a ticketing machine, for instance, costs would be reduced and delays minimised. “It’s a great value proposition,” he said, “and it removes friction, meaning that you are more likely to gain new customers.”

In Taiwan, a citizen card, which could be used to travel around the country and between cities, was proving popular, said Ms Chen. Although the government heavily subsidised this scheme, it hinted at the current state of consumer behaviour in Asia, and beyond.

Some regions were still catching up, admitted Colombia-based Mr Cancela. “We don’t have the right product,” he said. “But 90% of users in Bogotá are ‘unbanked’.”

There were other blockers to progress, said Mr Cooles. In Germany, it was not easy to buy a pre-payment card for non-German speakers, for example. Better, clearer, and more inclusive communication was important, he stated.

A robust data strategy is critical to providing desirable services for transport operators

Dr Alhazmi underlined the importance of collaborating, opening data, and investing in a robust data system to capture, understand and adjust to customer behaviours. “Data is the magic,” he said, revealing that a data centre of excellence had been established in Saudi Arabia to speed up the rollout of a new, effective public transport network.

The latest technology meant that solutions were now smart enough to provide the emotional state of riders, added Dr Alhazmi. Mr Cancela said that the supply of services and staff management could be significantly more efficient with better data analysis. “Data is key to shaping the public transport offering,” he said. Further, whereas until recently, an organisation matrix would be reviewed every year now, with more and better quality data, this should be done “once a month” at least.


Governments and local authorities have a vital role to play in tempting passengers back on public transport

All speakers on stage said that pricing tickets had become tricky. While everyone wanted to offer the lowest possible price, to improve ridership and make public transport more accessible, there was an acknowledgment that without subsidies from either national governments or local authorities it would not be a viable business for many operators, especially in the current climate of post-pandemic economic uncertainty.

Mr Fernandez-Pino added that those in power could assist in other ways. As an example, he said that the Mayor of London had recently announced the extension of the ultra-low emissions zone in the capital, meaning that more drivers of diesel cars would be penalised. In theory that would mean more people would consider using public transport. Time would tell whether this would work in practice.


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