Navigating Tomorrow: The Evolution Of Public Transportation

By APTA President & CEO Paul P. Skoutelas

There is nothing more fundamental to the human spirit than the need to be mobile. It is the force that sparks our imagination and opens pathways to life-changing opportunities. Our nation was born and built on the movement of people and goods. Mobility is the catalyst for progress and personal freedom.

Public transportation has played a vital role in that progress and freedom, mirroring changes in American society — from an abundance of electric streetcars in every U.S. city in the 1920s to reimagining transit as a vital service within a network of private and ridesharing automobiles, scooters, and pedestrian walkways in the 2020s.

As today’s communities grapple with congestion, pollution, and access to mobility in underserved areas, a new era of public transportation is dawning. The convergence of cutting-edge technologies, innovative policies, and shifting societal attitudes is about to reshape the way we value transit and the way we move.

A New Appreciation For Public Transit

In late 2022, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that provided once-in-a-lifetime funding totaling more than $210 billion over five years to replace, modernize, and expand public transportation infrastructure, to increase capital investments for buses and bus infrastructure, and to adopt modern technologies and mobility innovations.

We showed policymakers, legislators, opinion leaders, and the public just how essential public transportation is, not just during a national crisis like COVID-19, but in building stronger communities.

The public saw how vital transit is to keeping communities functioning and to carrying essential workers to essential jobs. Our transit workers were seen as heroes moving heroes.

We also demonstrated how a thriving public transit system benefits all Americans. We told stories that illustrated how nearly 9 in 10 trips on transit directly benefit the local economy and how transit drives economic, environmental, and social progress.

Support for public transportation wasn’t limited to Washington. Last year, every state and local ballot initiative to fund public transit projects with local tax dollars was approved by voters — an amazing 100 percent success rate.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Much is expected from those to whom much is given.” The public transportation industry is modelling those words every day. Expectations have never been higher or more far-reaching. The public wants public transportation to:

  • Be safe, convenient, and easy to access;
  • Invest in smart, resilient, and cost-efficient infrastructure;
  • Be customer-focused by offering more flexible travel options where and when they are needed, and by connecting those services to other mobility providers, what some call “Mobility As A Service” or the “New Mobility”; and,
  • Accelerate economic recovery, advance greater equity and social inclusion, lessen the effects of climate change, and contribute to a better quality of life for everyone.

To meet and even exceed these goals will require four priorities:

1. A Commitment To Maintain Pro-Transit Policies And Investment

Fulfilling the promise of the IIJA depends on the promised federal monies and policies that make the federal-state-local funding partnership so effective. We have an historic opportunity not just to address the “state-of-good-repair” backlog, but to reinvent modern public transit with more BRT services, low-or no-emission buses and trains, and greater access to mobility for all.

Sadly, some Members of Congress want to reduce or eliminate portions of this funding as pressure grows to control federal spending. As a result, it is imperative that we continue to show how every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns that benefit all Americans, whether or not they ride transit.

2. Building A Knowledge-Based, Future-Ready Workforce

In the post-pandemic environment, every industry is competing for the best and brightest workers. This is happening at a time when the transit industry is facing a nationwide shortage of operators, maintainers, and managers. A skilled, agile, and adaptable workforce is the foundation of public transportation’s future. Additionally, advancing a culture that values life-long learning, emphasizes technical knowledge as well as social and interpersonal awareness, and seeks broad diversity in backgrounds, experience, and perspectives is vital.

This ongoing effort will require the right resources to recruit, retain, and invest in tomorrow’s transit employees — and a willingness to rethink the way we organize work and help our workers succeed.

3. Technology As An Enhancer Rather Than A Disruptor

At the heart of public transportation’s renaissance lies the fusion of technology and mobility. The integration of artificial intelligence, advanced data analytics, and smart infrastructure is redefining the rider experience. In communities across the country, today’s transit passengers are enjoying the benefits of real-time route optimization, dynamic scheduling and tailored services, seamless payment systems, and predictive maintenance.

A generation accustomed to on-demand services and personalized experiences is making convenience, amenities, and flexibility the new transit prerequisites. The future promises even greater advances with self-navigating, autonomous trains, buses, and shuttles, and mobility options that complement rather than compete with each other in a connected network of options. What matters most remains the same: the quality of service for all customers.

4. Societal Shifts: The Community Perspective

Today, public transit agencies are increasingly expected to help address complex social, environmental, and economic issues far beyond the traditional role of moving people from one place to another. This trend, which is directly tied to having a skilled workforce and advanced technology, will increase.

The public wants cleaner, livable places with affordable housing, pedestrian zones, expanded green spaces, and renewed emphasis on community interaction. City planners and policymakers are reimagining mixed-use neighborhoods centered around efficient transit networks that can attract new residents, small businesses, and revenue-generating events.

We are proud of our commitment to reduce the effects of climate change. Entire bus fleets are being updated with electric and hybrid buses. Together with trains powered by renewable energy sources, investments in green infrastructure, and new sustainable operating practices, public transportation is leading the way to a low-carbon future. And for the first time in history, transit has the power and promise to advance equity, inclusion, and economic growth by expanding service to under-served neighborhoods — and with it, the opportunities that are made accessible through mobility.

Transit’s Future Is Brighter And More Essential Than Ever

We are entering a new era of American mobility. The public transportation industry has successfully reinvented itself several times over the past 200 years. As needs, lifestyles, and communities evolved, so too have transit agencies and the services they provide.

Today, we stand ready to meet any future challenge. Our role and responsibilities are more varied and vital than at any time in our history, but we have the know-how, commitment, and character to lead change, not simply adapt to it.

As communities strive to create a more equitable, efficient, vibrant, and environmentally sustainable future, and as our industry invests in new types of vehicles, operating systems, and skilled workers, public transportation’s passion and purpose remain steadfast and strong: to improve the quality of all people’s lives by providing convenient, dependable, and desirable access to opportunity.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is a nonprofit international association representing an $80 billion industry that directly employs more than 430,000 people and supports millions of private-sector jobs. APTA is the only association in North America that represents all modes of public transportation, including bus, paratransit, light rail, commuter rail, subways, waterborne services, and intercity and high-speed passenger rail. Visit apta.com.

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