COVID-19 has ushered in new mobility behaviours, habits and rituals. Which ones will stick, and how can transit operators adapt to keep riders old and new on board?
People are creatures of habit – until they’re not.
Pre-pandemic, transit agencies and operators catered to a few distinct segments of the population, including the 9-5 commuters, the shift workers, and the leisure travellers. But when COVID-19 and a slew of government restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus kicked in, trains and buses were left transporting a much smaller crowd than ever seen before. The Société de transport de Montréal, for example, saw a 54.2% decrease in their 2020 ridership levels compared to 2019.
In the months that followed, people have revisited every aspect of their lives – their priorities, values, and rituals. As restrictions continue to be lifted, we’re facing the reality that several new attitudes people have adopted are here to stay, including their outlook on travel and transportation.
A new global study conducted by Accenture assessing public transit riders’ mindsets, preferences and behaviours found ridership may soon return to pre-COVID levels, but the riders will be fundamentally different. In response, transit operators must address people’s new expectations around cleanliness, crowding, trust and transparency while adapting to – and helping shape – the future of transit.
Meet the four new customer personas taking over transit and discover how agencies can reign them back into the system by transitioning from operators to experience providers.
A view inside this rider’s mind: “Using public transit is a positive experience for me. It's my own time. I can read my emails and no one bothers me.”
Amid the shift to remote work, resilient riders were as agile as ever, detaching themselves from the transit system, which was once a core part of their week, to spend days on end in front of their laptops on work calls or off-camera taking care of family – all while experiencing no drop in income.
Whether forced upon them or taken up personally, people’s new rituals and pastimes will certainly be part of their future – including increased online shopping and leisure spend, which was cited by almost half of resilient riders (45%). Transit operators should take this as a call to action to explore how they can become a unified community service provider. Ontario’s Metrolinx recently partnered with PC Express' grocery service, allowing riders to order their groceries in the morning and pick them up from a locker at select GO stations on their way home, and expanded a secure Purolator parcel drop-off and pick-up pilot project to help riders save time and have a watchful eye over their deliveries.
There is sufficient evidence that resilient riders will come back to transit when it’s safe to do so. For example, after more than a year of working from home feeling happier than ever (18%), over half of this group (57%) said they are likely to return to the office if given the option. Although they may only return part time, operators investing in value-added services like wi-fi on board and enhanced individual experiences will ensure public transit is riders’ preferred mode of transport. Transit operators who get it right will also be best positioned to reach the 63% of customers surveyed who said they are willing to pay more than their current fare to get better experiences in the areas of safety, sanitization, comfort and convenience.
A view inside this rider’s mind: “I’m quite concerned about the mental stress. On public transit, a concern is whether I will get COVID-19 from the previous person who sat in this seat.”
Despite much of the world coming to a halt for the past year, transit operators continued to play a critical role in the lives of those who were still working, especially on the frontline, or who are unable to drive or afford a car. This women-dominated group of daily and frequent riders may get back on board if they aren’t already, but likely not by choice – and health and safety will surely be top of mind.
Many reliant riders said they found difficulty navigating a work-life balance (68%) when working from home (64%) and reported feeling more anxious and insecure about the future (82%). Stepping foot on a train or bus when offices reopen will continue to bring this group additional stress, which will require transit operators to work on getting them to let their guard down.
Operators will need to make sure reliant riders are receiving the information they need to feel confident their trip is hygienic and that operators are putting them first. To ensure this is the case, operators should find micro-interaction moments, particularly during the journey, that foster trust and safe physical and mental spaces for riders. This includes using technology to provide real-time notifications and trip planning for alternative routes and last-mile connectivity, preparing for peak hours and crowd management, and implementing ‘quiet’ hours or sections alongside new health and safety protocols such as contactless touchpoints.
The ultimate goal for operators should be knowing when and how to intervene to improve the way passengers interact with and move through the network, particularly as they re-enter it after such a turbulent year. Transit agencies may also wish to reward positive behaviours that encourage other transit riders to be more mindful and respectful of each other, such as riding outside of peak hours in exchange for a discount or boarding further down the platform to maximize physical distancing.
A view inside this rider’s mind: “I don’t need to travel daily. Although it’s not a necessity, I enjoy it and need it for leisure purposes. I’m looking forward to wherever my next trip will take me.”
An emerging group of reflective riders – mostly comprised of millennials, part-time employees, and self-employed workers – is increasingly concerned about the health of themselves and their loved ones (96%) and is continuing to strengthen connections with friends and family virtually (22%). As some restrictions are lifted and mobility once again becomes the norm, this group may adjust their schedule to ride outside of peak hours or do fewer trips per week. Conversely, others may find themselves wanting to travel more often, but likely for leisure and more consciously than before.
The path forward for winning over reflective riders is two-fold; agencies and operators will need to build trust throughout the customer journey, and then highlight new intents to travel, including new destinations. To do so, operators could explore partnerships with local travel and hospitality sectors and offer leisure travel routes on weekends. Furthermore, transit operators should start to think about marketing transit as the vehicle for adventure and offer deals around transportation to local sports events and festivals – anything to make public transit an all-around more compelling proposition.
Hand-in-hand with making the experience as seamless as possible would be fare integration with regional transit providers and rideshare services, as well as within the network, such as the simplified fare structure being planned by the Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain. These sorts of offerings would make it easier for riders to get a ticket and pay automatically at the end of their route, boosting open data collaboration across transit operators and municipalities in the process.
A view inside this rider’s mind: “I haven’t used public transport for a very long time. There’s no need for me to use it. It’s not part of my lifestyle.”
Whether retired, unemployed, a remote worker or someone who rarely travels, the resigned rider has given up their transit pass and turned it in for a private vehicle (24% of all respondents) or a home on the countryside (15%). For this group, the shift to “remote everything” during the pandemic will have been a welcome change to their lifestyles, or exactly what they were already doing.
Resigned riders will be the toughest to win back since they were the first to leave; most aren’t willing to travel and, should they need to get on board, are stressed about it. Offering accessibility beyond urban centres – connecting people from the first to last mile by working with local services and rideshare providers, especially in remote areas – would help sway riders who have not been traditionally served by the best transit capabilities. In turn, operators would benefit from the cost efficiency of not having to invest in expanding their core service to distant locations. Additionally, as sustainability is a core value amongst the resigned rider demographic, operators should consider ways to reduce geographic inequalities and CO2 emissions, such as electrifying their fleet, and support the imperative for greener transit options.
COVID-19 may have empowered resigned riders to stay where they are, but the momentum of seeing others take transit back up into their routine will encourage this group to see how and where it can best provide value to their life. Though each of the four personas will ultimately require a tailored approach by transit operators, social influencing may work to drive even the most detached riders back to the system.
Ridership, rituals and relationships: what’s next
COVID-19 continues to disrupt and devastate lives, livelihoods and businesses, and a full recovery will take years. Operators should account for ridership to fluctuate based on the current state of the pandemic, COVID-induced rituals to stick or dissipate as time goes on, and the relationship between transit agencies and riders to fundamentally change given people’s new basic wants and needs. The Toronto Transit Commission is not alone in saying it doesn’t expect normal ridership levels to return in the near term, instead suggesting it could be as far out as 2023.
From an agency perspective, old habits won’t bring people back, so it’s time to do something different. A year-plus of isolation led many people to invest in their homes as a personal cocoon and getting people out of their new sanctuaries will prove to be a challenge in numerous situations. Transit operators must seize this rare opportunity to turn a rider’s ordinary trip into an experience that fosters trust, facilitates safe spaces, and reflects on the operator’s role in the community as a steward for the environment, personal wellbeing and for connecting people and communities together.
About the authors
Michael English is a Managing Director at Accenture, where he leads the Canadian Mobility practice and Rail & Transit for North America. Michael focuses on the design and implementation of strategies that drive customer experience and improve operating margin across the public transit, rail, and transportation industries.
Rami Lama is a Managing Director at Accenture Interactive, where he is the lead for Fjord in Canada, an innovation and design consultancy. Rami’s leadership enables his team to deliver complex end-to-end and digital transformations through their design prowess and innovation capabilities.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. As a result, the Chamber cannot be held responsible for published content.