Guest Op-Ed: Mobility Integrators – The Transit Agencies of the Future

Guest Op-Ed: Mobility Integrators – The Transit Agencies of the Future

May 31, 2019  | Nathaniel Ford

May 31, 2019

When I look back at the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s history in Northeast Florida, I can’t recall a time when the need to evolve was more important.

Our industry is moving faster with each passing day.

We’ve seen traditional approaches begin to be upended by disruptive companies who seized the gaps and ultimately filled the needs not addressed by the public sector.

While fixed-route bus and rail systems are the marquee public services, the transportation-coordinating apps, ridehail, carshare and electric scooters for rent are also driving public policy decisions in cities across the country. Public transportation should be leading those conversations, not sitting idle.

A recent survey of transit officials revealed what a lot of us already know – funding is a challenge as is retaining talented and experienced employees.

Grants and public-private partnerships help offset those costs in some cases, and we know that creating a welcoming environment, a strong culture and offering competitive wages go a long way in maintaining a healthy workforce.

It’s also no surprise that customer satisfaction and improving the passenger experience remains a top priority for most of those surveyed. About a third surveyed acknowledged that improving services was a major challenge of theirs over the next three years.

At the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), we’ve shifted our priorities to address long-term challenges, giving us the ability to adapt and maneuver in the short-term.  We now collectively think and act as the mobility integrator of Northeast Florida rather than just a provider of public transportation.

This isn’t about only developing a fleet of autonomous vehicles to navigate a smart corridor, or introducing new mobile apps to help customers pay for and plan their trips. It’s about optimizing and redefining existing services while integrating new and creative ways to get customers from one place to another.

The successful mobility integrators create flexibility and incorporate services that adjust to the pedestrian, cyclist and passenger vehicle’s needs. We know our success is directly tied to our customers’ access to safe, reliable and intuitive transportation services.

That’s why we completely reconfigured our fixed-route bus system in 2014. 1 Our determination to unveil new modes of transportation that bridge the first or last mile of customers’ journeys is based on what they told us was needed.

Some changes were obvious to spot.

When the JTA took over operations of the St. Johns River Ferry in 2016, we immediately identified the need for a new bus route to move passengers from busy corridors to Mayport Village where the ferry docks.2

Hundreds of cars and thousands of passengers depend on the ferry each day to connect them from one side of Florida State Road A1A to the other, but how successful can that service be if pedestrians and cyclists can’t get there with ease? Why shouldn’t those separate systems be cohesive?

In Jacksonville Beach, we replaced a costly and outdated trolley system with Beachside Buggies, a micro-transit and public-private partnership that utilizes golf carts to transport customers within that area for free. Our ReadiRide service, also a public-private partnership, provides affordable, on-call transportation within several dense neighborhoods, where running fixed-route buses aren’t cost effective or necessarily in demand.

Jacksonville’s 841 square miles make it the largest city in the continental United States, creating an interesting challenge that requires different levels of connectivity.

While Downtown Jacksonville serves as a hub for business, the suburbs and surrounding counties continue to flourish with residential and retail developments.

That’s why we’re building out the largest bus rapid transit system in the Southeast, the First Coast Flyer. When the fourth leg of the First Coast Flyer is completed in 2020, the JTA will have connected Jacksonville’s major population centers to Downtown via a 57-mile network.

We think it is important to have these routes, and the transit-oriented development that follows, defined today so we can prepare for future growth.

Duval County (Jacksonville), is expected to add another 230,000 residents by 2030, and our surrounding Northeast Florida counties should collectively add another half million people during that same time.

The JTA is making it easier for the thousands who commute from neighboring communities to work, shop and find entertainment in Jacksonville.

We continued building connectivity in 2018 with a new express shuttle for those living north of Jacksonville in Nassau County. In January we took over transportation disadvantage services and implemented new express routes for people south of Jacksonville in Clay County.

Early next year, we’ll open the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center at LaVilla  (JRTC) near downtown, bringing the BRT lines, county express shuttles, fixed-route buses, our future autonomous vehicle network, Greyhound, Megabus, and eventually bicycle, car and scooter share services together into one centralized hub to serve the entire region.

The JRTC also will be the foundation for JTA’s Ultimate Urban Circulator or U2C program – a network of autonomous vehicles that will navigate existing elevated tracks and connect with at-grade traffic along what will become the Bay Street Innovation Corridor in Downtown Jacksonville.

We firmly believe that the growth and economic development depends on our ability to easily move people in and out of the urban core, but mobility integrators also need to have direct and meaningful influence over the design, construction and adaptability of new infrastructure.

We’re lucky to be one of only a handful of transportation authorities in the U.S. that build roads, sidewalks and other local infrastructure in addition to providing multi-modal transportation services.

This gives us a prime opportunity to build-out or improve important corridors that support new, transit-oriented development.

The JTA is currently undertaking 13 major road projects at a cost of $100 million over the next five years. We’re able to do this thanks to voters approving an extension of the Local Option Gas Tax in 2014.

That brings me to my final point, without customer buy-in, none of these ideas work.

All of the changes we’ve made are directly influenced by what our customers told us they want and we’ll continue to forge this path together as the next decade begins.

  1. JTA redesigned the 30-year-old fixed-route bus system in 2014 to better serve existing customers and attract new customers through the Route Optimization Initiative (ROI).
  1. The JTA assumed operation of the St. Johns River Ferry Thursday, March 31, 2016.

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