For Columbus, Ohio, Transit Equity is Difficult to Achieve

  • Columbus, Ohio’s efforts to provide equitable multi-modal transit access to those without smartphones or credit cards is falling short of their goal.
  • The city’s Interactive Kiosks won’t sell tickets, limiting non-smartphone users transit access.
  • Micro-transit providers operating in the city still require a smartphone to unlock devices.
  • The city’s cash only payment system requires a disjointed multi-step payment process.

Once Upon a Time, Cash was King

In the old days, real people sold transit tickets and riders paid with cash. Eventually, transit authorities installed ticket vending machines that accepted cash along with plastic payment devices. Bank accounts, credit cards, and smartphones weren’t necessary.

Urban transit served all riders equally – but no more.

The New Urban Transit Landscape Limits Use

Moovit offers a real-time journey planner mobile and web app to navigate public transit networks with GPS navigation across transit modes, including buses, ferries, rapid transit (metro/subway/underground, etc), trains, trams, trolleybuses, ride-hailing (Uber /Lyft), shared bicycle, car sharing, and scooters.

Today’s urban transit landscape includes new mobility options including ride-hailing, eScooters, and eBikes. These new services typically require digital credit card payments and a smartphone to purchase services or unlock devices. Public transit trip planning is now provided through private company apps like Moovit, or Transit. Some cities are deploying their own multi-modal transit app like Columbus, Ohio’s Pivot app.

A new divide is emerging, and cities are concerned.

Not Everyone Has a Credit Card and a Smartphone

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, in 2017, nearly 20% of Columbus residents were unbanked or underbanked. “The lack of a bank account limits individuals’ access to the kinds of credit cards necessary to utilize private transit services.” The Pew Research Center reported in 2019 that nearly 20% of Americans don’t own a smartphone.

In the face of these limitations, Columbus, Ohio envisions a future where, according to Mayor Ginther, mobility is the great equalizer of the 21st century. The goal of “equity is”, according to Alyssa Chenault, Communications Project Manager for Smart Columbus, “definitely a guiding light.”

Columbus “Mobility Hubs” Fumble Equity Requirement

In October, 2019, Columbus, Ohio’s Smart City initiative began work on a series of “Mobility Hubs” through a mostly low-income transit corridor. The sites include three public transit areas, a community college, a local non-profit, and a branch library. Each site will provide a mix of services for car-users, transit riders, and micro-transit users. The center-piece of each hub is an interactive touchscreen kiosk called IKE. IKE was chosen to provide community information, trip planning, and private and public transit fare purchasing.

Equity was part of the sell. According to Ben Zenitsky, Marketing and Communications Specialist at Columbus Metropolitan Library, “We strive to ensure equal access to information, materials and opportunities for all in our communities. The installation of a Smart Mobility Hub is one more resource that helps us deliver on that promise by helping to ensure equal access to mobility.”

In a related project, Columbus Smart City is developing a trip planning and common fare purchasing smartphone app, PIVOT. Cash paying, smartphone using customers can use PayNearMe, a third-party bill paying service to pay for transit through the smartphone app. The Kiosks, According to Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus Program manager, were meant to “serve as the physical embodiment of our Multimodal Trip Planning Application.”

Smart Mobility Hubs will provide a number of different transportation options in one place and – via an interactive digital kiosk – provide access to Wi-Fi, emergency calling, social services, maps and a comprehensive trip planning and payment service. What makes the hubs “smart” is the interactive digital kiosk known as “IKE” (short for Interactive Kiosk Experience), which brings together services such as USB charging, real-time travel information and direct access to mobility providers into one standalone unit.

The plan was to enable a person with or without a smartphone to walk up to a kiosk, plan their trip, book it, pay for it, and go.

Now, as the city breaks ground, the implementation is missing two key equity goals:

  1. Those without smartphones will not be able to purchase tickets at IKE Kiosks.
  2. The payment process for cash paying customers requires multiple, disconnected steps.

No SmartPhone = No access

Andrew Wolpert, Smart Columbus Deputy Program Manager, said that security and privacy issues render the Kiosk payment functionality un-workable. Stealing a user’s information would be too easy. “Someone can mount one of those little cameras and record people typing in,” said Wolpert. “We’re trying to adjust, mitigate, and try to fulfill as much as you can at the kiosks,” said Wolpert.

Even if the IKE Kiosk does provide payment, micro-transit riders will still need a smartphone to access certain transit options. According to Chenault. “With many of the scooter companies, you have to have a smartphone in order to unlock and use the service. So, if you were able to use common payment through IKE to pay for that scooter, then you wouldn’t be able to use the scooter because you don’t have that smartphone.”

So where’s the equitable access to residents who don’t have a smartphone? For now, it’s gone.

Cash Purchasing Process is Disjointed

Cash users will still be able to purchase tickets for some transit options, including COTA, the public bus service, but the process is disjointed. A user will need to register a PayNearMe digital payment account, print or save a barcode, carry the barcode to a brick and mortar store, pay cash to add funds to their account, then, pay for transit services digitally.

For a smartphone user without a credit card, the process is disjointed. For those without smartphones, access to transit is limited. This is the divide.

A truly equitable multi-modal transit system remains a challenging vision.

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Gayle McCord

Freelance Writer/JournalistCovering the nexus between urban mobility, smart cities, and community, business, and governmental stakeholders

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