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Using data to get transit systems on track

It’s a pivotal time for the transit industry in Canada. On the one hand, with the population of Canada’s most urbanized regions projected to grow at an annualized rate of 0.3% over the next five years, cities face a growing challenge in managing congestion. While that’s creating many opportunities for transit systems to address potential passenger demand, ridership in Canada has flatlined in recent years. As noted by the Canadian Urban Transit Association recently, the 1.5% rise in transit trips across Canada in 2017 was the first increase in national ridership since 2014.

Why has ridership growth slowed down? Among the factors holding back transit usage is the fact that Canadians have new options, such as ride-sharing services, for getting around. Commuting patterns have also changed, as more and more people take advantage of flexible work arrangements like working from home.

We know that in order to encourage people to take transit, it has to be timely and convenient with minimal delays. In the midst of these shifting patterns and the emergence of new transportation choices, governments are making large investments to improve transit systems in Canada. The federal government, for example, has announced $28.7 billion in funding over 12 years to support transit projects across the country. So how can transit systems ensure their new investments are living up to their promise of encouraging greater usage, reducing congestion and providing the best return on investment?

The answer lies in harnessing data and embracing new ways of measuring performance to put customers at the heart of transit system decision-making.

Focus on people, not vehicles

What does it mean to take a customer-centric approach? It starts with how you measure your performance. Traditional measures, such as on-time performance and passenger volumes, have focused on transit vehicle movement. But what if transit systems instead looked more at the customer’s experience and how they actually deliver for passengers? After all, transit organizations exist to maximize economic and social welfare. By going beyond traditional measures, transit organizations can consider the following:

How do we measure the efficiency of our network from a customer’s perspective?

Transit operators can look at the disparities between published, intended and actual route timetables in terms of lost customer minutes. By integrating such data into how they measure network efficiency, transit operators can make decisions based on a more holistic, customer-centric perspective.

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How do we understand the impact of a disruption or incident on a customer’s journey?

Transit operators can simulate scenarios to better understand how a particular incident or disruption affects passengers. They can then use the simulation results to identify how to quickly get passengers moving again and combine the analysis with strategic and operational planning to establish mitigation plans before they need them.

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When we plan changes to the timetable, what does it mean for a customer?

With analytics, transit operators can determine the impact of network changes—from increased route frequency and larger buses to service reductions and major maintenance work—on issues such as traffic congestion, customer journeys and overall route efficiency. More importantly, analytics let transit operators simulate the impact of small tweaks to those network changes to minimize disruption and improve customer experiences.

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How can we better make choices between different investment options?

By simulating different transit investment options, such as a new train line, analytics can help determine the likely benefit in terms of customer journeys and productivity across the entire network. Integrating demographic and other data can help quantify the economic costs and benefits of each option under consideration so planners can make the best decision from a financial, operational and customer-centric perspective.

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Until recently, transit operators would have found it challenging to undertake such a detailed, customer-centric analysis of their networks. The growing use of fare-card systems has made detailed simulations more accessible and transformed the kind of insights available to transit operators.

Fare-card data enables transit operators to track customers’ actual travel patterns—rather than relying on generalized approximations—and see how they really behave when confronted with system changes, incidents or other disruptions. The availability of such data and the capability of today’s analytics platforms mean we can now plan and operate transit systems based on customers’ true behaviours and respond more nimbly to meet their needs.

A case in point

Australia’s Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW) is a multi-modal transit network based in Sydney that has embraced customer-centric planning. TfNSW is currently using several data-driven tools, including a simulation model, to take a more customer-centric view of its planning activities (such as new timetables or infrastructure) and how to best respond to incidents on the network.

Using anonymized electronic ticketing data and assumed information about a customer’s journey, it’s possible to simulate a person travelling through the transit network, from origin to destination and including transfers between modes of travel. By combining timetables and customer preferences, the operator can see where each individual customer will be on the network, on any mode, at any point of the journey.

This lets the operator assess the various scenarios, such as planned network maintenance or system-wide timetable changes, and analyze the impacts on customers, including delays, vehicle crowding, lost customer minutes and congestion on platforms or at stations and stops.

Breaking it down

A simulation can provide a picture of the likely outcomes in several scenarios:

Planned disruptions: From major network changes to construction work, special events and labour actions, transit operators often know what challenges are coming. Through simulations, transit operators can test the effectiveness of existing alternatives to help customers get to their destinations and plan for disruptions in a way that minimizes congestion. By analyzing the various scenarios and alternatives, transit systems can also measure the impact through new customer-centric metrics, such as lost customer minutes.


Unplanned disruptions: Weather, accidents, protests and other unexpected events can play havoc with transit networks and customers’ journeys. By simulating the scenarios, transit systems can develop contingency plans that take into account constraints on resources.



Route and timetable changes: Adjusting transit routes and timetables can have a big impact on customer satisfaction. Future timetable analysis measures the potential benefits or problems resulting from a change and can support further work to address any issues that arise.

By looking more closely at planned and unplanned disruptions, transit operators can better plan, co-ordinate and direct the supply of replacement buses. Transit systems can also determine the ideal stopping patterns and frequency, as well as assess factors such as capacity and crowding in light of the potential supply of replacement buses and any restrictions on getting them into service due to traffic and driver availability. With this knowledge, they can also give more accurate and useful information to customers before and during a disruption. For many passengers, the lack of information about an incident is often more of a concern than the delay itself.

Key takeaways

The changing nature of work, new commuting patterns and the growth of ride-sharing services mean that for many Canadians, transit is a choice and not a necessity. To attract riders to transit, it’s important for transit systems to put customers at the centre of their decision-making. A customer-centric approach offers many benefits, including:

  • better responses to incidents

  • greater efficiency and operating cost savings through better deployment of transit assets

  • improved customer satisfaction and, ultimately, increased ridership

By basing decisions on business cases backed by a quantifiable measure of customer value, transit systems can increase the return on investment from the new funding becoming available as they improve their ability to retain their customers and attract new ones. And that benefits everyone, including the many Canadians seeking relief from the stress of their daily commutes.

Contact us

D. Scott Collinson

D. Scott Collinson

National Transportation & Logistics Lead, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 416 687 8188

Laura Van de Bogart

Laura Van de Bogart

Consulting & Deals Managing Director, Public Sector, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 416 869 2484

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