Mass rail transit is making its rounds in the United States as President Barack Obama implements a national push to reduce America’s dependency on foreign oil and encourage a cleaner, greener environment. Florida is just one of the several states having recently received federal funding of $1.25 billion to jump-start its rail transportation programme.
Florida began making plans and developing its infrastructure for possible rail inclusion in the early 1970s and is now seeing it come to reality. The state is currently in the early works stage of a two-phased, high-speed rail programme that will connect Central Florida (Orlando) with Tampa (84 miles) on the West coast, and to Miami (approx. 320 miles) on the east coast. $2.6 billion is the estimated price tag for Phase One, which is the Orlando to Tampa leg. Florida’s flat terrain provides the ideal environment for high-speed. Once complete, the state will offer the first high-speed rail programme in the country.
In addition to the high-speed addition, Orlando is implementing “Sunrail” – a local 61.5 mile commuter rail programme utilising existing AmTrak rail infrastructure to connect local residents travelling between highly visited areas in Orlando and Volusia County, located approximately 40 miles northeast of the city. This two-phased programme is estimated to complete and be in operation in 2015. The first phase of Sunrail will ultimately be the catalyst for Phase Two of Orlando’s commuter plans which will introduce an East/West light rail connecting the bedroom communities east and west of the city to downtown Orlando. Phase Two will depend heavily on the success of the first phase of Sunrail which will help to fund the second phase.
Although Florida is now positioned to move into rail transit, the challenge comes not in building the programme, but in getting residents to ride it. In a state that has been highly dependent on personal automobile usage, it will be a tough sell to gain Floridian “buy-in” for a rail programme that is limited in its current planned stage. The key to gaining rail ridership relies heavily on providing that overall “rider experience” that is a step up from their current mobility options.
Florida’s rail programme is in its infancy stage. It will take many years to build a network that provides the seamless travel experience realised in major metropolitan cities and countries today. With the introduction of the high-speed corridor however, many of Florida’s major cities have already begun the process of designing, funding and implementing their own commuter rail programmes to connect with the high speed “backbone”.
Two independent ridership forecasts conducted in 2002 and updated with more recent demographic information in 2009, estimate that approximately 2.4 million riders will use the system between Orlando and Tampa in its first year of operation. Forecasts were based upon ticket prices ranging between $15 and $30 for a one-way ticket between Tampa and Orlando International Airport (OIA) – depending upon the nature of the trip and frequency of the ticket purchases. Revenues are projected to be approximately $49 million in the first year of operation.
Although the details of these ridership studies are not yet known to the public, it is fairly certain to surmise that the bulk of these ridership numbers involves primarily tourists and not the local residents. Sunrail, on the other hand, is estimated to bring in daily riders. However, these estimates seem unlikely unless Orlando introduces a connection plan that will allow riders to travel between Point A and Point B seamlessly.
So what will it take for Orlando and the State of Florida to successfully implement a rail transit programme? As more and more people are migrating to Central Florida and the state in general, traffic congestion is a growing concern for those who live, work and visit Central Florida. Improving or even maintaining quality of life becomes challenging, especially when it comes to that every day commute.
Urban sprawl is one hot concern on everyone’s mind as the city tries to control its growth hiccups. Florida is inundated with green “eco” systems that now are threatened because of the growing demand for additional land. One of the key reasons Florida has been considering and is now implementing a mass transit rail programme is to control its urban sprawl.
The term “Green” is often associated with mass transit, as less pollution and energy are required for commuting over distances than the automobile. However, not only does mass transit offer control over pollution and energy, but it also controls urban sprawl by encouraging the development-concentrated-livable-areas around rail stops. This “Green” can also be “Golden”, especially when the services offered by the transit system take into account the way commuters live, think and behave. Thus, it offers a programme that makes their lives much easy on a day-to-day basis, ultimately saving time and money.
The key to gaining and maintaining ridership “buy-in” in Florida will happen as commuters take advantage of a myriad of benefits associated with the programme designed to improve their quality of life. This “buy-in” will result in continued usage day after day. Achieving ‘Gold’ does not just happen at the planning stage, but requires that special touch once the system is in operation.
So what is the criteria or requirement that Florida’s transit operators can tweak to get the targeted ridership levels? Or, what does the average commuter consider ‘Gold’ that would motivate him/her to ride the system habitually day after day?
More than merely the price and connections, better information sharing and tools that make the planning, payment and ride more enjoyable are the golden tickets. If Floridians and tourists feel that the system has security issues, or that the train schedules are out of sync with what they need, chances are that rider “buy-in” will not happen. It takes just one trip to either win or lose a rider. Digging to get to their unmet needs (i.e. Gold) requires extensive and specific “mining” techniques.
Florida’s fast-paced urbanites use mobile electronics and Smart Mobile Devices (SMD) to stay connected to the world outside by checking emails, using social media, doing their banking, shopping, reading and even watching movies or streamed television. Most of them will use their SMDs within the Sunrail or High-Speed transit system too. This can be a great channel for uncovering the missing motivators needed to bring that transit system programme to the Golden level.
Reward based interactive messaging coupled with the riders’ SMD messaging system will allow the transit operators to tweak their services to gain optimum ridership figures, and at the same time, gain ancillary revenues for the transit system. Ultimately, the success of Florida’s rail programme will depend on a balanced programme between operations, management, marketing and technology. In addition, a strong collaboration between both public and private business will be required to meet the connection capabilities as well as revenue projections.Danna J Olivo Director, Customer Needs, Public Relations and Communications Transit System Design Group
Andy Ortasslan Director, Customer Needs and Marketing Transit System Design Group.