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Can Technology Make Public Transit More Alluring?

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Would they get out of their cars if they could surf the Web on the bus?

A recent article in USA Today looks at technological fixes for environmental problems -- including traffic -- caused by America's exploding consumption of resources.

The USA is growing more rapidly than any other developed nation and isprojected to gain another 100 million people by 2040. That will put newpressure on a public infrastructure that's already stretched thin....Attoday's consumption rates, the nation will need another 280,000 milesof highway, and 78 million more cars and trucks will jam roads by 2040,according to the Federal Highway Administration and the Center forEnvironment and Population, a non-profit research and policy group inNew Canaan, Conn.

Measures aimed at reducing traffic include some predictable technology designed to speed drivers. But some communities are actually trying to lure customers onto public transit with high-tech infrastructure:

The Utah Transit Authority, which manages public transportation in the Salt Lake City area, is testing electronic wireless credit and debit cards on 44 buses. Credit cards can be waved in front of a machine to pay fares. There's no fishing in your pocket for change, no need to swipe a card and wait for approval. Using the "contactless" cards can save up to one minute per passenger who would normally pay cash. About 135,000 residents in the six counties the Utah authority serves -- or about 3% of the area's population -- use public transit each day. The agency hopes to boost ridership 7% a year.

The American Public Transportation Association says a key to getting more people out of their cars and onto buses and trains is to expand bus and rail systems and make them quick and convenient to use. Buses and trains increasingly are being equipped with global positioning system devices. They help pinpoint underused and congested routes and enable agencies to map routes and draft more precise timetables for riders.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen transit systems from Pompano Beach, Fla., to Reno are offering Wi-Fi access on buses and trains to attract commuters who want to surf the Internet on their way to work.

Houston TranStar, a group of transportation agencies in the Houston area, this summer will try to speed up bus and rail fare payments by replacing more than 60 current ways to pay fares (monthly passes, visitor passes, student passes, senior passes, etc.) with three: cash, the smart "Q Card" and "Metro Money," a temporary smart card that can be purchased in stores. Smart cards are swiped at stations or on buses and the fare is automatically deducted from a rider's prepaid account.

Whether such innovations will get more people to ride trains and buses is unclear. "You're going to have to see gasoline go over $10 a gallon," Daniels says.

Photo: Stromo via flickr 

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