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Artificial intelligence in mass transit could cure Florida’s car culture

Florida’s population recently surpassed 22 million and is growing at the eighth-fastest rate in the country, thanks largely to a flood of Northeasterners and Midwesterners moving south for better weather and lower taxes. This influx is good for the state’s economy. But it’s also creating tremendous infrastructure challenges — especially when it comes to transportation. As anyone who has sat in Miami’s or Orlando’s infamous bumper-to-bumper traffic can attest, the Sunshine State has some of the worst congestion in the country.

Fortunately, traffic might not bedevil Floridians much longer. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced sensor technology are poised to make public transit far more convenient and attractive to potential riders currently stuck with the 10th-worst commute times in the United States. Historically, Florida has been almost synonymous with car culture — as anyone who has strolled South Beach’s Ocean Drive, admiring the ubiquitous Maseratis and Lamborghinis, knows well. In 2019, our state ranked 22nd in public transportation use, far behind other densely populated states like New York and California. A federal study the year before noted that only 1.7% of Florida workers got to their jobs via public transportation in 2018, compared to 4.9% nationwide.

Stephen L. Precourt is a former transportation engineer for Dyer, Riddle, Mills & Precourt in Central Florida, and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives.

Yet a state government assessment five years ago found that 57% of Floridians live within half a mile of an “urban fixed transport route” — that is, a bus stop or rail station. That figure expands to 84%, or more than 16 million people, if you include those with access to on-demand transportation such as “Dial-a-Ride.” In short, the potential for a dramatic expansion in the use of public transit is there — if the appeal to riders can be strengthened.

And it can. Traffic levels on our roads nationwide have essentially returned to pre-pandemic levels, but public transit ridership has yet to recover, and transit officials project that will take some time. AI can play a key role in accelerating the timeline — and making Florida’s transit system the envy of other states.

In particular, artificial intelligence can help with one of the most pressing concerns of any transit rider: security. Consider how Brightline adopted the AI system operated by Remark within the last year. The system’s AI-powered cameras monitor tracks, railyard areas, and platforms 24-7 and immediately alert security personnel about any unauthorized intrusions or suspicious activity. Human security can then move in and assess the situation, ensuring that potential threats are contained before they become more serious problems.

AI can also assist transit riders in other ways. Luminator’s AI technology uses sensors to automatically alert passengers waiting at upcoming bus and train stops how many seats are available and where in the train or bus they’re located — which speeds up the boarding process and saves riders from the considerable delays that come with planning on taking an upcoming train or bus, only to realize that it’s full once it arrives.

In Miami, the average public-transit commute time is 58 minutes — longer than what passengers in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., experience. Miami riders also wait longer for buses and trains. AI can give transit officials evolving data on who’s riding where and when, enabling them to optimize routes and make adjustments in timely fashion.

Meanwhile, the more attractive public transit becomes, the less pressure we put on our roads and highways. AI can benefit Floridians, even if they never step foot on a train or bus themselves.

Florida has already done a lot to earn its reputation as a great place to live and work. Using AI to build a world-class public-transit system is one key to maintaining and enhancing it.

Stephen L. Precourt is a former transportation engineer for Dyer, Riddle, Mills & Precourt in Central Florida, and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives.

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