By Richard Bilbao 

Orlando strives to be a world-class city by finding ways to improve things, such as transportation.

One of those efforts underway is the Future-Ready City Master Plan, which proposes a longterm strategy for implementing new programs and policies to advance mobility, digital connectivity, energy, health and safety, placemaking such as housing, water conservation and materials such as recycling. The plan has been in the works since 2019, and may play a role in helping improve daily commutes for thousands of Orlando workers who rely on mass transit.

Improving how workers get around town is vital to the region — especially helping workers cover what experts call the “tricky” first and last miles of their trips. For example, in Seminole and Orange counties, 41% of residents live more than three-quarters of a mile from a Lynx bus stop, according to the Central Florida Regional Transit Authority, which oversees the Lynx public bus system. That hurdle causes undue stress to workers and can hurt productivity.

The Future-Ready City plan tackles various aspects of transportation, including finding ways to incentivize more use of mass transit via rewards for users. That can be in the form of gift cards that may help make traveling for commuters more rewarding and help offset other costs in their daily lives. Other initiatives are to implement more data synchronization where users can have more precise information on the locations of buses and rail times, as well as simplifying the payment systems for those different entities into one simple platform.

The goal of Orlando’s Future-Ready plan will help make those residents’ lives a little easier, Michael Hess, director of Future Ready for the city, told Orlando Business Journal. The plan will take some time to integrate as it’s all very new, but the potential is there, he added.

“There’s a bunch of different data initiatives in the transportation space that have been evolving over the last few years where we actually can see Lynx bus locations real time. Those technology hurdles are still a little painful to do that integration, but it’s evolving. Picture if you are doing a trip that involves both Lynx bus and SunRail and you can see real time: ‘I’m on the train right now, when is my train going to get to the station and where is the bus and when will that get to the station. Am I going to make it?’ So hopefully, it makes it easier for everyone.”

Here, Hess shares some specifics of the future-ready plan that may ease transportation for commuters or encourage the use of mass transit while making it more affordable:

How did you account for working-class commuters for the plan? We engaged the community when we were developing this plan. Earlier this year, we did a lot of community meetings in each district. We had a lot of the general public attend community workshops, so when we built this plan, we allowed the community to tell us what issues they saw and what ideas they had to solve those issues. Working with our consultant VHB and other experts, we [shared[ ideas we saw in other cities and allowed our residents to vote.

How will the incentive system work? There are apps you already can use that act as a frequent flier program and will reward you. What we are looking to do is partner with some of those companies to feed out very specific challenges to help with our city issues. Those technology providers will have their standard rewards programs. By partnering with those companies, the city can issue challenges. For example, if we wanted to increase use of scooter share or walking or SunRail and Lymmo, we can push out challenges that offer gift cards — a $5 gift card if you ride SunRail four times this week. That’s the area we are looking to add in to push alternative transit that will help the city of Orlando.

Can that incentive system eventually include regional partners like free SunRail rides? It can. It starts to get harder to do because you need to have multiple regional entities coordinating. This first year we will focus on challenges with gift cards, and if it’s successful, we will start to further our partnerships with SunRail and others to offer those rewards. We will get there, but in this first year we will keep it simple.

What other metros did you see have success with a reward-style program? We did research of Smart City technology all across the world. We want to be out front and think we will be because we made this comprehensive plan that others haven’t. The city of Sacramento, California, has been doing a rewards program for over a year now, and Jacksonville Transit Authority just started doing a rewards program maybe a month or two ago. Also, CalTrain, [the commuter rail] out in California, has been doing this type of approach. Some of the ones from California started to show the amount of money they invested in rewards, they exceeded that in additional revenue by encouraging people to ride. We’ve seen success in California and want to try in Orlando if we can translate that success here.

What’s the strategy behind the single payment system? That’s one of our mid-term strategies, probably a couple of years out, related to a short-term strategy around trying to use technology to better integrate all our mobility options so anyone can see what their different options are to get from Point A to Point B. Is there an easy way to jump on a Lynx bus to get to SunRail or SunRail to a scooter? Right now that’s very siloed. You have to look at the SunRail map separately and go to the Lynx app or website to see what they have, and that creates friction in the system. So the single payment piece will be built on top of that to make it easier for people to use alternative forms of transit to make it more frictionless. The people who use it every day, we might save them a little time. We hope if we can make it easier, we can expand ridership and then expand routes.

When can we expect to see the single payment portion of the plan? As we go through the budgeting process, we will reprioritize projects, continue to talk the community, look at the city budget and prioritize accordingly every year. The single payment side is mid-term. But short-term, we want to build the platform where you can see the information n one place and then that will be platform you can build on and put in the payment system and build the features over time. It will be a multiyear project.

How important will this plan be for the working class that doesn’t have a car? Extremely important. If you look at the foundational elements of this plan and some of the common themes we heard form community engagement, a lot was around equity and inclusion. When we were picking this strategy, those foundational elements were part of our prioritization process. We specifically wanted to pick strategies that would help everyone, not just trying to buy some shiny technology that only helps a few. We are extremely focused on having everything we do help with equity and inclusion.