February 16, 2009
Technology Aids, Innovates, Leads
By SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor
The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.
– Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)
This is a time of technological transformation for the public transportation industry. Who would have thought 20 to 25 years ago, for example, that a commuter could pay for a subway ride – or receive real-time information about train delays or route changes – through a cell phone? Or that a traveler’s security could be enhanced through closed-circuit television cameras or a bus driver’s ability to contact police through a touch of a button?
Why is technology so important? Many reasons, highly varied. Technology reduces cost, increases productivity, and promotes safety. It can speed delivery of products; it can make passengers more comfortable. It can produce ways to store energy; it can make materials lighter and more cost-efficient.
From TCIP standards in communications capability to automatic vehicle location, from traffic signal priority to positive train control and collision avoidance, technology is the backbone of the industry as well as its innovator.
In the pages that follow, a variety of APTA members present various perspectives on the value of technology. For as Linda J. Bohlinger, APTA vice chair, research and technology, said: “It’s not just a back-office application anymore.” Bohlinger, who also serves as vice president and national director of management consulting for HNTB Corporation, added: “ It’s used in all aspects of a transit agency – from administrative to on-board equipment on buses and trains, to asset management to security and ITS.”
Value of Technology Overall
As the nation continues to try to find its way out of the devastating economic downturn, technology nonetheless continues to advance.
“I see technology really fulfilling two roles in public transportation,” said Kirk Talbott, chief information officer for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin, TX. “First, delivering better information to our passengers, such as predicted on-time arrival and the ability to get better trip planning of information, and the other thing is potentially lowering costs or increasing efficiency – more service delivered for same or lowered costs.”
Bohlinger echoed Talbott’s comments about the efficiency role, but added that technology helps an agency accomplish its mission.
Many opportunities exist regarding what’s available in technology, observed Thomas Parker, executive manager, transit systems compliance, for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District and chair of APTA’s Universal Transit Farecard Standards program, but those opportunities come with a built-in problem.
“People tend not to be patient with technology,” he said. “When something new comes to the table, you can’t expect it to work right first time out of the box. Be mindful that you have to be patient with it. When something is being developed, it must include the whole ecosystem, and that typically takes time.”
While many technological efforts are very costly, the cost-benefit ratio connected to these projects can make an initial investment worthwhile. According to John M. Inglish, general manager/chief executive officer of the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City, investing in rail technologies provides a big advantage “because you have the ability to add capability at a pretty low cost. If you’ve invested in that big technology, you’re in better shape than if you had not. From that perspective, the technology will allow you to expand rapidly.”
Technological ‘Wizardry’ in the Pipeline
What technologies are agencies working on right now? Because needs and resources differ from system to system, so does technological development. Here are just a few examples:
* Capital Metro is developing a computer-aided dispatch automatic vehicle location program for demand response, which Talbott called “a massive technology investment.” He added: “Our hopes are that, by better knowing where our vehicles are, on the paratransit side, you’ll be able to dispatch more intelligently.”
* In Pittsburgh, Dil Asivatham, director of infrastructure and information technology services for the Port Authority of Allegheny County, noted that his agency is prototyping a text-based message system about bus schedules at the bus stops. This program will likely have two main benefits: Increased visibility, in that the customers will be able to see when the next bus will arrive, and decreased customer service calls, because the information will be readily accessible.
* UTA is “heavily invested right now” in electronic fare collection, said Inglish. The agency wants a system that operates with a standard credit card that becomes contactless through an embedded microchip, and will measure how far people ride. “I want to charge people with how far I take them,” he said, “and to change the fare according to market conditions. I may want to charge them less for six blocks vs. 20 miles into the suburbs.”
This approach, Inglish noted, “will give us the ability to extract more revenue for our services than we’ve ever done before – having people pay more in correlation to the value of the service. If you buy a Big Gulp, you’ll pay more than for a can of Diet Coke.”
Further, said UTA Chief Technology Officer Clair Fiet, implementing any kind of change in the fare collection process uses technology to “inform” readers on all buses and gates. “We can be efficient and can do it almost overnight,” he explained.
Value During a Recession
“Human nature likes to continue doing things the ways they’ve done them in the past,” said Talbott, “and public transit seems to be rife with human nature. When you inject new technology, it opens up possibilities: you can either keep doing things they way you’ve done it – and fight the technology – or you can adapt the way to do things to the new technology.”
Before a recession, he observed, a transit agency might spend millions of dollars on new technology that then requires an ongoing maintenance cost. “In a recession,” he said, “if people never change their business processes to take advantage of the cost savings, they’ll just see the initial costs and ongoing maintenance and they’ll get frustrated with it.”
The advantage he sees in a recession, therefore, is that “it really gets an agency to analyze its business processes and ask: how can we do this better, or how can we do this for less money?” he added.
During a recession, said Asivatham, “you can throw money away on too much technology. The proper and strategic use of technology is to drive efficiencies within departments.” This is why the Port Authority is working on methods of providing access, including secure access, to its network, by multiple modes and from any location.
Stressing that this is not something the organization has asked for or committed to, Asivatham termed it “foresight from the technology standpoint. We’re making it available without making any huge capital investment. From strategic leveraging of existing technology, we’re providing capabilities for the organization to be flexible.”
Said Bohlinger: “The challenge in a down economy – as it is in any economy, since transit agencies are generally operating at the margin, funding-wise – is determining what kind of technology is appropriate for each size and type of agency.” To that end, she described a joint APTA/Transit Cooperative Research Program effort to develop a tech portal on APTA’s web site geared toward APTA board members, CEOs, and general managers, which will describe different types of technology and their application for public transportation, and will provide links for further research.
“Operating costs are really an area of concern with most transit organizations – how to do more with less,” said Asivatham, “so the proper use of technology certainly goes a long way to solving that problem.”
Taking Advantage of Technology
Exciting technological innovation is underway in France these days. In Nice, for example, because people don’t like to see wires in urban environments, streetcars operate with battery packs on their roofs. The packs provide enough capacity to enable a streetcar to travel through a “no wires, please” section, and then reattach itself to wires after and recharge.
In Bordeaux, streetcars use an embedded third rail for power, but the only time the rail is “hot” is when the vehicle is directly over it. As Inglish related, otherwise, “you can walk on it” with no ill effect.
Inglish said he hopes that UTA becomes one of the first U.S. transit systems to implement such a network, but he acknowledged: “It’s a struggle for American systems to step out of America – it’s an arrogance we’ve got to get over. Technology is all over, all around us, and we should be smart enough to pick from the best.”
Technology is crucial to the industry, now and in the future. “All the new advances in transportation will be in technology,” Bohlinger said. “Technology will really be the way that transit survives in the next era.”