February 23, 2018
COMMENTARY
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Turn the Key on Unified Transit Tech; Integration, Standards and Open APIs Open Door to New Opportunities By John Maglio, president, ETA Transit Systems

BY JOHN MAGLIO
President
ETA Transit Systems

When asked what is the most critical imperative facing public transit agencies and their adoption of modern technology, my answer is simple: Open APIs [application programming interface] and Standards.

Not so long ago, a public transit agency looking to track vehicles and provide arrival predictions to its customers had but a handful of options. Providers of Computer Aided Dispatch/Automatic Vehicle Location (CAD/AVL) solutions didn’t have much competition, so the systems they designed weren’t beholden to compatibility beyond their own solutions. Once a transit agency selected a vendor, that was it—the agency was now fully invested in that ecosystem, tied to a specific solution and set of proprietary software and hardware.

Any seasoned transit vet can tell you stories of being tied to a proprietary platform, bound by a contract and the prohibitive costs associated with switching to a new vendor. In the absence of any real, market-driven competition, software improvements and hardware upgrades fell to the imperative of the provider, not the agency.

Today, there are a wealth of choices available to transit agencies; numerous technology companies provide CAD/AVL systems, automated passenger counters, fare collection, mobile video surveillance, passenger information display systems … you name it. But despite such choices, many of the old pitfalls remain in the form of proprietary hardware and software interfaces, onerous contracts, and slow-developing software solutions to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing and competitive marketplace.

An intelligent transit platform is a substantial investment; it’s a huge expense that touches every corner of an operation, from administrators to dispatchers to operators to the riders themselves. The savvy customer should demand options—not only in features, but in the flexibility to expand based on the demands of the transit marketplace, not whether their chosen vendor has developed a solution for a specific need.

The challenge that faces agencies isn’t a dearth of choices or a lack of technology. Rather, it’s a lack of open APIs and standards within the industry, and an acknowledgement that a “one-size-fits-all” model for transit operations may never exist. An agency should be able to leverage the investment it has already made in hardware and software, to add new systems from competing vendors to their technology profile to meet the needs of their situation.

Right now, those standards for integration don’t exist in any substantial number. The availability of National Transportation Communications for Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) Protocol (NTCIP), General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), and GTFS-Real time standards represents a good start, but with so many vendors safeguarding their APIs, it’s going to be difficult to achieve the potential of full standardization and integration.

A 2016 ETA Transit survey of U.S. transit agencies found that less than 60 percent of operators were happy with their current ITS provider, with a 2017 survey revealing an adoption of GTFS at only 55.6 percent. Those numbers are bound to change once the industry begins pushing providers to adopt standards and provide their APIs so that customers and vendors can leverage these powerful ­systems to their full potential.

It’s a scenario that seems to defy logic, to encourage closed technology and proprietary information to be opened up to outside sources. But that’s where the potential lies to truly advance public transit systems to another level of efficiency and innovation.

Efforts to standardize will provide agencies with more options, more flexibility and, ultimately, a lower price for all concerned. When the public transit industry has a hand in the development of innovative solutions, we as tech providers benefit from their ingenuity. Market-driven innovation is critical for discovering emerging industry needs. We can look at these ideas and then leverage our expertise to make them market-ready with less overhead and development costs. With tight budgets but growing demands, these open APIs and standards for integration become essential to meeting the day-to-day challenge of operating a transit agency.

It’s understandable that some providers of transit technology will be hesitant to open their workshops and provide tools for integration. But it’s also true that these same providers benefit from systems with open APIs and architectures when asked to integrate with an existing system. Adoption of standards will increase the options for transit agencies and provide them with the ability to more readily integrate fresh solutions from multiple providers. Standards will simplify the ability of providers to integrate with existing systems from other vendors, resulting in more predictable, efficient and cheaper deployments.

If providers of transit technology can step out of their individual sandboxes and embrace the idea that the adoption of standards in the development of technology—from software to code to open source support—will ultimately help transit agencies everywhere, we’ll see a new era of innovation while reducing development, deployment and procurement costs. And that benefits everybody.

"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.
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