Looking ahead at UTA
BUSRide sat down with Brandon Curtis, executive managing director at Aesys, and Clair Fiet, chief technology officer for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), for an interview exploring technological advances at UTA and across the transit world.
Please briefly your role at UTA, how long you’ve worked there and what your day-to-day job entails.
Clair Fiet: I’m the chief technology officer and I’ve been employed at UTA since 1994. However I’ve been involved in UTA technology implementation since 1977.
I’m a senior executive and report directly to the CEO of UTA – and I don’t think that’s common in American transit. Along with my peers here in the agency and other executives, we assist the board of trustees on the development of our strategic direction.
What specific technology changes have you seen or instigated since joining UTA 22 years ago?
Fiet: Something that’s really driven us is the advent of cellular communications as a viable tool. It’s very high-speed and it’s very reliable. It really is a viable communications tool and it is playing a major role in future technologies.
It’s also crucial that we now implement and utilize de facto standards that we’ve developed. We now have systems that developed largely through interfaces and integration, rather than all coming from a single supplier.
Finally, a more recent technology development is the account-based approach to fare collection. Many are open payment systems. With the emergence of Apple Pay, Google Wallet, Samsung Pay and other similar services, all will play together in an ecosystem that a lot of people are looking at for fare payment.
It all comes down to data. It’s not just knowing where the vehicle is and telling the customer; it’s using that information to analyze your own performance. I think that is one of the biggest areas of payback that a company can get. Use system-generated data to analyze system performance and make it better.
Brandon Curtis: The fact is we have an inversely proportionate problem – there is so much data that can’t be effectively mined. It’s amazing how much data is just sitting there, waiting for someone in an agency to speak with a technology provider to unlock it.
Going “all-in” often overwhelms an agency.
UTA is renowned for managing systems in-house. What are the inherent advantages of that method? What challenges arise?
Fiet: Because UTA does everything internally, we rely on our own people. Developing in-house requires a really high-level of imagination and discipline. It’s very disruptive for the transit agency because, as a public agency, we find it hard to compete against the private sector – we can’t compete for wages and we can’t compete for benefits.
Discipline presents a major challenge. It requires discipline to keep stringent documentation in-house, rather than relying on an external vendor.
As for advantages, this approach came about because UTA was not a money-laden transit agency. We scratch for everything we can get. There’s never been a time where we can say, “We want to implement a smart bus,” then go out and buy all of the stuff on a bus and equip our entire fleet. We’ve never had that luxury, so we have to look at ways of incrementally doing that.
I’m a firm believer in the value of pilot programs, because things on a small-scale really help you understand what the system can do; what the system requires in the way of support and agency involvement. It helps in finalizing our thinking about the system prior to a full-scale implementation.
Going “all-in” often overwhelms an agency. They buy into technology they think they need and all of a sudden they have so much data and so much information that they can’t manage it. Maybe they didn’t realize it would put a maintenance load on their garage people; they didn’t know that office people would have to be involved to answer customer questions.
Start small, learn what it takes and then expand. That’s been the UTA approach.
Curtis: I think when an agency, like UTA, can design equipment, taxpayer money is used over and over again and proliferated. That’s a horrible statement for AVL companies. Technology proliferation is starting to make some really cool things available to smaller agencies who couldn’t previously afford it.
What’s on the technology horizon for UTA? What do you think is on the technology horizon for the entire industry?
Fiet: For the next couple of years we’re going to be focusing on business intelligence. That means utilizing real-time information, passenger counting, fare collection, vehicle telematics and other systems, bringing it all together in “big data” so we can analyze it on a macro level. I think that is really going to give us some payback.
Curtis: I think Europe has a lot more advanced transit systems because necessity is the mother of invention. They’ve got more people trying to get to different places and they’ve got older cities that don’t have roads to accommodate. Europe had to become more creative. How do you get under a 12-foot bridge that’s 2,000 years old? Thinking outside the box and leveraging money and ideas from elsewhere will do a lot for American transit. I think a lot of our advancements are right in front of us, we just won’t get out of our transit “box.”