Then and now: an historical overview of transit technology

A NEW LOOK ICONBUSRide recently sat down with Brandon Curtis, executive managing director at Aesys, and Darryl Curtis, vice president – technology, at Clever Devices, for an interview dissecting the last decade of transit technology. Furthermore, the two experts identify faults in current transit technology deployment and offer potential solutions for agencies that find themselves in a bind.

What notable advances have been made in transit technology in the past decade?
Brandon Curtis:  We’ve seen a decade of continual advancement. Automatic vehicle monitoring (AVM) in particular is a whole new technology that has developed and evolved over the last 10 to 15 years. Automatic passenger counting (APC) has also made huge advancements. Radio frequency has gone digital, while Nextel iDEN pack systems have gone away.
Darryl Curtis: In terms of transit technology, there are two areas an agency must understand thoroughly and execute well. The first is the advancement in vehicle location technology that includes improved GPS, refinements for more accurate location algorithms and a greater number of satellites. Together, these have greatly improved everyone’s capability to locate.
Second, communications technology has grown dramatically since we were just using private radio 20 or 30 years ago. Although, the transit industry has been slow in adapting to the use of cellular streams for data communication. However, that is changing as well, as transit agencies have begun to accept cellular technology as a means for reliable data communications, and now voice communications to some degree.
Along with these, advancements in routers – intelligent routers and mobile access routers – have actually moved networks out onto the buses; connecting them all the way back into the central system.
Brandon: It is amazing how market demand has driven the technology.  For instance, CAD-AVL has rarely shown a quantifiable return on investment for a transit agency other than safety. As an example, while there are many ways companies like Aesys can implement most any on-board multimedia and entertainment system, the problem for an agency has been in finding it cost-prohibitive to justify in terms of safety or ease of ridership.  Transit agencies have not been able to develop marketing plans that incorporate that very same information for something like location-based advertising.

With these technologies advancing so fast, and with their intricacies becoming more and more complex, are agencies able to keep up?
Darryl: I don’t know how they can keep up, to be candid; especially where they’re trying to maintain the systems they already have. To stay on top of the technology, they end up relying on consultants or technology companies they can trust, because the changes are coming incredibly fast. So no, I don’t think they’re on top of it.
I think some of the consulting companies directly involved on multiple fronts do have the talent and people who are capable of keeping up. However, they are not the ones deploying the systems. While they’re on top of the technology they think may work, it may not work when someone actually gets out there and tries to deploy the system.
The best transit agencies staying on top of what is happening today are the ones that dare to ask, “What have you done for me lately?”
Brandon: The people who purchase the technology systems often know what they want, but don’t always know how to articulate their preferences technically. Consultants take that information and interpret it the best they can. Once agencies deploy a system, I think they have a difficult time keeping up with the incoming data.
I think it becomes an even more difficult situation when multiple integrators will not work together. They tell agencies they have to pay for their own data before they pair it with another integrator. So what they end up with, in most cases, is an agency that can either choose to update technology at 20 to 30 percent of the time or pay a massive amount of money for an end-to-end system.

In light of that, what do agencies most need to know when purchasing a new system?
Brandon: I would encourage transit agencies to communicate with one another. It doesn’t cost any money for an agency to pick up the phone and call for answers to their questions, and to get reliable information and perhaps some good advice.  Agencies are in a better position to leverage their own domain knowledge for what works and what doesn’t, because the only people who know the system are those who use it every day.
It’s amazing agencies don’t have more of a say in how a system should be developed, as they are the ones using it.
Darryl: The optimum solution is going to come from a company that has deployed the technology numerous times in numerous situations. It may take a few calls to connect with an agency that can actually offer that guidance. Because there is not an agency out there than has never had a problem, these are the more important questions to ask: How did they respond to a problem before the deployment of new technology? What has their response been to a similar problem with the new the solution in place?

Information is power and the best information is from reliable sources. Don’t be afraid to ask, as most people are most likely to share their successes.