The future is bright for the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) thanks to a forward-thinking, technologically minded leadership team combined with the right industry partnerships to ensure continuing success.
Working with longtime partner Avail Technologies, Alabama’s BJCTA will soon complete a full-scale technology upgrade in preparation for the launch of their new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service.
“We want to distinguish BJCTA from other agencies in the way we are able to get people to their destinations,” said Charlotte Shaw, BJCTA director and CEO. “We want to be on the forefront of technology, which changes rapidly in the transportation sector.”
Since 2005, Avail Technologies has powered the back-end operations at BJCTA with solutions for finance, payroll, transit assets, compliance, scheduling, runcutting, rostering, and daily operations. Then in 2015 the agency deployed in-vehicle systems like CAD/AVL, real-time passenger information, ADA next stop annunciation, and passenger counting. The strength of the partnership can be attributed to solutions that grew commensurately with the agency’s own progress. The latest upgrade to myAvail ETMS, which touches nearly every facet of the transit organization, represents a major leap forward in that growth.
“Avail is more than just a technology provider – we are a group of transportation professionals focused on helping our transit agency partners realize their vision,” said Shannon Haney, account manager with Avail Technologies.
“A great example of this is the support Avail provided leading up to and during FTA’s Safety Security Certification Verification Review for the upcoming BRT,” said Rick Spangler, chief technology officer at Avail. “Passing that important milestone required seamless integration of a number of technologies. We were able to accomplish that because of our integration experience and understanding of BJCTAs vision.”
BJCTA is currently focusing on the launch of Birmingham Xpress (BX), the Birmingham region’s first BRT service. BX has received local, state, and nationwide recognition for this project, and presents a high-profile opportunity for Birmingham and BJCTA to shine.
Shaw said that BX will connect 25 neighborhoods across the length of its corridor, and will provide residents with better access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. The system will include dedicated busways, traffic signal priority, innovative bus design, platform-level boarding stations, off-board fare collection, enhanced high frequency service, live surveillance camera look-in, and real-time passenger information.
“The BRT corridor crosses approximately 80,000 jobs,” Shaw said. “It is going to connect people to opportunities, places, social events, and most of all, it gives people the opportunity to get to work. That’s a big footprint. This is going to be a game changer for the City of Birmingham.”
“A successful BRT line like BX comes down to creating a great passenger experience,” Spangler said. “Customers will benefit from real-time apps and dynamic signage, infotainment and Wi-Fi inside the bus, and traffic signal priority to help optimize travel time. BJCTA will attract riders with an innovative, almost rail-like experience.”
World Games 2022
Birmingham successfully hosted the World Games 2022, a 10-day event featuring athletes from 110 nations and thousands of attendees. With the world watching, BJCTA and the city helped make the event as successful as possible.
BJCTA and Avail teamed up to support the event by adding additional service and routes, and leveraged technology to ensure safety, communications, and coordination, making transportation a seamless experience for thousands of riders in town for the World Games.
“Riders came from around the world to visit Birmingham for the World Games, and many had never used public transit in America, or were local residents who had never ridden,” Spangler said. “They had a great introduction, and we are proud of how well the dedicated BJCTA staff embraced Avail’s products and services to deliver a smooth, state-of-the-art transit experience.”
“Without both teams working together – Avail and BJCTA – there is no way we could have made the World Games as successful as we did,” Shaw said. “We needed to make sure every bus ran efficiently and was producing data needed to ensure we could get our passengers. We were reliable and predictable with our transit services, which meant we had to really be on top of our scheduling. Our CAD/AVL and other systems helped make that a reality.”
Dorinda McCombs, chief capital planning and project delivery officer for BJCTA, works closely with Director Shaw and was instrumental in the success of transit surrounding the World Games. She said that data was key for BJCTA’s services during that time and moving forward.
McCombs added that Avail helped ensure the accuracy of BJCTA’s passenger count during the World Games buildup, which was vital for helping the city drive new programs to meet ridership needs.
“When you have 100 people standing at a bus stop waiting for service, you kick into action,” McCombs said. “But you need data to tell the full story, and the software kept dispatch and our offices in direct touch with our many locations and vehicles available for service. Having that data allowed us to quickly mobilize and move buses to where people needed a ride, which was so important when people were attending the opening games. The technology provided information for us in a seamless way, which was critical.”
Integrated Solutions for Modern Transit Agencies
The latest upgrade to myAvail ETMS provides BJCTA with a unified data-sharing platform for automated functionality, which bridges communication gaps and minimizes internal silos.
“Having everything under one technology umbrella is so critical,” Shaw said. “That technology is what’s going to make us different. We want to make it convenient for everyone to jump on public transportation rather than into their cars.”
McCombs added that Avail’s technology not only provides better communication between BJCTA and its ridership, the ETMS integration allows nimble decision making.
“We want to be flexible and able to make very quick decisions about our fleet and our investments and assets, and our return on those investments and assets,” she said. “This platform provides the data we need to make those informed decisions, as well as managing our scheduling and re-routing. In that way, it is essential to our very survival.”
Shaw and McCombs both spoke about the importance of accountability and building a culture of on-time performance – a vital element of an effective BRT system. The Avail ITS infrastructure benefits the agency with layers of real-time information dissemination, along with data analysis and creating standard operating procedures (SOPs).
“From the BRT operator’s standpoint, our software is loaded with features to keep the system running on time, managing against bus bunching and gaping, and making sure that buses are adhering to the BRT service frequency,” Haney added.
Between finance, asset and resource management, planning and scheduling, operations, compliance, and payroll, myAvail ETMS touches every facet of BJCTA management. This integration allows information to flow steadily throughout the entire system, Haney said.
“If a driver notices a broken bus light during their pre-check, they enter that information into the ETMS,” he said. “The work order goes to maintenance – to have the light replaced, as well as to the asset management system – to assure component availability, and, if necessary, to the parts of the organization that must decide whether to pull the bus off its route. All of this happens seamlessly from point to point within the same system.”
The long-term partnership between BJCTA and Avail Technologies can be largely attributed to the good stewardship of the funding allocated to technology and upgrades. Avail has a unique approach of continuing to invest in technology and making its solutions backward compatible, so agencies like BJCTA can invest prudently along the way to keep technology current. In this way, the technology is always meeting the agency’s needs; it does not need to be replaced every five years.
“It allows us to do what we do best – be service oriented,” Shaw said. “Services like Uber and Lyft have created a competitive marketplace, and it’s changed the way we do business. Riders have a choice, so services like BRT, along with technology making information more readily available to riders, will help make sure BJCTA is leading the pack when it comes to reliable transportation. Public transportation is the best resource to make our communities seamless.”
“Our use of the Avail technology is all about communicating the message that Director Shaw has mentioned: To be clear with the riders,” McCombs said. “Here’s our objective: We are here to move people, and also provide information that lets people make informed riding decisions.”