ETA Transit: Creative thinking is forging new frontiers in transit technology

Leading Through Innovation

BUSRide spoke with Brandon Curtis, Mass Transit SME for ETA Transit, about what drew him to this burgeoning ITS company; how its SPOT system aims to enhance the ownership experience for transit agencies; and how ETA is poised to continue disrupting transit technology for decades.

With all your experience in public transportation, what drew you to ETA Transit?

As you work within an industry for a long enough period, you begin to develop philosophies about how things should work. It could be theories on how to sell a product or understand what might prove to be a game-changer within the market. In my situation, it was both.

In my transit career, I’ve noticed that software suppliers typically fall into one of two categories:

First, there are the ‘Legacy’ providers. These companies boast industry experience that extends for decades. Their solutions tend to be proprietary and serviced by a business model that is just as long in the tooth. They tend to have a broad portfolio of solutions, but innovation doesn’t come quickly.

Then there are the ‘Silicon Valley’ ITS companies. These outfits embrace ideas like open architecture, agnostic platforms, and data systems. They place a premium on innovation but tend to lack specific knowledge about the transit industry.

ETA Transit attracted me because they have what I feel is the best of both worlds. The company traces its origins to GeoFocus, one of the early pioneers of the ITS field. Its leadership team is comprised of former GeoFocus employees who purchased the company with the intent to adapt the technology to meet the challenges of a modern transit industry. I reviewed a sample of one of their RFP responses and found it excellent, detailed, yet easy to read, knowledgeable without being preachy or assumptive. After speaking with ETA President John Maglio and CEO Nicole Castonguay, I knew I had found my long-searched home. Their philosophies on transit and operations matched mine, and the company filled with intelligent, self-aware human beings focused on contributing to creative, family-focused culture.

What is SPOT, and what does it mean for the transit industry?

At its core, SPOT—Spatial Positioning on Transit—boasts a modular system design that provides agencies with a great deal of control and customization.  It is an open-architecture environment that delivers solutions tailored to an agency’s unique needs at a fraction of legacy systems’ cost.

But really, that’s just scratching the surface. SPOT is not only a product, an onboard device, a feature, or a function—it can be a whole universe for some agencies. It’s designed so that users can step in at any point and begin building their own transit world. An agency may start using SPOT for one reason and then evolve their system organically to add new features like automatic passenger counters or automated voice announcements later.

SPOT’s route manager gives users the real-time capability to do almost anything—from creating routes to adding stops, time points, or announcement triggers. For example, SPOT can implement real-time route deviations in the event of unanticipated mid-route construction. A manager logs into SPOT, reroutes the bus, assigns new announcements and headsign codes, and uploads that information to make passengers aware of the change. Boom. Done. It’s all done wirelessly via cellular connection, so the entire process can take just a few minutes.

The whole system can be controlled from any modern Internet browser. This all but eliminates the need for costly complementary purchases that typically are associated with an ITS system like local servers or computer upgrades.

What makes the ownership experience unique for agencies working with ETA?

ETA emphasizes customer experience and after-sale service and support. It is no secret that after-sale service and support has long been an Achilles heel of the transit technology industry.

ETA is in lockstep with our customers every step of the way. The project kick-off team conducts an in-depth review with the agency to decide critical first steps. The project management team meets regularly with the agency throughout the installation. Ultimately deployment is handled in weeks or months, not years.

We are currently developing a pre-emptive diagnostics solution for onboard systems to identify problems and have replacement equipment arrive at an agency before they even know there is a problem. Until then, we have a staff of trained customer support specialists who routinely monitor systems and provide recommendations for improvement.

Where is transit technology heading in the future? What is the next major disruption?

The first disruption is already underway: General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) standardizes transit data information such as routes and schedules. Every year ETA conducts an industry-wide survey, and GTFS is one of the recurring topics. Currently, more than half of the surveyed agencies report they are publishing their service information to GTFS. As this percentage grows, some legacy providers will find it difficult to hold on to (and charge agencies for) proprietary data.

For some time, all transit data was proprietary. With all of it now publicly accessible, anyone can start a transit company using GTFS Real-Time (GTFS-RT) feeds, develop a rider-facing app, and make it widely available. This disruption has given way to entirely new software companies that previously would not have created data-driven applications.

This disruption will lead to a significant shift away from proprietary devices and hardware. In truth, the cost of onboard devices has dropped precipitously in recent years, and the need to develop and maintain a closed architecture system is no longer necessary—especially now that so many upcoming procurements have requirements for open architecture and data.

This is where the industry is going, and ETA is doing its best to get there first. We’re making it simple to get started. We envision a future where a transit customer goes to a provider’s website, likes what they see, and decides to trial the product.

We’re looking to provide transit operators with an unprecedented level of control over their system—essentially minimizing the need for operators to rely on the technology vendor to make changes to routes, data, and other time sensitive operational needs. With the push of a button, they can create their customer portal, input their GTFS data, and connect to the agency’s various devices. In short, they can spin up their Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system in hours instead of months or years. That’s really cool.

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