By Richard Tackett
When Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA) was searching for a new Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) suite, improved passenger information delivery was the agency’s primary goal. With the recent selection of Birmingham, AL, as host city of the World Games in 2021, the city is anticipating an influx of new transit users, making enhancing the commuting experience imperative.
BJCTA had previously installed software by Fleet-Net® Corporation in 2005, providing infrastructure for accounting, payroll, human resources, fleet maintenance, asset management, inventory, planning, scheduling, procurement, operations management, statistical reporting, as well as federal, state and NTD reporting. What the agency needed, officials say, was an integrated solution which would allow it to monitor these functions, its vehicles and employees in real-time.
“The agency really wanted an all-in-one system to provide riders with detailed information – where a bus is at and when it will arrive, as well as detours, emergency announcements and other types of public messages,” says Matt Kiehl, systems engineer at Avail Technologies.
The agency put out a request for proposals (RFP) for its new ITS solution in May 2015. BJCTA had many potential vendors apply, but one supplier stood out above the rest because of its ability to integrate systems seamlessly across departments – Avail Technologies of State College, PA.
Avail Technologies specializes in software for fleet management, computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and automatic vehicle location (AVL). Its flagship product myAvail, was aligned directly with BJCTA’s needs at the time. myAvail is a CAD/AVL system with several dynamic features for dispatch staff – including automatic mining and analysis of operational data, configurable performance metrics dashboards, pre-emptive notification of upcoming issues, as well as desktop, email and text alerts to avoid operational issues.
“BJCTA found that myAvail fit their needs perfectly,” Kiehl says. “It’s a fully-integrated CAD/AVL system, with passenger counting and automated vehicle announcements – just what the doctor ordered in terms of passenger information.”
Toney Chestnut, director of information technology at BJCTA, says that myAvail represented a major step up from the agency’s previous CAD/AVL systems, which at times consisted of papers, pens and manpower.
“Avail offers a much cleaner and simpler process compared to other integrators in the market,” he says. “It’s sleek and features many operational advantages over other software of its type.”
Installation and integration
Over the course of the next year, Avail and BJCTA began running pilot installs and tests of the system, to ensure a smooth integration when the time came for mass deployment. Very important to the process was integrating myAvail with the previously-installed Fleet-Net software – made easier by the fact that Avail and Fleet-Net had worked closely on a project in Akron, OH, previously.
“Avail sent us specifications on what they required for their scheduling database, and then it was just a matter of matching up our data to their data,” says Clive Newell, president of Fleet-Net Corporation. “From there, we started coordinating the more advanced features of each system – interactivity between dispatch, executive management, BJCTA vehicles and our software.”
BJCTA put together an internal team of maintenance, planning and information technology (IT) staff to handle system deployment. Avail installed the system on a bus and tested each individual system. BJCTA IT specialists ensured that the software ran smoothly.
“Our objective was to identify potential issues with the software, and then resolve each issue as it came up,” Chestnut says. “So, when it came time to go live with the Avail system, we had little to no headaches.”
The system in action
myAvail coordinates with multiple BJCTA departments and functions to turn raw data points into actionable business intelligence. As Kiehl puts it, the system fights the tendency to work in “silos” – where one department works separately and independently, with no regard to the actions of other agency offices.
The Avail system’s coordination with Fleet-Net’s scheduling capabilities might be the most noticeable advantage for BJCTA. While schedulers use Fleet-Net to build daily bus routes, integration with myAvail allows BJCTA to pinpoint driver and vehicle information in real time.
“When we assign a driver to a route in myAvail, the information automatically integrates with Fleet-Net’s route information,” Chestnut says. “The two systems, in tandem, allow us to view a bus on a map and instantly access its route, operator and vehicle information.”
The systems also integrate into the vehicles’ telematics systems for the benefit of the BJCTA maintenance department. With real-time maintenance alerts, the agency can troubleshoot remotely from the shop and reduce downtime.
In terms of passenger information distribution, Chestnut says the Avail system has been revolutionary. All vehicle and route information that myAvail collects is integrated into BJCTA’s website, so passengers can view routes as well as search by street, intersection or point of interest. The site also integrates with Google Transit Trip Planner, allowing passengers to instantly view traffic, detours and emergencies.
Kiehl says that BJCTA is taking full advantage of Avail’s technology in order to push as much information as possible out to its customers.
“Birmingham even recently deployed a texting feature for passengers, set up through the Avail system,” he says. “By simply texting a short code and a bus stop number from their mobile phone, riders can instantly get next-bus information delivered directly.”
The future is bigger and better
The rapidly approaching date of the World Games has inspired BJCTA agency executives to revitalize many aspects of the transit system in anticipation of the new riders.
“We want to change the image of transit in Birmingham,” Chestnut says. “We want choice riders to outnumber transit-dependent riders. There are several major milestones we’ll need to hit to do that – and the Avail system is going to help us every step of the way.”
Chestnut, Kiehl and Newell agree – the integrated Avail and Fleet-Net systems allow BJCTA to track all assets in real time; to analyze historical data and break out of department “silos” with a total transit solution package. This all translates to enhanced passenger information, better service and more efficient operations. “Answers, not data,” as Kiehl puts it.
“Avail can take many pieces of data scattered around our agency and bring them all together, to help us accomplish our goals in a faster and more efficient way,” Chestnut says. “BJCTA has a vision, and the Avail system is the active ingredient that will allow us to meet our goals for years to come.”