With the aid of Avail Technologies, Solano County Transit manages its operations efficiently and effectively
By Richard Tackett
Solano County Transit (SolTrans) serves California’s southern Solano County, providing nearly 1.5 million annual trips via fixed-route, paratransit, and subsidized ride-sharing services. For the SolTrans staff handling that trip volume – while spread across two administrative buildings and a garage – accurate vehicle information, data warehousing, and real-time passenger information are essential tools.
In 2015, SolTrans enlisted Avail Technologies to help ensure the success of its dispatch, operations and maintenance teams. Initially contracting Avail to provide a computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location (CAD/AVL) solution, the agency uses the myAvail enterprise transit management system to help manage its services more efficiently and effectively. myAvail is optimized to reduce road calls, support dispatchers and inform riders – designed with role-based user interfaces for operations, finance, and administration staff; automatic mining and analysis of operational data; and configurable performance dashboards.
SolTrans further integrated the system with myStop®, its corresponding app and web platform for rider information, to provide real-time passenger information and digital signage to its riders in the Vallejo and Benicia communities.
“Every level of our agency ‘bought in’ to the myAvail and myStop systems, and I believe we are beginning to take full advantage of their benefits,” said Beth Kranda, executive director of SolTrans. “We have added a level of transparency to our services which our ridership appreciates.”
Deployment and integration
SolTrans and Avail deployed the software and hardware suite when the agency was in the process of moving into a refurbished and expanded operations facility. The move added a layer of complexity to what was already an elaborate technology implementation and adoption process.
Much of the initial deployment was spent optimizing the technology in that new facility. The SolTrans teams had no shortage of tasks, between setting up a new facility and launching a computer-aided dispatch and automatic vehicle location system and it became apparent that managing the agency’s workload was a priority.
“From a logistics perspective, we were able to map out a process that ensured SolTrans’ success – through proper testing and evaluation – before we deployed the system to the full fleet,” said Milo Thomas, director of customer experience at Avail Technologies. “Pilot testing in the facility allowed us to marry our implementation process to the agency’s needs at that time, which is critical for a project’s success.”
Bisi Ibrahim, program analyst for SolTrans, oversees the agency’s planning and operations technology. She said that the Avail deployment essentially upgraded SolTrans from paper-and-pencil bookkeeping to shared operations oversight.
“Although the system looks different depending on a person’s role within our organization, all our data exists in the same system,” she said. “That has been really key to getting our teams on the same page.”
Delivering benefits to riders
In addition to normal CAD/AVL capabilities, Avail offers several integrated customer-facing applications, including desktop and mobile apps for myStop. These apps allow riders to track vehicle locations, check vehicle capacity, and the approximate length of a trip.
Avail provides agencies with application programming interfaces (APIs), allowing agencies to customize and manipulate the apps to suit their needs. SolTrans utilizes the API to incorporate real-time information dynamic mapping on soltrans.org, allowing riders to access the myStop information from the agency’s front page.
“The biggest question in transit is, ‘Where is my bus?’” said Dietter Aragon, professional services engineer – business development at Avail Technologies. “SolTrans is able to quickly identify where buses are for their customers, and Avail was able to help them present it in a unique, visually dynamic way.”
“Our riders were not finding the information quickly enough, despite our best efforts to promote the apps,” Ibrahim added. “So we rebuilt our homepage to give riders the information they wanted most – where is the bus, what is the best route for a trip, and what routes are available.”
Aragon said that the system also interfaces with predictive departure signs at SolTrans park-and-ride, allowing for signage to display real-time trip information. These signs are ADA-accessible with text-to-speech functionality.
SolTrans has continued to upgrade the system’s hardware and software since the initial 2015 deployment, including a recent upgrade for 4G capability. As SolTrans has optimized internal operations, the customer experience has advanced commensurately.
“Our riders have the ability to see their buses in real time, which has created a tremendously positive transparency which the service did not have previously,” said Mandi Renshaw, public information officer at SolTrans. “The two-way communication we now have with the public has really allowed us to engage our community in a positive way.”
Dispatching maintenance efficiently
SolTrans maintenance department has also adopted myAvail system. The maintenance team has a large monitor placed centrally in its garage which monitors vehicle health for the entire fleet. The garage also has a station where maintenance techs can use the system to interact directly with dispatchers.
Ibrahim said that this monitor, which acts as the first alert for SolTrans fleet maintenance issues, is the first step toward a multi-tiered event response powered by myAvail.
“Previously, we had dispatchers hand-delivering paper notes to technicians,” she said. “Now that techs can use the system to remotely flag issues in real-time, we are on our way to improving our real-time response rate and greatly reducing vehicle downtime.”
She added that the maintenance team’s proactive approach with myAvail has also helped with SolTrans’ pullout management, reducing the risk of unequipped vehicles leaving the yard or other potentially hazardous situations. The system allows techs to plan their preventive maintenance intervals for each day, ensuring that vehicles are in the garage when maintenance is required.
“Road calls cost quite a bit of money,” Thomas said. “With these tools, SolTrans’ maintenance team can make judgements about which vehicles need road calls, and which can wait. By removing the guessing game, their maintenance technicians can save the agency thousands of dollars with each decision.”
Further service enhancement
By storing all the agency’s technical data – not just from Avail applications – under a single software platform, myAvail’s data warehousing has helped SolTrans immensely in data manipulation, dashboarding, and analysis. The agency now responds to incidents simultaneously from multiple organizational levels thanks to independent, role-based reporting.
Aragon referred to SolTrans as a “super user” of the system due to the myriad ways the agency takes advantage of its data.
“Not only is SolTrans really effective at internal training to ensure that the agency’s subcontractors are taking full advantage of the system,” he said, “but the management team is frequently improving its services based on data gathered by these recording tools.”
In addition to 4G compatibility, Aragon said, SolTrans’ most recent myAvail upgrade further enhances features like detour management and decision support.
Perhaps more than any other benefit, Kranda added, the Avail system has helped promote a general awareness among the public about SolTrans service.
“We can see it,” she said. “There is no denying that our community is more engaged with SolTrans than ever before.”