By Richard Tackett
The Rapid operates fixed route, demand-response and car and vanpooling programs among other services in the Grand Rapids, MI, area. Although the relationship between the agency and Avail Technologies isn’t young, it’s managing to yield its most incredible results yet.
Avail Technologies, State College, PA, began work with The Rapid in the mid-2000s. An initial comprehensive RFP for an expandable Intelligent Transportation System to meet its hardware and software requirements for dispatching, communications, and passenger information lead the Michigan agency to Avail, a leading ITS solutions provider for transit agencies in the United States.
“Avail clearly emerged as the consensus leader,” says Brian Pouget, chief operating officer of The Rapid. “They took a different approach from other companies and seemed more interested in dealing with our particular needs. I think that’s been our ongoing experience over the years with Avail. It’s not like we haven’t encountered challenges, as any public agency does, but Avail has always been there to help find the solution to the issues at hand.”
The Rapid’s BRT project with Avail Technologies dovetailed directly into the agency’s ongoing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. The company provided LED signage (featuring audial and visual announcements) at every station on the agency’s designated routes, BRT dispatch equipment and more passenger information technology.
“We worked with the construction contractors installing the BRT system, along with The Rapid,” says Gretchen Paules, marketing lead at Avail Technologies. “It was important that we make sure that the signs at every single stop were operating correctly and mounted. It had to be the best way possible for Grand Rapids’ passengers.”
After installing the provisioned CAD/AVL system in 2007 and periodically making small upgrades, the relationship between The Rapid and Avail continued to blossom. In 2012, The Rapid released a 2nd major competitive procurement spec for real-time passenger information and signage. Avail was again awarded the opportunity and continued to work with The Rapid on what would be a multi-phased project that built upon the technology implemented before it. During Phase 1 of the project Avail installed 56 LED signs in total, with the initial project phase only set for a pilot at Rapid Central Station and Kentwood Station in Grand Rapids.
During Phase 2, The Rapid and Avail continued their partnership on a major passenger information project in 2014. The first phase of the project involved installing the wayside signage that provided real-time estimations of bus arrivals. Avail’s real-time signage paved the way for passenger information such as public service announcements, detour messages, Amber Alerts, weather alerts and even marketing materials.
The second half of Phase 2 of the real-time passenger information project included a customer-facing app and passenger information website, branded myStop®, allowing riders to access and schedule real-time information from any location. Finally, the software suite was rounded out with Interactive Voice Response system and text-message alerts.
With the massive passenger information suite upgrade came a corresponding need for dispatch to keep up-to-speed. Enter myAvail.
“After working with Avail for over a decade, we had heard hints about the new myAvail system,” Pouget says. “Suffice to say, it caught our attention.”
myAvail is a CAD/AVL system with a number of 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.
Combined with The Rapid’s already implemented advanced passenger information setup, the combination presented a brand new paradigm for the agency.
Throughout the entire implementation process, Avail trainers worked side-by-side with The Rapid to help them achieve total adoption of their new technologies.
“I trained multiple trainers and supervisors at The Rapid, initially teaching a handful of classes,” says Greg Kilbride, professional service engineer at Avail Technologies. “I then observed those trainers as they taught a small segment of their staff. From there, we worked together to roll the training out to all staff. IT, paratransit and fixed-route personnel were all involved in implementation and training for the system. We needed to make sure everyone fully understood the new software and hardware before they began using it. This train-the-trainer approach proved to be very successful as a key part of the technology adoption.”
Kilbride continues, “To this day, we still support The Rapid as it grows its services and personnel with additional training and upgrades as part of their ongoing maintenance and support agreement. When you’re a customer for life at Avail, we make sure you get the training and support you need, long-term.”
“The plan was not only to train our people on it,” Pouget says, “we also wanted to train our paratransit subcontractor. That required coordinating with their staff as well to arrange a training session on how the myAvail system would work for them and what they could do with it. From an implementation and training perspective, I don’t think it could have gone any smoother.”
Passenger information training was slightly different. It involved training the agency’s marketing and customer services teams how to interface with the system. The Rapid was key in this initiative, with Kilbride providing trainers at the agency with every possible tool to get the job done.
Even The Rapid riders needed training. The Rapid rolled out a major “go-live” date and marketing campaign – which involved flyers, social media, and even “boots on the ground” training. Agency officials met at public areas, like libraries, to teach large turnouts of users how to use the new app and website.
“At Avail, we’re less concerned with, ‘Here’s how it works.’” says Gretchen Paules, marketing lead at Avail Technologies. “We’re more concerned with, ‘Here’s why it works.’ We want these technologies to become second nature to our customers. Because at the end of the day, it’s not just how you do it – it’s why you do it. How does it make life easier — for a transit agency and for its passengers?”
The path forward
The most immediate benefits that The Rapid saw upon implementing Avail’s suite of solutions were customer-facing.
“With the myAvail system, we have real-time information,” says Jennifer Kalczuk, external relations manager at The Rapid. “Our tracking is intrinsically linked with the myStop® app. While there are some other third-party apps that have our data feed, most riders use myStop® because they associate it with our services.”
The Rapid derived significant benefits from myAvail’s routing features. In the past, the agency was relying on mostly anecdotal information – operators’ words together with personal timekeeping. The new system quantifies routing information in a digestible format, allowing for operations staff to make decisions based on concrete data.
Enhanced visibility has greatly aided dispatch, which Pouget says allows for information at-a-glance.
“Previously, our operations managers needed to use multiple screens to house all of their relevant information,” Pouget says. “Now, they can have all of that crucial data on a single screen and relegate secondary information to their second screens. It’s a huge increase in efficiency.”
Company culture hasn’t changed at The Rapid – it’s been enhanced by new tools that increase data transparency. Kilbride says The Rapid is particularly adept at “picking up new tools.”
“In the beginning, we started giving them small pieces of our ITS suite,” he says. “They’ll use anything we give them, by rolling it into everyday operation and using every feature of that tool. Then they are going to ask for extra features, or extra functions for the features they already have.”
Customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Through social media, riders praise the ease and reliability of the new app.
“Having the myStop® app for iPhone has made using The Rapid even more enjoyable – having access to real-time bus and route data has made the tool an indispensable part of my ‘EveryDayCarry’,” wrote passenger Chris Koens on The Rapid’s Facebook page.
Praise from The Rapid’s staff has been no less effusive. Dispatch and customer service truly appreciate the role-based customizability of the system. Gone are the days of uniform screens for each dispatcher. Now, each member of staff can prioritize the information that’s most beneficial to them at any given time.
“Frankly, it’s quite exciting for the customer service staff to have access to this information,” Kalczuk says. “Prior to having any Avail system in here, they were literally using the same schedule books that our customers were using. It’s thrilling for them to be able to do a better job and provide real-time customer information.”
Looking to the future of The Rapid, equipped now with a number of Avail Technologies systems (branded “Rapid Connect” to riders), Kalczuk says that the agency is prepared for the changing needs of “choice” transit riders – riders who choose to use public transit, as opposed to those who rely on it.
“People want to have access and they want to have a certain comfort level with the system, particularly choice riders,” she says. “They want to feel like there’s no uncertainty. Being able to see a bus on your phone and knowing that it’s going to be there in just a few minutes, that helps with the psychological hurdle some people face when riding transit. The more we can do to help them be comfortable and confident in their information, the more likely they are to ride and stay riding.”