ITS Technology and Public Transit: A Roundtable Discussion

BUSRide spoke with several intelligent transportation solutions (ITS) providers and public transit agencies about second-adopters of ITS technology; the challenges and operational benefits associated with ITS deployments; and how agencies can future-proof their technology investments.

The panelists for this discussion were:

Rick SpanglerChief Technology Officer – Avail Technologies

LaShawn King GillespieDirector of Customer Service and Operations – Foothill Transit

Richard Joseph – Vice President of Technology / Chief Information Officer –
Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation

Bryan C. GilliomPresident – Message Point Media

Pepper HarwardVice President, Transit Solutions – Routematch

Troy WhiteselDirector of Sales and Marketing – TSI Video

Please introduce your agency or company and provide a brief overview of your expertise and capabilities.

Richard Joseph: I’m the chief information officer of Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation, or IndyGo. We are an agency that assumes 32 fixed routes, resulting in about 6.9 million annual revenue hours. Our current ridership averages around 8.7 million annual rides. As far as the scope and scale of our fleet, we have 186 fixed-route buses. We have 21 battery-based electric buses, and our direction is to move to a fully electric fleet by 2022.

We have become more of an IT-driven organization. We are working today at upgrading our ITS to a new platform, and we have depended on vendors, vendor expertise and vendor staff augmentation in the past couple years to support all our technologies at IndyGo. As an organization, we’re trying to invest in technology. We’ve created our own project roadmap for implementing new technologies at IndyGo.

Rick Spangler: I’m the chief technology officer of Avail Technologies. We’re an ITS provider, based out of State College, PA. We are committed to Public Transit. We are focused on providing totally integrated technology solutions, that simply put, make transit work better for everyone. Our enterprise-level solution marries the benefits of our CAD/AVL product suite, our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) suite, and our Business Intelligence and Data Warehouse suite. We provide agencies with the tools they need to effectively manage and run their business and optimize the performance of their entire operation. We are passionate about what we do.  We partner with progressive transit agencies that have a strong vision of their role in serving and connecting their communities and are equally passionate about providing great service that’s safe, efficient, and reliable. In short, we provide solutions and services to our customer, the public transit agency, that in turn allows them to better serve their customers.

LaShawn King Gillespie: I serve as director of customer service and operations of Foothill Transit. Foothill Transit is one of the largest municipal fixed-route bus operators in Los Angeles County. We provide service within a 326 square-mile service area in the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys of Los Angeles County. Using 373 clean-fueled buses, both compressed natural gas and electric, Foothill Transit provides service to 14 million riders each year. The agency has a goal of having a fully electric fleet by the year 2030.

One of Foothill Transit’s primary goals is to provide excellent customer service. I became involved in this project because the operations teams are the super users of the product and utilize it to provide the service. The IT, Planning, Maintenance and Vehicle Technology teams all provide support and their expertise to the project. The operations teams are focused on the end-user experience such as safety, on-time performance; customer loads, vehicle performance –we look at on the street operations. We’re actively involved in the technology and how we can use that technology to promote our mission.

Bryan C. Gilliom: I’m the president and chief technology officer of Message Point Media. Our company is focused on managed passenger information display services for all the passenger touch points in a transit environment. So, our orientation is a little bit unique in that we provide whatever level of support, content, and technology the agency needs to maintain a successful system. This includes anything from specialized displays and equipment, the software to run it, content management services and even content creation. We’re able to provide the entire stack of solutions and can manage the entire solution or supplement the agency in areas where they need assistance.

Pepper Harward: I’m vice president of transit solutions at Routematch. Routematch is a mobility company. We are technology-based, but our focus is on making the biggest impact possible in communities. It has taken us in a few new directions, as opportunities and different ways to create meaningful impact have presented themselves. We are committed to public transit. And that means that we take an accessibility-first approach. Our technology started with a paratransit technology platform that was built for those with accessibility needs. However, we moved into a new mobility paradigm, where transportation has become more personalized for everyone. We started to use different modes of service including first and last mile, potentially integrating paratransit with fixed route or innovative on-demand service offerings. We’ve developed a platform for that as well. We also focus on payment technologies and do whatever we can to facilitate rider engagement. We also try to facilitate rider transformation, which leads to changing rider behaviors. We encourage and support transit agencies in building mobility ecosystems that don’t leave anybody behind.

Troy Whitesel: I’m director of sales and marketing at TSI Video. In many ways TSI Video is very similar to the other companies that are participating in this roundtable. As a company we specifically focus on public transit entities and provide video surveillance solutions designed to meet their needs. We are always open to integration with partners, which is a primary topic when discussing ITS technology.

For the agencies, why did you choose to become a second adopter of ITS technology, and what factors led you to that decision?

Joseph: In 2009, IndyGo was looking for some more efficiencies in the paratransit service, and that’s what really drove us. Our reservation-based service pushed us to adopt and require better organization, more efficiency and more convenience for our riders. As the technologies were unveiled to IndyGo, it was apparent that there were a lot of positive things that we could implement over time. Since then, there have been number of new capabilities that have been added to the platforms.

This has brought efficiencies not only to the reservation group, but ultimately to our fixed-route services, so that we are able to provide real-time information to all our riders. The Google information and Google data set has allowed our riders to get real-time updates with more accurate information about where their bus is. A lot of that has been rolled out in the past year or so. We’re starting to move forward with a path that provides more information that our customers are asking for.

Gillespie: Innovation is one of the principles in Foothill Transit’s mission statement. We work to be an innovative provider of public transit service. The agency became involved in ITS in the mid-2000s and installed its CAD/AVL system. The promise of the ITS tools and functions was recognized, making it an easy decision to adopt the technologies.

Since that time, the technology has changed. It has evolved. Customers’ expectations have changed because of the available technology. People often look to other companies that are known for their customer service and start to apply those same expectations on other services within their life. Take Starbucks as an example. You can order online, know what it’s going to cost, know when to expect it, and you just have to walk in and it’s ready. Now we can apply some of those capabilities to public transit. The customer service goal drives a lot of our decisions when it comes to technology.

When an agency is replacing its existing systems, what changes do you think are critical? And what challenges do ITS second adopters face?

Whitesel: It’s important to look at your funding and what you can get with the money you have available for the current project. With that being said, I think something that was very successful for us when we worked with Foothill Transit was the backwards compatibility and the open architecture of our system. Being able to integrate to the existing technologies that were already onboard the buses was important. For example, we were able to reuse all the existing cameras and a few of the other ancillary pieces that were part of the video system they were using prior to installing the TSI solution. I think those are things that agencies should be looking for. They should be aware of not getting into a proprietary system. We’re proud of the fact that we own the rights to our hardware and software, therefore, we can create backwards compatibility as we move forward. And I think that’s something that a lot of agencies struggle with when they adopt new technologies. They get locked in and feel they must maintain their relationship with the existing vendor.

Gilliom: Open architecture is very important. First-generation technology is often very proprietary, but as you look forward these systems need to be able to be scaled, grown and changed over time. So, looking at systems that can do that is necessary.

We tend to be focused on the passenger experience, and when migrating there’s a temptation to copy and paste content from the old system to the new system, because you’re in a rush to get things up and running. You can easily be tempted to just push old content forward to save time. A lot of times that results in a customer experience that isn’t as good. Content is the tip of the spear, so to speak, it is what that customer’s going to see and interact with. If something’s going to get replaced and the money is being spent to do that, you want to be sure that you can make that passenger experience even better and provide them with something really excellent.

Harward: My perspective comes from the software platform side, which is possibly more enterprise than on the hardware side. The most important thing to do is to make sure that whatever change you’re doing is purpose-driven and that you have clear success criteria. You know how you’re going to measure success. There are a lot of difficulties with changing out a core enterprise platform. They are mainly around change management. There are all kinds of small processes that might need to be changed when you’re doing that. They shouldn’t impact the overall picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. What we think is important for agencies to look at is traditional technologies that have been around for 10 or 12 years, to the extent that people are now on their second generation. I think a lot of the purposes have changed. Although this is still important, the focus used to be just on efficiency or the service.

There’s a growing focus on the customer, which is a good focal point for your platform. Know how it’s going to work in the future. Communities are becoming more collaborative. Perhaps first-generation platforms were more proprietary because the industry itself wasn’t as collaborative. I think now it’s important to look at collaborative vendors, and how technology plays into that.

Spangler: A challenge that is unique to a second-round adopter is addressing the ‘baggage’ that their internal and external users have built up over the years with the existing technologies. There are likely both good and bad experiences and understanding what these are and having a plan to address them is critical to the successful adoption of any new technologies. There are clearly the things that led the agency to undertake an uprooting of an enterprise level system and replace it with something else. There are the things that customers may have been requesting over the years that couldn’t be provided with the current system. But there may also be the things that the agency and their users do like and will expect, and so it is equally important for the agency to understand what these are to ensure that your new technology platform isn’t viewed as a step backwards. Don’t assume that newer is automatically better.

In our experience of helping agencies with their second-round adoption, we believe the most critical things an agency can do to address the above is have clearly set goals and expectations going in and communicate early and often with your internal and external stakeholders throughout the process. At Avail, we speak often of “partnering” with our customers, and a key aspect of that is that we take those goals and objectives seriously. We collaborate with the agency to develop a solid plan to make the transition as seamless as possible for the internal stakeholders and the external stakeholders to ensure that this is ultimately a positive experience for all involved.

Gillespie: People sometimes bring history and perception about past ITS to the plate. Some of that history is positive and some of it is an opportunity. Taking those opportunities, addressing them and sometimes developing improvements to a system. We’ve worked with our vendors and explained, “Okay, this is what we’re thinking. This is the vision that we have. Help us get there.” Sometimes that means looking to the future and being open to new developments that may be in the pipeline while maintaining a look at budgetary and resource constraints.

This is a long process with some bumps along the way so maintaining the enthusiasm and expectations for success is another challenge.

Joseph: Accessibility and convenience are the biggest concerns that our riders and our public have expressed to us – not just in trip planning, but in providing information to our riders when they’re standing at a stop in real time.

We try to meet some of these demands. We tend to push our vendors a little bit harder to provide capabilities that make the most sense to us, and that are based on feedback from our public.

Another challenge a lot of agencies deal with is the lack of shift in culture. We’re moving from an operational-based service to a technology-driven industry. To make a service more efficient we must depend on technologies. They must be robust but also have to meet customer demands. We also have the challenge of not everybody having internet access or a smartphone. So, we need to be able to provide alternatives.

What are some overall operational challenges for agencies, and how does ITS help solve these challenges?

Whitesel: From an operational standpoint, I think the fact that you can share data will help solve some challenges agencies are facing today. For example, one of the things that we’re working on closely with some of the ITS vendors like Avail is the sharing of our data with their systems, so that if we do have a component failure onboard the bus, we can relay that information back to the CAD/AVL system. From an operational standpoint the maintenance team can proactively maintain the system at a higher level, ensuring that everything’s functional and working the way it should.

Harward: Real-time visibility into all operational data is important. And this means more than just running reports after the fact. I think that even today’s environment is much more dynamic than it was just several years ago. And real- time visibility of data is necessary.

Moving beyond technology will become more important as transit agencies start to view their riders or their customers as their product, more so than they do their services. That’s going to require transit agencies to become very proficient at, what I would call big data. Data surrounding their riders, that would impact their operations or potentially their services. It won’t be just about the delivery of services. That’s an upcoming challenge that I think agencies will be dealing with over the next three to four years. Only technology can provide the solution to this.

Gilliom: I think we’re seeing a more diverse rider population; they speak more languages and have more reasons for using transit. If you take a lesson from other industries, looking at the ability to do what we refer to as mass personalization or mass customization. We want to easily improve the experience that any given person interacting with the system has. There have been advances in text-to-speech and translation engines that allow us to look beyond one or two additional languages, and be able to support a variety of languages, especially for agencies that support a lot of tourism. We’re looking at adapting a lot of these cloud technologies to easily and cost-effectively meet more diverse passenger needs.

Spangler: One interesting operational challenge we’re starting to see a lot of the past few years is related to the changes in the transit workforce. Many people that have been in transit are starting to age out and retire. There’s a great wealth of institutional knowledge there that is in danger of being lost, and we also see the new generation coming in that was brought up with technology. One thing we’re passionate about at Avail is we believe that in addition to our technology solutions, it is equally important that we also provide the value-added services to help the agency with this workforce transition.

Eliminating manual processes where we can, understanding the important workflows, creating standard operating procedures and providing training around these new workflows and SOPs are all key to an agencies success. This coupled with ITS technology then makes it less impactful when an experienced staff member retires or moves on, allows new people coming in to be effective much more quickly, which in turn ensures that this workforce transition won’t negatively impact service on the street and is thus transparent to the end customer, which is the ultimate measure of success.

What are some overall operational challenges that this technology helps overcome?

Joseph: The new direction of ITS aligns well with where we want to go, helping to leverage our investments and create better internal flexibility for ourselves. The biggest challenge is still trying to invest in technology in a way that’s going to be beneficial in the long term. And in a way that ultimately meets our customers’ demands and helps us increase ridership and promote public transportation. Whether it’s ITS or video surveillance, or Wi-Fi on our buses and at our stations, these solutions are helping us not only provide what customers want; they are also making our public more aware of what’s going on.

I don’t think we want to look at bike-share, car-share or ride-share programs as competitors to our service. We want to look at them as augmenting our service for that first and last mile. They provide opportunities I think we’re trying to leverage, not just this year but long-term. We want to have real partnerships and be able to provide exceptional service.

Gillespie: We can easily use the new technology. It has evolved and is becoming more intuitive and familiar to other computer-based technologies that are used daily. We have so much more flexibility in our decision support. The technology can keep up with that. We can customize it to fit our operations rather than limiting our operations to what the Technology can accommodate or creating additional procedures to facilitate the process. In the past, decision support, or detour management, the process of managing and retaining data was a concern for the agency.  Now we are able to know passenger counts and a number of other key data points in real-time. Being a data driven industry, we need to know with some degree of certainty various metrics that can be used to support efficiency and effectiveness goals not just at the end of a month or reporting period but in time for course corrections to be made.

What changes or solutions have you considered that would help to reduce the probability that you’re going to have to replace all this technology, right away, in the future? How are you protecting your investment?

Joseph: We’re trying to protect our investment by investing even further in our technology and IT team at IndyGo. We’re investing in more of the road map and trying to define where we want to go, how quickly we can get there, what technologies are available today, and where the market’s going in the future – all so we can plan ahead. This isn’t just according to what is on the shelf today. If we need to push off a project in order to get to the next iteration which may provide us that extended life cycle, we will.

We’re looking for more open source solutions and reverse compatibility across platforms. So, moving from one vendor to another should be a little bit more of a seamless effort.

Gillespie: When we develop a specification, we do a 10-year look ahead. I don’t know what one of our vendors might have coming up, so we want to make sure that we’re ahead of the game in making sure we don’t tie ourselves down to specific products. So, we’ll do a performance base to get a vision and work with our vendor partners to help us get there.

It’s important, as many have said, to be aware of backward capabilities. I don’t want to go through this process again. So, wouldn’t it be great if we could just input a new product, and not have to replace our whole fleet once again? As the need arises and new technology becomes available, we input that in what we’re working on right now and continue to move forward.

What other kinds of steps should agencies be taking to protect their investment?

Whitesel: From an agency perspective, they should be doing their due diligence and call references to find out about backwards compatibility of not only the hardware but the software as well. That way they can ensure that the vendor is doing what they’re saying they’re doing. As we design and develop new hardware, we’re ensuring that it’s backwards compatible to our existing software solution, so that as we provide enhancements to our customers in the future, they don’t have to be using multiple versions of software. That is true in various applications, not just video surveillance. As an example, I have a certain agency that has a very small fleet – less than 20 buses – and they are using one video vendor and they have three different versions of software from that same vendor, simply because it wasn’t designed as a backwards compatible solution. These are the kinds of issues that make it difficult when trying to manage the technology that you have adopted.

Gilliom: There’s a tremendous amount of development in the rest of the technology world right now, in what’s referred to as the internet of things, or iOT. We tie things together today. One item may be designed earlier, but works with something that’s designed later, or that didn’t even exist. As we look at moving from hardware and physical interfaces to software and API’s, that open ability for systems to talk to each other through standardized ways becomes critical. That allows agencies to add on functionality or to modify systems in ways that we couldn’t even think about when they were originally installed.

Another topic related to this is moving to more of a modular hardware- based solution, so that if devices do need to be changed out, it’s not a rip and replace of the whole system. That agencies can replace only what needs to be addressed and save the investment in the rest.

Harward: Routematch is trying to future-proof our technology, as well. We do develop platforms that facilitate public transit to use operation service modes. Primarily we have a paratransit demand response platform, and we’re moving towards that mobility on-demand platform, which we think will be the first mobility platform for public transit, specifically. We are taking steps to make sure that the perspective of a traditional demand response business, for example, does not come into the development of that new age platform. We created separate business units at Routematch to create that product, and we are concerned about the touch points between the two products. We make sure they talk to each other, but we’re committed to isolating and protecting some of these future technologies that we see by doing that structurally within our organization.

From an agency standpoint, go with commercially available, off-the-shelf products when it comes to hardware. We try to promote that. It’s not always possible, but that’s a way to protect your investment. On the software side, it can get difficult. Other industries have chosen to pay for software as a service. You pay for the value that you get out of it. That would take some coordination with the Federal Transit Administration, I think, with the capital dollars spent. But, I think that’s a possibility moving forward – how and when you pay for it.

Lastly, I would look at your business model and make sure that whatever you’re doing right now, today, and whatever you want to be doing five years from now, that there’s a clear path to get there.

Spangler: Seek out and invest in technology partners that are making it their business to stay relevant. Avail is going into our 20th year and we have structured our business and made our financial decisions such that we have made the investments that have allowed us to be successful in providing solutions and services to our customers in the Public Transit market all these years and position us for the future. From a technology standpoint, backwards compatibility and open architecture have been a core part of our business since we were founded.

We invest heavily in R&D to ensure that any new technologies we develop are backwards compatible such that our customers can always benefit from our latest technologies without having to replace previously deployed technologies from Avail. We invest heavily to offer the greatest number of 3rd party integrations to ensure that our customers can preserve other technologies they have invested in and have the most options when looking to deploy technologies from companies other than Avail.

We actively work to stay at the forefront of trends in the industry, so that we can be well-positioned for success in the future. Over the years there have been efforts to establish standards in the transit space, but technology is changing so rapidly, and transit is such a niche market that the most successful approach is to utilize existing commercial standards. Avail has supported the initiatives in the industry and supports commercial standards so that there is less reliance on proprietary hardware and software and moving forward everything can be plug and play.

These are all examples of the types of things agencies should look for and expect from their technology providers to help them protect their investment.