Partnering with Avail Technologies, Palm Tran has upgraded ITS to help manage and coordinate services across Palm Beach County
With 159 vehicles serving over 35,000 daily riders in Florida’s expansive Palm Beach County, it is critical for Palm Tran’s dispatchers, staff, and administration to have real-time, fleetwide communication with vehicles, drivers, and riders – and a dynamic ITS system to oversee those capabilities.
Working with its technology partner Avail Technologies, Palm Tran has utilized the myAvail enterprise transit management software since 2014 to help manage its services more efficiently and effectively.
Originally working with myAvail as a CAD/AVL system, along with Avail’s Integrated Vehicle Unit (IVU) and control head, the latest upgrades to Palm Tran’s myAvail system equips the agency with upgraded features and functionality, data analytics, and self-service reporting. The most recent deployment brought upgraded onboard technology to the entire fleet, including the latest IVU-3 and 10-inch touch screen driver display, and new infotainment displays that coordinate service messaging, schedules, and customized announcements for public consumption.
The latest version of myAvail is designed to reduce road calls, support dispatchers, and inform riders. Avail said the system is designed with role-based user interfaces for operations, finance, and administration staff; automatic mining and analysis of operational data; and highly configurable performance dashboards.
Fleetwide Communication, Management, and Maintenance
“Riders are going to see, in some ways, a whole new Palm Tran when it comes to communicating information,” said Dietter Aragon, senior program manager for Avail. “Improved information for analysis, and more direct information to connect customers with Palm Tran services.”
Renato Paiva, senior manager of information technology at Palm Tran, said that a fleetwide upgrade was critical for Palm Tran’s future success.
“We never want ‘mixed flavors’ in the fleet, in terms of technological capability,” Paiva said. “If only some buses are running with the latest IVUs, it can complicate matters when we need to launch an announcement. It is important for the entire fleet to have the same location and communication capabilities.”
In the wake of COVID-19, Paiva said, Palm Tran’s ability to send fleetwide, on-demand messages was invaluable.
“The capability to quickly relay text-to-speech messages to every bus was a big upgrade, when we previously had to wait for buses to return to the yard and connect to our Wi-Fi,” Paiva said. “Palm Beach County – with its large service area, adverse weather such as hurricanes, and mix of urban and rural routes – can be a very dynamic environment. If something happens, we need to quickly send messages to passengers and drivers across our entire fleet.”
Paiva said that live reporting is another critical facet of the system upgrade. When he first joined Palm Tran in December 2017, real-time vehicle reporting was accurate within a minute. With the latest upgrade, location reporting is now accurate within 10 to 15 seconds of a bus’s actual location.
“During COVID, we had to change our bus schedules several times and limit the number of riders on each bus,” he said. “With the new system, we can make these changes ‘on the fly.’ Bus routes and services can be modified on the road, without vehicles returning to our lot for updates.”
Paiva added that the system is also valuable for decision support in the event of systemwide events or restrictions.
“When we must limit the numbers of passengers per bus, it creates the potential for riders to be ‘left behind’ at busy stops,” he said. “When we have completed the full system upgrade, we can see these situations developing and quickly deploy another vehicle to follow an at-capacity bus. It will really help our riders get from Point A to Point B with minimal delays.”
Aragon agreed that Palm Trans’ planning department will see many measurable benefits from the system, with upgraded abilities to decipher fleet usage, ridership, and business intelligence data.
“When it comes to performance management, Palm Tran has a sweeping ability to track key performance indicators (KPI) and to push those KPIs directly to the Board,” Aragon said. “A new level of system oversight is now possible.”
The system’s vehicle health monitoring allows Palm Tran to access dynamic information from the fleet faster than ever before. Using myAvail, the agency proactively maintains its fleet by monitoring real-time bus status, thus reducing road calls, and increasing efficiency for the maintenance department.
Mobile Trip Planning
Riders interface with the system via a Palm Tran-branded myAvail app as well as an SMS service. The app provides riders with trip planning enhanced by Google search, quick access to service alerts, integrated email and SMS notifications, navigation to the nearest stops, real-time graphical bus tracking, and vehicle capacities.
Paiva worked with Avail to ensure that the app was branded specifically for Palm Tran, as opposed to an app featuring many other agencies.
“I thought it was important to use an app specifically for Palm Beach County,” Paiva said. “It is easier for our riders to find it on the Apple or Google Play stores, and they do not need to navigate around other agencies in the same app. It does the job we want, without additional items which we do not need.”
Training, Training, Training
As part of the project, Avail created an enhanced training plan for Palm Tran.
“We specialized this training plan for the agency, which will really catapult Palm Tran to the next level of understanding its incoming data,” said David Mugica, director of business development at Avail Technologies.
The training plan, Mugica said, is aimed at utilizing each component of myAvail to its fullest advantage – from the operator to operations, marketing, customer service, training, and the maintenance department.
“It has meant a big effort on the part of Palm Tran and Avail,” he said “We just completed the biggest training component across all operations departments and have more sessions coming soon. We want to ensure Palm Tran is fully utilizing this software build.”
As part of the advanced training, Avail has focused on creating standard operating procedures (SOPs) and developing “champions” within Palm Tran. If each department has a leader with in-depth knowledge of the system, then future training will be much more streamlined.
“Having in-organization champions can make a big difference,” Mugica said. “Palm Tran hires and promotes from within. This sort of training will make sure there are not any ‘gaps’ when an employee switches departments because of a promotion or turnover. Similarly, that employee will have a top-level trainer to help them in their new department. These champions can help spearhead communications and keep all departments on-sides with myAvail.”
“Training is one of the most important requirements for an upgrade of this magnitude,” Paiva added. “We can put the best equipment out there, but without training it means nothing.”
Aragon said that yearly refreshers will be implemented once intensive training is complete. Paiva will work closely with Avail to continue being a training resource for Palm Tran employees.
“Seamless training is part of any Avail Technologies deployment,” Aragon said. “But with Palm Tran, we are aiming to implement standard operating procedures. We can train anyone to push a button, but this is all about maintaining processes through turnovers, attrition, and new hires. Consistency is critical, whether it is in operations, dispatch, maintenance, the managerial, or executive levels.”
Paiva said that, more than anything else, Avail offers Palm Tran an array of opportunities without stretching the agency’s IT resources.
“We were able to manage this large-scale deployment, without hiring consultants, special project managers, or system analysts,” he said. “With our IT team working with the team at Avail, we completed the project without unnecessary spending or wasting time. We fully utilized the resources available to us.”
Paiva said that Palm Tran has received many commendations, calls, and emails relating to the new onboard technology and passenger-facing app. Furthermore, Paiva said he rides Palm Tran buses once per week to get direct feedback from riders.
“Some riders are really excited, especially if they have long trips, about the information available via the app and other interfaces,” Paiva said. “The accuracy of the passenger information is critical, and our riders have noticed it immediately.”
Paiva concluded that the project ultimately succeeded because of critical support from stakeholders, including Avail, Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker, and Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton B. Forbes.
“They all gave my team 100-percent support to finish this project quickly and efficiently,” he said. “If we did not have their full support, Palm Tran’s ITS would not be where it is today.”