Management & Operations

Execs: Information Systems Benefit Operators, Riders

Posted on February 1, 2004

Somewhere in an ideal transit future, bus and rail passengers wait for their rides in comfortable, out-of-the-weather stations. They watch destination monitors give real-time status updates of vehicles, and they hear automated voice announcements of arrivals and departures. Meanwhile, their operator counterparts utilize up-to-the min-ute information provided by automatic vehicle location systems (AVL), which allow for prompt maintenance, emergency response and on-time performance track-ing. This is the image that many envision for public transportation in the not-so-distant future. Avi Zisman, president of passenger information display systems for Mark IV Industries, and Dave Turney, president and CEO of Digital Recorders Inc., are two men who share this vision. Mark IV, which specializes in destination sign tech-nology through its subsidiary Luminator, and Digital Recorders, which concentrates heavily on voice announcement systems, offer passenger and operator information systems with the capability of making this dream a reality. Financial uncertainty, integration of new and old equipment and rapidly changing technologies are just a few of the multiple issues that these companies deal with in the expansion of their products. However, Tur-ney and Zisman took the time to discuss with METRO the current and future roles of information systems in the public transit arena.


What role do Mark IV IDS-Luminator products play in the future of public transportation? Zisman: We see our products playing a major role, specifically in North America. We are currently building on technology we have deployed in Europe. We have deployed AVL and passenger information systems in several major cities such as London and Paris. In London we track over 7,000 buses and provide passen-gers with real-time information at stops and onboard. In addition, we provide more than 20 operators with real-time vehicle tracking information. This wealth of knowledge and expertise provides us the opportunity to launch simi-lar systems for deployment to our custom-ers in the US. Briefly explain the benefits of these products to transit agencies? Zisman: Our systems provide meaningful, up-to-date information in a reliable and easily accessible format that provides value to transit customers. An agency must have the ability to gain access to reporting that will lead to real decisions and cases for improving service. It’s not as simple as watching blips on a screen. One of the best most recent examples of a noticeable technology change has been with our Horizon LED destination signs. The general public could see an immediate difference, and many agencies received positive comments. Given the growing popularity of this technology, in what direction do you see your company heading in the near future? Zisman: We are aligning our-selves with customers who are looking for a modular approach to technology that is scaleable and affordable. Our initial cus-tomer selection criteria will focus on part-nering with transit agencies to offer the AVL and next stop announcement in a sin-gle embedded unit. In most cases, we are utilizing standard off-the-shelf components to leverage cost and experience. As our customer needs grow to any type of appli-cation, so will the function within our vehi-cle information system (VIS) without the need for additional hardware. What new equipment and tech-nology do you currently have in the pipe-line? Zisman: We will be introduc-ing the VIS in North America. VIS is a modular, ruggedized embedded design offering the market AVL, automated next stop announcement, passenger counting and multimedia capability. VIS will have the ability to control our destination signs and integrate with other onboard equipment monitoring discrete I/O sensors. Also, our Horizon GEN IV LED Sign is a modular approach created through efforts focused on lean design, requiring only one installer. How do you see Mark IV IDS-Luminator positioning itself versus com-petition in this market? Zisman: We are the market leader in North America and Europe in the destination sign market. Our customers value our products, aftermarket support and competitive pricing. Our approach to the AVL business is similar with one major exception. We truly expect to work directly with customers defining requirements and focusing more on the real needs versus checking off every expectation. What kinds of additional training and/or staffing are required for transit agencies to properly maintain and oper-ate Mark IV IDS-Luminator systems? Zisman: Training is provided for every new product we install. One of the major reasons why we maintain our position in the market is due to our simple product designs and user-friendly software. We never stop at single level training. We are there for the OEM’s and the agencies and have service technicians located strate-gically throughout North America. Our service team has over 75 years of total combined experience in the business. Are there any innovations or im-portant trends going on with destination sign technology? Please describe. Zisman: Our Horizon Spec-trum full color LED signs are gaining popularity with certain agencies looking to denote color in route designation as well as posting special service designations such as BRT (bus rapid transit). We are currently installing 100 spectrum color signs for North American Bus Industries Compo Buses being delivered in Los Angeles. How would you describe Mark IV IDS-Luminator’s overall company vision and what are the keys to accomplishing it? Zisman: Our vision is to in-crease our market share by providing inno-vative technology while maintaining excel-lent service and product support.


What role do Digital Recorders Inc.’s products play in the future of pub-lic transportation? Dave Turney: There is a direct linkage in our mind — and I believe in fact in the industry it’s recognized — between having better, more timely information for transit system users and the system’s rider-ship. To the extent that we can give agencies more and better information, we increase ridership. This improves the efficiency of the transit operating system. Increased rid-ership and increased efficiency are two key ingredients to success in public transporta-tion. Our products play to both of them. Do you see these types of products increasing in popularity and de-mand? Turney: Yes, most definitely. Where that comes from is fundamentally the fact that it is not practical to think that we can continue to address mobility issues through primarily building additional transportation infrastructure. It’s just too expensive. We can’t afford to maintain what we have. What we have to focus on and where this company’s heading is on how we get more information through ex-isting infrastructure. If you are talking about buses and railcars, then part of the answer is in the quality and timeliness of passenger information so that more people can use the system efficiently. In what direction do you see Digi-tal Recorders heading in the near fu-ture? Turney: We are headed toward more integrated and more real-time pas-senger information for riders and operators of transit systems. What new equipment and tech-nology do you currently have in the pipe-line? Turney: We have had a contin-ual string of new products being added to the marketplace over the past several years. In 2002, for instance, we started moving toward integrated information systems, leveraging off of our vehicle locating capa-bility with GPS technology and started leveraging that into AVL systems for opera-tors. Secondly, we have introduced other things like full color transit sign systems for transit buses. What are the biggest obstacles to transit agencies implementing electronic passenger communication systems? Turney: For the most part, technology barriers are lowering for the use of this equipment. It’s becoming more user friendly and less maintenance prone. Tran-sit operating agencies are getting more and more staff that are fully schooled and trained and educated in how to use different flavors of information systems. Both for passenger information and operator infor-mation. Fundamentally, the biggest obsta-cle is, whether we want to talk about it or not, funding. The willingness to buy is there. The demand is there. The funding is not. However, these systems can result in cost savings in context of operating costs and in terms of capital costs. For instance, with a good vehicle system I can do a better job of scheduling my route throughput. I might be able to get by with one or two fewer vehicles on this particular route. That involves capital costs, and it improves effi-ciency of the system in the process. Are there any innovations or im-portant trends going on with automated voice technology? Please describe. Turney: It is growing in popu-larity. The tendency is towards more of these systems. The genesis of these prod-ucts was with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But with the exception of a few communities that were forced to deal with litigation issues by buying equipment, the push for information systems such as voice announcement has been geared more toward good marketing and ridership than it has been to satisfy ADA, even though complying with the ADA we know is very important. Where do you think the future is headed for your company? Turney: I think at this point we are in a stable, growing market, notwith-standing the economic slump – we will overcome that. Long-term, it’s a stable market, not a sudden growth, a spike or a flash in the pan type of market. We are very excited about that. It’s a market we can depend on for growth because public trans-portation and mass transit systems are in-creasingly a part of the future given all of the congestion and environmental problems on the street. So we see that in offering the information systems that we do, we are in a long-term trend and it’s a great place to be.
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