Management & Operations

Transit Contractors Leveraging Tech to Help Fleets Work 'Smarter'

Posted on June 17, 2015 by Kelsey Nolan

METRO Magazine spoke with four transit contractors to find out what is new in their industry, how technology is helping to shape the game, and talk about the innovations they are employing with their latest contracts.

National Express

Vallejo, Calif.-based SolTrans received the Group Values Award for Excellence from the National Express Group for its vast safety improvements.
Vallejo, Calif.-based SolTrans received the Group Values Award for Excellence from the National Express Group for its vast safety improvements.
National Express offers a wide variety of contracts throughout the U.S. It provides turnkey operations and management for fixed-route and commuter transit systems, paratransit programs, demand-response transportation, and other public or private shuttles. These services are in addition to very similarly operated student transportation services the company provides to hundreds of school districts across North America.

Customer service for the company has always been a top priority, particularly as more agencies explore contracting services. Gary Waits, CEO, explains his division has retained every contract since its inception in part because of the implementation of technology.

“It touches everything we do now, safety, operations, maintenance, customer service. Staying on the cutting edge of identifying new technologies and making them work to meet our customers’ needs is a new part of the business and one we do very well,” Waits says.

More specifically, Waits says the company has seen a lot of success with business automation and tracking tools. “We are leveraging the convenience of mobile devices and ruggedized tablets to record and track everything from pre-trip inspections to incident responses. Today is a ‘right now’ world, so we are adapting to collect and share information as quickly as the events occur.”

The current focus, Waits explains, comes via the paratransit market. As aging Americans live longer, they continue to influence growth in demand for paratransit services. Waits refers to this trend of retirees requiring more transit options as the “silver tsunami.”

This trend, of course, is not without challenges. Waits explains that the biggest challenges continue to be doing more with less, particularly for paratransit operations. Balancing the reality of limited budgets with increasing customer service requirements, however, is National Express’s specialty.

“We are partnering with our paratransit customers to find creative solutions in this area. There is no ‘cookie cutter’ approach either — each customer has unique challenges which require unique solutions,” says Waits. For example, National Express is working with clients to revise and enforce no-show policies and to identify potential candidates for travel training to ride less expensive fixed-route transit.

Currently, National Express is helping one of its clients Arlington County, Va. plan and develop their fixed-route service expansion and assisting Vallejo, Calif.-based SolTrans in the final stages of a complete overhaul of their operations and maintenance facility.
In fact, the SolTrans team was recognized by National Express Group, the global parent organization, with the worldwide Group Values Award for Excellence due its vast safety improvements, one of its five core values as a company. The other values include Safety, People, Customer and Community.
 
Keolis

Keolis helps clients by implementing technology such as smartphone apps,  while also trying to make budgets work better for growing customer need.
Keolis helps clients by implementing technology such as smartphone apps,  while also trying to make budgets work better for growing customer need.
Keolis’s operations transport people by train, bus, shuttle, rail and taxi all across North America. Services operated by the company include fixed-route, commuter rail, light rail, shuttle service, paratransit service, taxi service, municipal fleet, as well as public-private partnerships.

Mike Ake, senior VP, region east operations, also touches upon how Keolis is finding that more dollars are being spent on providing quality service to paratransit operations as the Baby Boomer generation ages and retires. But, he says, rather than throwing an entire budget towards paratransit, agencies need to work smarter.

“More agencies are dealing with ridership growth and limited budgets and realizing that contracting effectively can improve service levels while reducing costs. This is particularly true in paratransit services, which represent the highest growth in transit. Assistance with new technology and increasing the number passengers carried per hour are in high demand by [public transit agencies] nationwide. Many agencies are also returning to rail operations that were abandoned in the 1930s or 40s,” he explains.

To do that, agencies are moving away from “low-bid” contractors in favor of “best-value” vendors. The increasing costs of these paratransit services are motivating agencies to look for hybrid operations, including both dedicated vehicles supplemented by taxis.
And outside of the paratransit market, Keolis is finding just as much demand for better service with fewer dollars. Ake explains that his client, the South Florida Regional Transit Authority (SFRTA), operates a commuter rail line down the east coast of Florida into Miami. While Keolis has operated the contract that shuttles commuters to the train stations and the Fort Lauderdale airport for many years, those passengers are “choice riders” with other obvious options. Therefore, they demand a higher level of service and reliability than normal transit riders.

“This service has to be flexible when trains are delayed or unforeseen incidents require bus bridges to keep the passengers moving,” Ake says. “The passengers expect personalized service that does not delay their daily commute and demand timely communications when train delays occur.”

To keep that service running, Keolis is assessing technology. Since technology advances much faster than most agencies’ procurement budgets or skillsets, the company has a technology group that understands what’s available and, more importantly, understands what works for a particular service and what doesn’t. That group acts as advisors to help a small agency’s staff evaluate what they want and what’s available in the market to address technology needs.

“Smart phone technology is ubiquitous,” Ake says. “Anyone not providing apps including bus tracking is behind the times. We utilize both in-house-developed apps and off-the-shelf apps to help our [public transit agency] partners provide services and information that their passengers expect.”

First Transit

First Transit helped El Paso become the best mid-sized transit system in the country by boosting employee morale and encouraging community buy-in.
First Transit helped El Paso become the best mid-sized transit system in the country by boosting employee morale and encouraging community buy-in.
Headquartered in Cincinnati, First Transit operates in 242 locations, carrying more than 300 million passengers annually throughout 40 states within the U.S., plus Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and four Canadian provinces. Verticals provided are fixed-route; bus rapid transit (BRT); paratransit, ADA call center services; and brokerage services for human service transportation, university transportation systems, airport shuttle systems and fleet maintenance.

According to Brad Thomas, president, as First Transit continues to expand and focus on client needs, it is seeing consistent growth across three of its existing services: fixed-route, paratransit, and shuttle. While public transit is a growing $24 billion industry, only a portion of that is currently outsourced and First Transit is interested in providing that service to any agencies that may need it.

The company launched three new BRT operations in Austin and El Paso, Texas and San Juan, P.R., and added the mode into its list of services provided. It also is working to leverage its rail expertise for bids on several streetcar and rail contracts throughout the U.S.

One of First Transit’s contracts saw firsthand the success that the company can provide. First Transit’s partnership with the City of El Paso goes beyond the basics of managing operations and maintenance for their Sun Metro fleet.

According to Thomas, since 2007, First Transit has managed the city-owned transit system serving El Paso, portions of El Paso County and Sunland Park, N.M. The transit system operates 57 local and express routes, offering fixed route, paratransit, park-and-ride, circulators and job express transportation. Prior to First Transit’s partnership with Sun Metro, the system had no long-term transit plan and the system was not meeting the customer’s needs.

Within six years, El Paso made changes around how it served the community, centered on positive employee morale, preventive maintenance and community buy-in. In 2011, it was recognized by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) as the best mid-sized transit system in the country.

While First Transit began implementing changes at Sun Metro, city leaders adopted a pro-public transit attitude that made the change possible. With the city officials leading a change in attitude, El Paso saw on-time performance for Sun Metro rise to 97% to 98%. From 2009 to 2012, ridership increased 21% on Sun Metro, raising ridership to more than 17 million. This increase in demand has spurred the transit agency to develop new transit centers and ridership amenities. In the past several years the agency has spent $8 million on new shelters along with $31 million building four new transit centers. Each of the centers has Wi-Fi and real-time displays so riders know exactly when their bus will arrive.

Transdev

Transdev implemented a mobile-ticketing app in less than 90 days for Nassau County’s fixed-route service.
Transdev implemented a mobile-ticketing app in less than 90 days for Nassau County’s fixed-route service.
Transdev is in the passenger mobility service and offers services for public transit, paratransit, non-medical emergency response, rail, commuter rail, streetcar and on-demand retail services like SuperShuttle. “If it carries people, we’re in that space,” Dick Alexander, senior VP, says.  

Consistently, Alexander explains how keeping up with and being a part of the huge leaps in technology in the transit world is changing the way goods are delivered to the public. The company is focusing on how best to respond to technology that changes rapidly after investing heavily in one type because there is a demand for more information and more rider choice.

“In public transit it used to be that we’d put service out there and hope they would come. Now, if a customer decides to use a service they do it by using apps, wanting to know where their bus is and when it’s going to get there. And then making that choice whether they want to use that bus or if they’re going to get into a taxi or jump on a bike,” Alexander says. “I think technology has facilitated that.”

To respond to this demand, Transdev inaugurated several new technologies including a new service called “Split,” which is an app-based shared-ride public service between a fixed-route bus and taxi. The company is seeing a lot of interest in public transit agencies looking for a solution to a traditional 40-foot bus moving through low-density areas.

And in regards to high-density urban areas, the company has seen plenty of growth because, as Alexander says, public transit is en vogue right now as people move back to these areas.

We’ve started mobile ticketing in a number of locations where people are paying through their cell phones and we’re doing it without requiring any hardware technology being put on a bus, so we’re able to implement it quickly.

For example, Nassau County’s fixed-route services have been introduced with a mobile ticketing app called GoMobile. The company successfully had mobile ticketing implemented in about 90 days because there wasn’t any need for hardware installation, making it a very low-cost solution. The app allows for mobile ticketing and real-time passenger information.

Transdev also partnered with Clever Devices to provide iPads so road supervisors can track vehicles and coordinate dispatching from their current location. They are handheld or mounted and allow the supervisors, for example, to walk around bus terminals and pull up real-time info on buses, drivers and customer information.

“It’s putting it in the hands of the people out there managing a service,” Alexander explains. “We know where people get on and off, we know where the bus is, we can tell them predictably when it’s going to arrive.”

On the paratransit side of Nassau County’s service, Transdev is implementing technology to remotely link brokered operators with shuttles and taxis. This will allow both parties to communicate trip information back and forth to confirm whether a passenger was picked up and that they were transported safely, without having to go to a central communications base.   

Kelsey Nolan is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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