With ridership dipping, North American transit agencies are looking for ways to provide mobility options that would feed riders to their core services, as well as deliver first-, last-mile trip connections.
METRO spoke to contractors about the changing mobility models in North America, as well as how they are using their experience in Europe and throughout the world to help transit agencies implement new programs, including autonomous vehicles, microtransit, and bike-sharing.
Justin Pate, SVP, Business Development, and Rashidi Barnes, Director, Business Development, MaaS
Talk about First Transit’s work in the autonomous vehicle space.
Justin Pate: We started almost a year ago with the GoMentum Station and Bishop Ranch in California, and then, branched out and worked with the City of Arlington on a pilot for the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers, where we shuttled fans from parking lots, which gave us opportunities to test the vehicles on a closed road. From First Transit’s perspective, the biggest thing we wanted to get out of these projects was to start getting our engineers and maintenance people on the ground, so we could test the vehicles and find out what was and wasn’t working and was it addressing the needs of the community. And, we did that with the first generation of the vehicles. Now, we are branching out. We just wrapped a multi-city roadshow in Minnesota, in partnership with the Minnesota DOT, with stops including the Statehouse and 3M World HQ. This testing of EasyMile’s gen 2 allowed our engineers to see the differences between the different extreme weather environments, and EasyMile has been a good partner incorporating the feedback we are providing. We are about to launch three more AV opportunities with one running on public roads in California, and many more in the works that we will be announcing later this year.
As the contractor on autonomous vehicle pilots, what has your role been and how do you think it will change in the future?
Pate: Our current role is learning and sharing and taking these findings to our clients, manufacturers, and the industry. There are so many players in the [AV] space, and it is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to predict exactly where it’s going. I can tell you that it’s an exciting time. Right now, we supply drivers, maintenance, safety, and the operational support so that our clients feel comfortable testing/piloting/executing with us as an AV leader. We continue to build out our AV team and invest heavily in this space.
Rashidi Barnes: One of my goals in my new role is to help mold that space and how First Transit moves forward, and more importantly, our customers within that space, as well as how we can help influence this new industry. Right now, every option is on the table for First Transit, because we don’t know how this is all going to shake out.
First Transit has partnered with a lot of technology providers; can you talk a bit about that?
Pate: We’re definitely working with quite a few. With so many solutions, start-ups, and technology options, our job is to figure out which ones make the most sense for our clients and our strategy, and then, strategize what our standard offering(s) may be if they are looking for turnkey yet customized packages. We’re trying to build that now, based on what we’re hearing clients would like to see. We have a couple of great technology partners we are working very closely with to co-develop products.
What do you think technology’s impact will be on public transit?
Pate: I think it will make public transit more appealing for people as we give them multiple choices of mobility. Everybody has an app for everything, and if you look at how public transit has been traditionally, in my opinion, in the past, we’ve been behind in catching up with those who are disrupting the transportation market. A lot of people ask why they can easily get an Uber to pick them up, then why can’t they get their local fixed-route system to tell them when the next bus is going to arrive, accurately? Those people, I think, are helping to push the envelope to make sure the agencies feel like they have to catch up with the other transportation providers that are out there today.
Barnes: We want to be able to offer an entire solution. We want to be able to help the agency provide whatever it is they need to serve their community better. Whether it is mobile ticketing, bike-sharing, on-demand transit, or whatever, we want to be able to offer it to the end-user. What it comes down to for public transit is figuring out how they can increase their ridership, enhance the riders experience, and meet the changing travel needs of the various communities we serve.
How can contractors help agencies figure which of these new models can work for them?
Pate: You used to not see this as much, but in the past few years a lot of agencies now are doing RFQs/RFIs, or industry reviews, where they invite the contractors to come in before the RFP comes out so they can find out about what they are doing in similar services, sharing what their thoughts are, and asking what we would suggest. Doing that, gives us the opportunity to discuss what has worked and what hasn’t. Agencies are bringing contractors in six months to a year out, talk to them, and then craft the RFP around the lessons learned, which is always better for the community. The transit agency gets a better offering from all of the contractors participating, and they let us know what they are working on, so that we can start developing a plan in advance of the 30 to 60 days that we have to typically turn an RFP around.
The other thing I would add is that we are starting to see agencies be more receptive to pilots, which allows new technologies and new ideas to be tested within the community and allows both parties to evolve and find out what really works before settling on a final option for a long-term partnership.
Barnes: I think the private sector is playing a larger role in helping to shape what public transit looks like. However, if you think of L.A. Metro, they left the door open for innovative concepts to be introduced by non-traditional transit providers. The flexibility that L.A. Metro is able to embrace, because its funding leverage, is going to ultimately help our industry grow and push mobility to a realm that we have not seen before.
Keolis North America
Chris Barker, VP, New Mobility, Communications and Marketing
How is Keolis adapting what it is doing in Europe for use here in the U.S.?
In France, we operate complete multi-modal transportation systems for cities such as Lyon and Bordeaux, which includes SNCF heavy rail and high-speed TGV trains coming into those cities. Within the cities we also manage and operate regional commuter rail; light rail; bus; autonomous shuttles; taxis; and bike-share services. And in Bordeaux, we provide water taxi service as well. Part of what we’ve been doing in the last several years is applying the lessons learned in how you connect and manage a truly intermodal transport network in Europe and introduce some of those ideas and best practices for our North American transportation network operations. Our experience in running complex networks around the world is helpful in how we guide better connected and more efficient transportation services in North America.
In addition to our core rail, bus, paratransit, and taxi services, we’ve had a lot of interest in our new autonomous shuttle. In November of last year, we launched the first autonomous shuttle in North America to operate on open roads in Las Vegas. This year-long pilot project with our partners NAVYA and AAA has generated a lot of attention in how we’re utilizing an electric, autonomous, multi-passenger shuttle to better connect pedestrians to multiple locations within a city. We’re now getting inquiries from cities, as well as universities and a range of other venues — where they want a clean energy, lower noise pollution option for providing transportation in areas where there are limited vehicle parking options.
What are some ways moving to a similar model in the U.S. can be more attractive for public transit?
We work with a number of different companies where we’re using mobile apps to give a city visitor or a commuter real-time traffic and transit service information to make more informed decisions for how to get from Point A to Point B. Our goal is to deliver timely traffic and transit service information to commuters and visitors so they can make the most informed decision on how to get to their final destination. On any day that transit mix could include light rail service, a bus, an on-demand shuttle, and bike-share; it really just depends on how traffic patterns are playing out and what mode offers the most efficient route. Informing people of the most efficient transportation options as they begin their day is really important, because it obviously has an impact on the overall commute patterns for the city. In addition, our partner transit apps offer dynamic pricing, so if there is a special pricing promotion for a particular mode of transit that day, commuters are informed of that option.
Do you feel tech can be an equalizer for systems that may be short on funding?
That’s an interesting question. Recently, we announced the kickoff of a new project with the OCTA, where we will be providing an on-demand shuttle service. So for areas that don’t have access to fixed-route bus service, riders can query an on-demand transit shuttle that will pick them up and serve as a feeder to other transit hubs within the city. That is something that originated in Europe, but is another idea of how an agency can extend the reach of their existing network, using more dynamic transportation options like on-demand services. We’re looking forward to rolling this service out in early fall, and I think it’s a model that other transit agencies are going to look at to see how they can dynamically inject these new options into their existing networks, so they can provide as much flexibility for their ridership as possible.
Do you feel U.S. transit agencies are more willing to adapt than in the past?
There is an interesting convergence going on between traditional transit services and new mobility options — things like traditional bus service now potentially connecting with new autonomous shuttles or microtransit. For transit agencies, this is a balancing act on how to maximize the operations of existing transit services while blending in new transportation options that could potentially extend the reach of your transit network and give your commuters and residents new options for moving around a city. More cities are looking at how to move more people through congested areas using more dynamic transit fleet options. Las Vegas is a really a great example of a city that is trying to fast-track the introduction of new transportation services and streamline their process for doing so, and we’re seeing this approach occurring in a number of cities across the U.S. Today, a lot of pilot projects are popping up in cities where they are trying things out to see how it will work and how people will react to it, and then, based on that feedback, transit agencies are looking at ways to expand on those pilots by creating new transit service options.
What is sort of driving the change in thinking from the transit’s perspective?
It’s a combination of things, depending on the city. On the west coast, for example, single-rider vehicle traffic is clogging the roadways and severely limiting how people move around the city. Cities want to find a way to move more people in the limited space they have to operate in. If we can encourage people to not drive their cars all the way into the city and look at a more dynamic transit options, much like in Europe, that’s going to be a way to ease the gridlock and reduce commute times. The economic viability of a city is really how well they can move people around. Transit is being revisited now, because people are seeing that maybe there is a better way to get to work, or a better option to get from one part of the city to another. And if transit vehicles have Wi-Fi connectivity and other services where you don’t have to worry about being a distracted driver behind the wheel, it’s a benefit for everybody.
Tom Egan, President/COO
As transit agencies are looking to provide more options to customers, how is MV helping them do that?
First, we are committed to optimizing our customer’s existing business, ensuring they have the right capacity and route structure. We’re leveraging technology to understand where the demand is and optimize the routing. To address increased congestion and shifting demographics, we’re working with more transit agencies to roll out blended models using dynamic analysis to create a daily schedule of trips that are dispatched at the lowest cost and most efficient mix of fleet vehicles and taxi and TNC partner vehicles. We don’t believe there is one best solution; it is more a constant application of technology, data analysis, and good old-fashioned transit know-how to meet ever-changing passenger needs.
Discuss new technologies MV is deploying to help its customers improve the services they provide.
Whether it’s buying coffee, shopping for groceries, or ordering new shoes, the focus today is all about the customer experience — and taking a bus or shuttle is no different. Passengers are more tech-savvy and demand more control over their trip. And similarly, transit agencies and corporations want more control over how they manage their resources. The level of technology we apply for our customer operations has increased exponentially over the last few years, including hardware, software, and data, with far-reaching benefits. Mobile applications allow passengers to schedule trips and track the arrival time of their vehicles, and driver applications help optimize routes with turn-by-turn directions and give them information about the unique needs of their passengers, which is very important in paratransit. On the operations side, we are using advanced data analysis to improve scheduling and dispatch. Some of these tools are industry-available technologies and some are MV-proprietary innovation — but all are aimed at delivering safe, reliable, and efficient transportation to our customer’s passengers.
Tell me about some of the projects you’ve worked on and what you think will be the future of autonomous vehicles.
MV is working with a number of customers to help them better understand the feasibility and potential opportunities available from autonomous vehicle deployments. We are also having ongoing discussions with several manufacturers and have a couple of early stage pilots planned for later this year. We do believe there are opportunities on the horizon where autonomous technology will provide reliable and cost-effective transport as a part of broader mobility solutions.
How do you feel about the current state of public transportation?
This is a great time for transit. It’s exciting to see the convergence of new technologies and new transit models to solve important mobility and sustainability issues. And while everything may seem new, everything is still the same with respect to maintaining focus on getting people where they need to go safely, reliably, and efficiently. The evolution of MV has been just as exciting as we collaborate with customers to put the right advanced mobility solution in place that meets the needs of their respective communities.
Yann Leriche, CEO, and Dick Alexander EVP, business development and innovation
How quickly are you seeing agencies adapt to this new idea of mobility?
Dick Alexander: In the U.S., transit organizations are definitely recognizing that they need to change their approach to service delivery if they are going to capture and maintain their ridership, and they are getting creative as to what that looks like. I also think that more transit agencies are starting to see the potential value of a private partner that can bring new models and has the means to help deliver a range of possibilities in the design phase and in ongoing operations. The velocity of change has made the benefits of partnerships more apparent, and we are excited about that.
How does public transit in Europe differ from here in the U.S.?
Yann Leriche: In the U.S., transit agencies define what they want to offer to passengers, which buses on which routes with what schedules, for example, and they ask the private sector operator with the best price and technical scores to operate the service for them.
In Europe, it’s very different. The transit agency shares its high-level objectives for the service or group of services they want to offer their passengers. For example, a goal might be to provide 95 percent of the population with access to public transport within a 10-minute walk of where they live or work. They may want 24-hour service, no service interruptions at night, that sort of stuff, and so their RFP defines the end goals. So, when we bid, we have to propose anything and everything that will help achieve their goals and mission. That is why, for many years, we have offered core services — bus, BRT, and light rail services — but we also include bike-sharing, ride-sharing, and every new mode of transportation or digital technology that we or our partners can provide. Because clients’ goals are very broad, we have to be creative to submit multi-faceted plans that make sure that we meet their conditions. There are other factors as well, but in essence, this is a core reason why the environment we have in Europe as transit operators is quite different than in the U.S.
In Europe, if you look at the ridership in the past year, it is increasing everywhere, the number of passengers on buses is increasing everywhere. But here in the U.S., if you look at 2017 compared to 2016, only four agencies among the main systems have seen an increase, and overall, ridership declined 2.9 percent year-over-year. That is a lot. In the U.S. we are typically hired to deliver on service that has been specified in considerable detail by our clients. In Europe and in Asia, we essentially create a detailed plan that meets the vision the client requires — and, if selected, we execute that plan. There is innovation here in the U.S. to be certain — and we are proud to be developing innovative solutions for our clients. But, the international model requires the private partner to be much more creative in how we build and execute comprehensive plans that satisfy and exceed the client’s grand visions.
What changes need to be made to make the MaaS model a reality in the U.S.?
Leriche: It is really up to the way the contracts and RFPs are crafted, which is one of the key elements. If you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, for example, transit leaders are taking fresh approaches. We recently were awarded a first- and last-mile solution contract with L.A. Metro, where we will help design the approach to how the service might work. They realize that first/last mile services will be a key part of the future of transport, but at the same time they don’t yet know where in the city it would be best to implement those types of services and whether they might replace or augment existing routes. The first phase is to study, along with L.A. Metro’s team, where and how these services should best be applied and then to build plans to implement them. I think that is really the right way to perform a project of this type, and hopefully, other agencies will follow that path and partner with us in the private sector, because everything is moving so quickly and we can help a lot. We know that money is scarce in public transportation. But, we can bring value to the design, operations, and efficiency of the service that ends up being offered to passengers.
Tell me about your seamless ticketing program in Europe.
Leriche: With MaaS, if we want to offer the best way possible to go from ‘A’ to ‘B,’ one of the key features we have to offer is ticketing. Today, you can go online and buy different types of products on many websites, and in the end, you can place it all in one basket and make a purchase. That doesn’t exist for mobility. If I want to go from A to B, I have to first buy a train ticket, then maybe a bike-share, then perhaps a ride-share, and there is no way I can buy everything together. Now in some cities in France, we have a mobile app where you can choose to take various combinations of train, bus, metro, or personal automobile, for example, and have one QR code on your smartphone to pay for everything, all the way down to parking. The process is seamless, and for the public transit portion, the user is charged for their usage at the end of each month and is charged the best price based on the monthly pass versus on a per-trip basis. This is in Mulhouse, France, and is called a Mobility Account, and the technology was built by a subsidiary of ours, CityWay.
Talk about your autonomous vehicle projects here in the U.S.?
Alexander: Right now, we have three implemented projects on the road. One is in Jacksonville, Fla., with the public transit authority, in which we are providing research to the transit authority, which is looking at various uses for autonomous shuttles, up to and including, the replacement of their old “people” mover system.
The second is with the City of Gainesville, Fla. With that project, we are testing the use of autonomous vehicle technology by shuttling people between the University of Florida and downtown Gainesville, so it’s in a mixed-traffic environment with multiple shuttles operating simultaneously.
Our third project is with Babcock Ranch, which is partnership with a private developer that is creating a new community that is 100 percent solar-powered and designed to be energy efficient. Their hope is to able to provide an autonomous network of mobility within the Babcock Ranch community, which could include shuttles, pods, and other varieties of vehicle delivery systems.
What’s interesting about these projects is one is with the transit authority, one is with a city government, and one is with a private entity, and we are looking at what the use case is in each of those applications, as well as what the limits of the technology are at this point in time. Even more importantly, we are looking at what the customer interface with the technology is like and what are the tools they need to utilize the system, as well as how we ensure the safety of the vehicle and the reliability of the operation. There’s a whole host of things that are giving us and our clients insight as to how best to use this new technology, and of course, this technology is changing pretty rapidly. But, until you actually get it on the street and are using it and getting real customers riding, it is all just theoretical. So, what’s kind of exciting about these projects is that we’re actually doing it — operating the vehicles, monitoring the passenger experience and collecting their feedback.