As technology continues to grow and become a necessity for agencies, transit contractors are looking for the most practical applications. The rise of transportation apps and data management software is helping customers get the service they need and agencies learn more about their business.
Transit agencies are shifting from the traditional bus-only model to a multimodal system that cuts costs and expands service. However, these changes can be difficult for agencies to navigate on their own.
METRO talked to six transit contractors to see how they are helping transit agencies adapt to and grow with these new changes.
First Transit provides fixed-route, paratransit, shuttle, BRT, rail, call center and non-emergency medical transportation services. It is also the number one provider for university and college transportation solutions, with 30 contracts at schools like Yale, Princeton and Rutgers.
Sharad Agarwal, VP, strategy and innovation, says that many fixed-route operations are looking past service alone to enrich the passenger’s full experience. First Transit has decided to address this by working with tech companies to find the best solutions to offer their customers.
“We’ve found that there are a lot of great tech companies in the space that we’re partnering with and giving to our clients to educate them on the market,” Agarwal says. The company has worked with mobile ticketing, trip-planning apps and on-demand services, among others.
With paratransit, cost continues to be an issue. To combat this, First Transit has concentrated on easing the burden on call centers. On a recent contract, they worked with a call center that failed to meet their goals for call volume, hold times and scheduling. First Transit solved this problem by implementing a two-step process, targeting the call volume and the phone system.
“In the past it’s always been inbound calls and taking reservations,” Agarwal says. “We started introducing things like IVR (automated response), web-based booking, text messaging and chat rooms. We also do automated outbound calling to remind people so they don’t have to call.”
In addition to reducing the number of calls received, First Transit implemented new software into the agency’s current phone system to better handle the calls coming in.
“We spent a lot of time introducing the right phone system and the right expertise when it came to building databases to the scheduling software,” Agarwal says. “We were able to take a lot of different technology to firm up the processes and training for the staff. When we took over, they were not meeting FTA requirements, and when we were done in about four months, we had them well above the client’s expectations.”
Overall, First Transit considers themselves a strategic counselor to clients.
“Tell us some of the transportation problems that your agency is trying to solve, and let us show you some solutions,” says Jay Brock, manager, external communications.
Keolis offers bus, coach, tram, bike share, parking, paratransit, carsharing, carpooling, river shuttle and automated metro services. It is also the largest light rail operator worldwide. The company’s focus is to offer multimodal mobility solutions that are simple, efficient, fluid, and most importantly, safe for their passengers, employees and the communities they serve.
“It’s not one thing an experienced contractor can do more efficiently, it’s 100 little things that we have learned by working with agencies throughout the world,” says Ryan Adams, sr. VP, strategic development at Keolis Transit America (KTA).
Although he hasn’t seen much change in the RFPs the company has received over the past year, Adams says that he can see the industry changing the way it provides services thanks to technology.
“I suspect that as the focus on integrated mobility continues to gain speed, we’ll start to see the traditional model evolve into transit solutions that focus on the total journey experience,” he says. “Many agencies are exploring this model, as we’ve seen with recent Uber and Lyft partnerships, and many technologies are emerging to facilitate this.”
The company has partnered with moovit, a transit app that collects crowd-sourced user data to provide real-time information for a more accurate trip-planning service. It also uses this data to provide transit agencies with more accurate information about their services, including customer feedback.
KTA has also developed a number of in-house business intelligence tools. Their safety module combines risk management data with detailed accident logs. Using this, the company can identify the most important safety risks from multiple perspectives, such as root cause, accident type and route. It can also generate heat maps to see where accidents occur most often.
“The visualization process allows our team to efficiently diagnose their biggest risks and regularly prescribe action plans that are focused on prevention so we can ensure that we’re operating as safely as possible,” Adams says.
McDonald Transit, which started in 1972, focuses on community-specific solutions. Although it became an affiliate of Paris-based RATP Dev in 2009, 47% of the company is still employee-owned and their headquarters remains in Fort Worth, Texas.
Kenneth Fischer, sr. VP, business development, says that McDonald has been working toward improving the sustainability of their services by recycling as much as possible. These changes made a huge impact in operations for Votran in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“We reuse water in the bus washers. We recycle oil, antifreeze, freon, tires, batteries,” Fischer says. “In addition to reducing our carbon footprint through various activities, we’ve also saved Volusia County in the neighborhood of $200,000 in operating costs with that sustainability.”
McDonald has been integrating a number of technology options in their bus and shuttle contracts, including automatic passenger counters, CAD/AVL systems and real-time updates for customers.
The company operates Citibus in Lubbock, Texas and recently assisted the agency in developing a plan to upgrade their aging fleet and facilities. McDonald helped Citibus procure new and used vehicles, as well as rehab some of the vehicles they already owned. The agency is also in the process of renovating their operating facility.
“There are portions of that facility that date back to the 1930s and, by leveraging the state of good repair funds, they are going through a renovation of that facility to better accommodate their current operating needs,” Fischer says.
In February, Citibus was awarded the FTA Region 6 Transit System of the Year award in recognition of their efforts to work the with community to improve Citibus operations.
MV Transportation started with a couple and their van. Alex and Feysan Lodde would drive elderly and disabled members of their San Francisco community to doctor’s appointments in the 1970s.
Today, MV is the largest provider of paratransit services in the world. Their key to success is in technology, which is developed in-house and custom-made for each contract. This approach has help set them apart from the competition.
“MV Transportation is squarely focused on ensuring the technology we implement is helping to improve the quality of life for the people who depend on us to take them where they need to go,” says Nikki Frenney-Wiggins, VP, communications.
According to Gary Coles, chief sales officer, a large portion of calls received in call centers are simple confirmation calls. To combat this problem, MV began integrating mobile apps to assist paratransit call centers in 2014. In agencies where the app was implemented, these calls dropped as low as 30%.
In addition to developing technology, MV has also helped many agencies to work with outside resources. The company helped Dallas Area Rapid Transit completely revamp their paratransit system by moving away from the traditional model and integrating taxis as an on-demand option.
“We saved Dallas over $70 million in seven years in costs they would have had to bear in operating their paratransit services by allowing us to change their model and bring in and use yellow taxi right there in that city,” Coles says. “It was a concept of taking an existing resource, integrating it into your software system, and creating a product that customers can rely on at a cost for the agency”
MV recently took over paratransit services for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, which accounts for 3,000 trips a day. The company also manages Microsoft’s employee shuttle in Seattle, where it was recognized as an innovative vendor.
National Express Transit offers fixed-route, commuter, paratransit and airport shuttle services across the U.S. It offers operating contracts with an emphasis on safety and management training.
The company began working with Ariz.-based Yuma County Area Transit (YCAT) in 2014. The goal of the contract was to boost ridership by improving safety and maintenance conditions.
“When we took over, the primary concern and challenge was the fleet. The buses were not in great shape. There was a lot of work to be done to get them clean, to get them presentable, and, most importantly, to make them safe,” says Dolly Rettig, director, marketing.
Before the partnership, YCAT’s buses would travel 2,000 miles between road calls, well below the 6,000-mile national average. By offering training and changing the authority’s safety and maintenance protocols, National Express was able to help them get the number up to 10,000 miles between road calls, cutting down on wasted time and money from maintenance visits.
“They’ve actually increased their service about 63 percent over the last four years and a lot of that is due to our partnership,” Rettig says. YCAT now operates on 11 routes with 460,000 annual passenger boardings.
The company has also worked to integrate technology that improves safety. It is currently running a pilot program in Arlington, Va. for “talking buses.”
“The vehicles actually talk and say ‘vehicle entering intersection’ in order to keep the number of pedestrian accidents down. Our Arlington County operation is in the D.C. area, so it’s a very congested, pedestrian-heavy area. So, that’s something that we saw as potentially beneficial,” Rettig says.
Other products they use include dispatch and scheduling software, collision-avoidance systems and security systems.
“Much of what we do is about training and providing the right resources to our people to make sure that they make good safe decisions. Safety is absolutely our number one priority across the board,” Rettig says.
Transdev offers a variety of services, including commuter rail, streetcars, ferries, fixed-route buses, paratransit, taxis, shuttles, black car services and retail.
According to Sr. VP, Business Development Dick Alexander, Transdev is the only contractor to offer a full operating contract, taking over a whole agency.
“We perform a full suite of services. Not only operations and maintenance, which has been the traditional role of private contractors, we also do marketing, grant work, planning, purchasing, all the functions that a transit authority would perform,” he says.
The company has spent the past couple of years investing heavily in technology, opting to acquire tech companies rather than forming partnerships or developing in-house.
“For years, in the private sector you grew by buying other transportation companies. That’s one way to grow. But we’ve really concentrated on buying technology companies and creating a very strong technology expertise because that’s where we see the industry going,” Alexander says. “It’s really about customer choice now in shared-ride transportation and that’s true whether it is through a private taxi or public transit vehicle. Obviously, apps become the vehicle for customers to make that choice.”
One of these apps is Split, a D.C.-based ridesharing service that matches up riders traveling along the same route for a low base price. Unlike its competitors, the service uses employees instead of independent contractors. Transdev is currently working with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority in Tampa, Fla. to apply this same concept to public transit.
“It’ll be the first fully-integrated last-mile solution in transit industry. It’s app-based, totally complies with ADA and Title VI requirements, allows for both immediate pickups as well as advanced reservations, contains mobile ticketing and integrates to the fixed-route schedule,” Alexander says.
Of course, apps aren’t the only way technology changes transit. Alexander notes that autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality.
“I think within five years. It’s much closer than people realize,” he predicts. “We’ve already got the first autonomous vehicle bus system operating in the world, which is in a nuclear power plant in France. It’s the first shared-ride, driverless-bus shuttle operating.”