A “defining moment for transit agencies”: why we need transit-AV-TNC planning, and why transit systems are positioned to take center stage in a smart city revolution

18 April 2017, By Colin O’Donnell in Tech Crunch

After years of talk about smart cities, people are wondering when — and where — will we start to see them really begin to take shape. What will they look like? How will we interact with them?  A smart city is more than the sum of its parts. With a street light here, a sensor there — when solutions are not clearly connected and without critical mass — you don’t get the combinatorial benefit of different systems working together.

But that’s all about to change. Comprehensive and large-scale smart city innovations will start to emerge where we least expect them. Not in our streets or in our buildings, but below them, in the subways, commuter rail and mass transit of global cities. Here’s why transit systems around the world are positioned to take center stage in a smart city revolution. 

Transit systems are ripe for disruption (the good kind!) 

While the rest of the world has been in a constant upheaval over the past decade, reinventing itself with technology and new business models, mass transit systems have stayed largely static — doggedly, determinedly moving millions of people each day with little influence from outside tech. Just the fact that your mobile device works underground is cause for celebration, and a single line of text on an LED readout telling you when the next train is arriving is a small miracle.

Compare that with how in just a few years’ time we’ve seen ridesharing transform how we move by car. Push button, get chauffeur. There is room to make a massive impact in transit. 

Mass transit takes the human experience of cities and turns it up to 11

If culture clashes are what makes cities thrive — where ideas bump up against each other and swirl together to make new things like jazz, hip hop, the kimchi burger, the Cronut — nowhere does this friction play out more than within a transit system.

While suburban car commuters sit by themselves in little boxes, mass transit exposes us to new forms of art, music and culture. But more importantly, transit exposes us to humanity itself — where people of every racial, religious and socioeconomic background and of every ability get uncomfortably close to one another. It is truly the great humanizing and democratizing asset of cities.

The thing that gets us so excited about smart cities is the potential to take the solitary experience of the internet — a person and a screen — and bring it into this heaving cultural mashup. Those self-selected, self-affirming circles of our internet experience need to be offset by the kind of diversity that exists in any 10-square-feet of mass transit. And when we add the intelligence of the internet to that kind of shared, democratic experience, we just might be able to reveal the true potential of the internet — to connect humans and make us more tolerant, understanding and empathetic. If you want to see the impact of new technology in cities, transit is where you can get the most immediate and intense feedback from people of all kinds — from digital natives to senior citizens, from financiers to refugees. 

Transit authorities can get things done

There are so many barriers to entry that make getting things done in cities hard. The competing interests, distributed decision-making and regulations among a million committees, departments, community groups, private businesses — plus politics — it’s what makes cities great, but it also makes it difficult to move at the pace of technology.

But transit systems are different. They are generally operated and managed by a sole authority and act more like a corporation than a government bureaucracy. And because they are autonomous organizations, they have control over everything that happens inside them. Decisions and changes can be made quickly, and implemented with relative speed universally within the system. If you a want path toward accelerating innovation at city scale — transit is the place to do it. 

Transit systems have what innovation requires to be successful — a built-in user base with massive scale

Transit already has built-in scale — millions of people use it every day, in every major city. And, unlike the complex web that makes up cities, transit is a complete, contained ecosystem. Every conceivable touchpoint of a journey exists, from planning to wayfinding, safety and security; from operational enhancements to advertising, communications and point-of-purchase.

This built-in user base and multifaceted journey opens the door for outside investment and innovation. Introducing even a small data-driven improvement that can be immediately deployed onto a flexible digital infrastructure can yield massive benefits.

There is an expectation gap

Getting around today in cities looks nothing like it did five years ago, let alone 10. A single trip a few miles away can easily involve two or three modes. And the cockpit of the rideshare I took recently had seven interactive displays with real-time information and services — the number in the typical train car? None. We have choices, and we want information and convenience.

And this hasn’t gone unnoticed by transit authorities. There’s been a subtle but important shift in the way they operate: Users are no longer simply riders, but customers. Providing safe, reliable service is table stakes — transit authorities know they need to deliver an experience in line with expectations. 

And, now more than ever, the tech is there — inexpensive sensors, computer vision and high-resolution digital displays, location networks that provide contextual services to mobile devices, and data science and machine learning — to unlock that potential.

The consumer world has reinvented itself many times over in the past decade alone, but those advancements haven’t made it to mass transit in a comprehensive way. By bringing the best digital minds and ideas to the table alongside the institutional expertise of transit authorities, we can break down the barrier to let innovation in.

We don’t have the luxury of rebuilding centuries-old systems from the ground up, but we do have the ability to radically change them. A smart city approach — manifesting the internet in public space — will be the enabler of a transit experience that is more reliable, safer and efficient. And, in a place with such intense diversity, we hopefully will spark not just the digitization of physical space, but the enablement of a more human internet, and a more connected humanity.

3 Things that really matter in transit

By Stephen Miller, Streetsblog,  33

Good transit boils down to three ingredients, according to TransitCenter: It has to be fast, frequent and reliable, and walkable and accessible. Photo: Stefanie Seskin/Flickr
Good transit boils down to three ingredients, according to TransitCenter: It has to be fast, frequent and reliable, and walkable and accessible. Photo: Stefanie Seskin/Flickr

With so much transportation funding going toward highways, it’s tempting to support any transit investment as a step in the right direction. But not all transit investments will produce service that helps people get where they need to go. To make transit a useful travel option that people want to ride, says TransitCenter, there are three basic goals that officials and advocates should strive for.

Think of it as a recipe for a delicious transit cake. Every cake is different, but they all share some key ingredients. For transit, the three ingredients that make it work are speed, frequency and reliability, and walkability and accessibility.

The method of preparing each ingredient may vary, but it’s always important for transit service to include all three. Here’s how TransitCenter breaks down the recipe [PDF]:

Speed. Routes should be direct, instead of cutting labyrinthine paths across a city. Fare payment needs to be fast and easy, via off-board fare collection or tap-and-go entry at every door. Transit can’t get bogged down in traffic, either, so features like dedicated space on the street and priority at traffic lights are needed to keep things moving.

Frequency and Reliability. People won’t ride transit if they can’t depend on it. A network of routes that arrive at least every 15 minutes helps people know that a bus or train will be there when they need it, and gives them multiple route options in case there’s a problem with one. Accurate, real-time data published in app-friendly formats allows riders to get the information they need where and when they want it. And properly-managed dispatching can use this real-time data to keep transit evenly spaced, so riders won’t have long, unpredictable waits.

Walkability and Accessibility. Transit works best when people can walk to it. That means both concentrating transit in compact, walkable places, and making it easier to walk to transit in places where pedestrian infrastructure is lacking. That could entail adding bus shelters, painting crosswalks, and expanding pedestrian space in the short term, and lifting restrictions on new development near transit in the long term.

Keeping these three goals in mind can help keep everyone’s eye on the ball when thinking about transit. In this framework, questions don’t turn on the specific mode of travel but on how to make any given route more useful. A commuter rail line from the suburbs to downtown might have speed, for instance but lack frequency and walkability. Buses or streetcars that operate in mixed-traffic might be frequent or easy to walk to, but will probably struggle to attain acceptable speed and reliability.

Hitting all three marks is the key to creating “all-purpose” transit — a service that people use not just for occasional trips or commuting, but for all types of trips, all the time.


Driverless vehicles and the future of public transit, by Lauren Isaac, Easy Mile, August 2017

The advent of driverless technology gives rise to a number of daunting questions: Will driverless passenger vehicles make public transit obsolete? Will mobility options become increasingly privatized as driverless technology is broadly adopted? Should transit agencies stop investing in their future fleets, as driverless vehicles subsume demand for public transit?

To remain relevant, transit agencies must have a vision for the future, including the role that driverless technology will play. Because emerging technologies and concepts that may not even exist today could impact this vision, transit agencies should also prepare for a variety of scenarios and outcomes.  

Here are some potential components of what such a “vision” may entail:

  • Trip-planning information is integrated across modes and agencies (public and private), so the general public has the ability to evaluate their travel options with comprehensive information on travel time, cost, environmental impact, and more. 
  • Real-time schedules for all transportation modes are centrally available. 
  • Vehicles and transit schedules are “right-sized” so fleets are used effectively and there are no more empty buses. Fare payment is made electronically and only one payment is needed for each whole trip. 
  • Travel times are generally predictable and well-communicated. 
  • Lower income and people with disability populations have access to all of these services.

Generally speaking, public transit agencies have two key goals: (i) to enhance mobility throughout their respective regions, and (ii) to provide reasonable access to transportation to all their respective constituents. For decades, transit agencies have addressed these goals by operating bus and/or train systems that are subsidized by the federal, state, and local government.

In recent years, while public transit agencies operated these traditional services, the private sector introduced new, technology-enabled transportation options that are now household names. Specifically, transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, commuter buses like Chariot, dynamic vanpools like Via), carpooling apps like Scoop, and employer-provided buses have taken on more and more prominent roles all over the U.S. and abroad. Even before driverless technology, the private sector has already disrupted the traditional public transit business model.

Many of the private companies listed above are investing in or developing driverless technology, and further disruption is likely imminent. These companies are providing hints as to how driverless technology will be introduced: with both on-demand and fixed-route services. Driverless mobility options may be shared and they will likely be priced accordingly (i.e., the more people in a vehicle, the less an individual pays). These services will be branded and targeted in order to maximize that company’s market impact.

Importantly, private transportation companies are providing services that support public transit agencies’ goals in many cases, without any of the limitations that are generally associated with public entities reliant on subsidies and public funding.  Private companies are able to leverage the latest advances in technology, invest significantly in marketing, and evolve and respond to customer demands at a seemingly rapid pace.  

As a result, a key component to every public transit agency’s vision for the future must be to form partnerships with private sector transportation companies, where appropriate.  In doing so, public transit agencies will have the opportunity to leverage the advances of the private sector, both in technology and operating models, while still preserving the true mission of public transit. For example, a transit agency could partner with a private company to introduce driverless shuttles as a first/last mile solution. Both parties stand to benefit: the private company would charge either the passengers or the transit agency for this service, and the transit agency would increase transit ridership and reduce a bus or metro station’s parking requirements.

Once these partnerships are established, it will be important for public transit agencies to re-think what existing operations are still necessary and how they are provided.

Some of the ways that public transit is likely to be impacted by driverless vehicles in its early stages are as follows:

  • Transit schedules may need to be altered to address changes in demand. 
  • Paratransit services may be much less costly to provide to riders. 
  • Fixed-route vehicles, such as buses, could be replaced with autonomous vehicles (and, in fact, may be likely contenders for early adoption). 
  • The public transit labor force may change drastically (e.g., bus operators may be less in demand, while security enforcement personnel and data mining specialists needs may grow). 
  • Transit fares may need to be modified to stay competitive with alternate providers.

Now is the time for transit agencies to develop pilots and plans that re-imagine public transportation. The driverless technology offers many benefits to transit agencies, including increased safety and mobility options, while also furthering the agencies’ goals. And, in fact, driverless shuttles are available today and many pilot programs are underway globally. Now is the time to consider a driverless shuttle pilot to introduce this technology (as both shared and electric) to public transit agencies and their constituents.

Driverless shuttles introduce a shared, electric, and autonomous solution for transit agencies to leverage today. They can operate in contained environments such as campuses, airports, and employment centers and they can provide a first/last mile solution to augment public transit networks, allowing individuals to reduce or eliminate their parking requirements, and increase mobility in a specific area.

Finally, driverless shuttles provide the potential for immediate adoption: state and local governments can already partner with driverless shuttle companies to provide additional public transit alternatives to their constituents.

Here are just a few examples of where driverless shuttles are being utilized around the world today:

  • In the Bay Area, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (in partnership with the Livermore Amador Valley Transit Authority and other local agencies) are aiming to leverage driverless shuttles as a first/last mile transporter to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations.
  • In the city of Arlington, Texas, driverless shuttles will be transporting people between their sports stadium and a parking lot.
  • In Paris, EasyMile’s driverless shuttles transported people between two train stations for a few month demo.
  • In Singapore, EasyMile’s driverless shuttles are transporting people around Gardens by the Bay, a botanical garden.

While many automakers and private technology continue to develop their autonomous solutions, driverless shuttles introduce a driverless transportation option that can support public transit agency goals today. Driverless shuttles can improve safety, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, augment mobility options, and integrate with other transportation modes for more rider efficiency.

Lauren Isaac is the director of Business Initiatives for the North American operation of EasyMile (www.easymile.com).  Below is an earlier piece by Lauren in Metro Matazine when she was at PB.

Automated and Connected Vehicle Technology

Automated vehicles (sometimes referred to as driverless vehicles), are capable of sensing their environment and navigating roads without human input. They rely on technologies like GPS, LIDAR, and radar to read their surroundings and make intelligent decisions about the car’s direction and speed. Google, Uber, most automakers, and many other companies are predicting that they will have automated vehicles publicly available in the 2018-2020 timeframe.

Most of the driverless technology development in the U.S. has been focused on passenger vehicles; however, Local Motors, Navya, 2GetThere and EasyMile are a few examples of companies providing driverless shuttles, which could have potential for transit agencies in paratransit or feeder service applications. As the technology is applied to larger vehicles, driverless high-capacity fixed guideway service or driverless bus rapid transit service could be possible.

Connected vehicle technology is being developed concurrently with automated technology. Connected vehicle applications provide connectivity among vehicles (which prevents collisions), between vehicles and infrastructure (which promotes safety and mobility) and among vehicles, infrastructure and wireless devices (which provides continuous real-time connectivity to all system users). Because the benefits of connected vehicle technologies cannot be maximized without broad fleet penetration and an interoperable system across all manufacturers, regulatory action will likely play a large role.

Potential Future Scenarios
Fast forward 50 years from today, and consider two potential scenarios with automated and connected vehicle technology and its impact on public transit. These scenarios are deliberately extreme to present cogent visions for the future, but the reality will likely be a combination of the two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Nightmare!  Most people continue to own private vehicles (which are now driverless) and, in addition to taking mostly single-occupancy vehicle trips, send their vehicles on errands. People live farther from where they work and generally commute to work alone in their private vehicle. Vehicle miles traveled and, consequently, congestion skyrockets, as riders choose private transportation, significantly undermining public transit agencies, which revert to a mission of providing transportation only for the poor, elderly and mobility challenged.

Scenario 2: Utopia! People forego owning a personal vehicle due to the richness of transportation options to support their mobility needs. Public transportation is seamlessly integrated with private transportation options (and priced accordingly). Government ensures transportation options are widespread, accessible to all and financially sustainable. People have the option of taking a single-occupancy vehicle trip; however, the cost is significantly higher than the shared-ride options and thus discourages that behavior.

In both cases, there are significant safety improvements due to the proliferation of automated and connected vehicle technologies. The utopian scenario promises reduced congestion, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, increased mobility options for the overall population and equitable transportation coverage. There is significant risk, however, that the nightmare scenario becomes reality, since it is most similar to how people use their vehicles today.

Without some level of societal change, industry initiatives, and/or government intervention, people will likely continue to own their vehicles, commute to work alone and leave their car unused 95% of the time. But there are things that transit agencies can do to encourage the utopian scenario.

Technologies Create Opportunities
Transit agencies stand to benefit greatly from automated and connected technologies since they have the potential to create new mobility solutions with significant cost-efficiencies. The following provides a few examples of how transit agencies can leverage driverless technology:

First/Last Mile – Automated shuttles could provide a cost-effective way to carry passengers to and from mass transit stations. These shuttles could be dynamically routed to provide on-demand services within a few-mile range of transit stations. This would encourage more transit use by providing a reliable, convenient service offering. I could also reduce existing costs for providing comparable fixed-route service (with a driver) and reduce the parking needed at transit stations.

Circulator – Driverless shuttles could provide a mobility option for people traveling within a closed campus (e.g., university, hospital, or office park). This could reduce the roadway and parking requirements within that space and reduce the costs associated with transporting people on the campus.

Fixed Route Vehicle Replacement – Transit agencies might consider replacing their existing vehicle fleet with driverless vehicles of varying sizes (appropriate to their service area). Any service operated within a fixed guideway (e.g., bus rapid transit) may provide a good starting point. This has the potential to reduce labor costs, introduce dynamic routing (maybe during non-commute hours) and provide safer service.

Platooned BRT – One limitation to current BRT service is the ability for BRT to provide capacity beyond single vehicles. With connected vehicle technologies, vehicles could be tightly platooned (similar to connected light railcars), thereby increasing the carrying capacity of BRT, reducing their fuel consumption and environmental impacts.

Paratransit – Transit agencies are required to provide point-to-point services to people who have limited mobility. While some passengers will require another human to assist them in getting in and out of the vehicle, many of these paratransit passengers could travel in a dynamically routed driverless vehicle, which would be significantly less expensive than existing paratransit services.
It should be noted that any of these services could be provided by the public or private sector. In some cases, the transit agency may want to continue being the operator, but in other cases, government might consider partnering with the private sector and potentially subsidizing rides (e.g., paratransit). For public transit agencies considering operating driverless services, transit agencies will need to consider the implications for labor unions, maintenance facilities, maintenance workers, and the safety and security of passengers. Whether the services are offered by the public or private sector, it will be vitally important for transit agencies to collect the data associated with these services since they can inform future planning activities.
Further, transit provides a unique opportunity to help catalyze connected vehicle technologies, and ultimately, reap the safety benefits of its proliferation. In particular, considering the use of connected vehicle radio technologies to interface with traffic signal controllers for transit signal priority (TSP) can provide priority today at a comparable cost to traditional TSP systems, while setting a foundation for benefits from other possible applications and increasing numbers of connected vehicles in the future.

Need to Act Now 

Connected and automated technologies present great opportunity for transit agencies. They can leverage driverless technology to maximize the cost-effectiveness of their service while ensuring equitable, fairly priced mobility options for everyone. Transit agencies will need to evaluate the full mobility eco-system (and how it has evolved in recent years with many private companies getting involved) to determine the appropriate provision of transit services.

This is a defining moment for transit agencies. They can leverage the opportunities associated with connected and automated vehicle technologies and realize immediate safety and mobility benefits, or risk the nightmare scenario described earlier. Clearly, there are challenges to introducing driverless technology, including possible resistance from transit agency staff and labor unions, the need for workforce skills development to keep pace with rapid technological change, federally mandated vehicle replacement cycles, and sometimes, inflexible policies and plans. Transit agencies will need to start addressing these barriers today because the technologies are advancing quickly.

Lauren Isaac is Manager of Sustainable Transportation for WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff and the author of the publication, Driving Towards Driverless: A Guide for Government Agencies (www.wsp-pb.com). 

To Attract Riders, Call Transit ‘Congestion Free’ By   

Would you like to live on a congestion-free transit network?  New Zealand’s Labour Party—currently the lead opposition party in Parliament—just endorsed a “Congestion Free Network” for the country’s major city, Auckland. The concept was developed by the advocacy group Greater Auckland, and it’s designed to emphasize the most important thing that makes transit reliable: its protection from congestion caused by single-occupant cars.

By way of disclosure: I’ve done extensive consulting for Auckland Transport over the years. But I had nothing to do with coining this term, which is one that other cities should consider adopting. “Congestion-free transit” cuts through some of the most fatal confusions that bedevil transit debates.

In most cities, rail is protected from traffic but buses aren’t, so the average person’s concept of buses includes being stuck in traffic. But being stuck in traffic has nothing to do with whether you’re on rails or tires. Many old streetcar lines (and most new ones in the U.S.) are mixed with car traffic and suffer frequent disruption as a result. Meanwhile, buses can be highly reliable where they are protected from traffic, as in the best Bus Rapid Transit systems.

Talking about a “congestion-free network” is an excellent way to get people past this confusion. It helps people see an interlinked system of frequent services that can be counted on to run reliably, regardless of whether they’re on rails or tires (or water). Auckland’s congestion-free network, for example, would include a mix of commuter rail, light rail, buses in exclusive lanes, and ferries on the harbor.

If you just want to get there, the distinction between rail, bus, and ferry matters less than you may think.

One of the great values of the term is that everybody understands what “congestion-free” means. Focusing solely on frequency, for example, doesn’t make sense for motorists. It also highlights a critical aspect of transit that transit agencies don’t control. It helps people see who has to act, and what decisions need to be made, to make this network a reality. For bus services, these decisions are about the allocation of street space, usually a city government role.

Logically, the congestion-free transit network should be the major lines within a larger frequent transit network, where the latter consists of all transit services (bus, rail, or ferry) that are always coming soon. Not all frequent services can be protected from congestion unless the streets are entirely closed to cars: Some streets, after all, are just too narrow for that. But the congestion-free network does succeed in promoting the reasons why we protect transit from traffic, and what we achieve by doing that continuously, all across a network, regardless of the transit technology used. If you just want to get there, or if you want to have access to as much of your city as possible, the distinction between rail, bus, and ferry matters less than you may think. What really matters is frequency, speed, and reliability, and that’s exactly what a congestion-free network describes.

Jarrett Walker  is an international consultant in public transit planning and policy. He writes the blog Human Transit and is author of the book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.

What the New York City Ferry Could Teach the Subway, City Lab, JUL 5, 2017

In some ways, the boats hint at transit’s service-oriented future.

Deck seats were open on the New York City ferry’s third ride from Rockaway to Wall Street Friday morning, but a few passengers chose to lay on the floor.

“We thought we’d get a nap in,” said Irina J., a 28-year-old student who had caught the sunrise at Rockaway Beach. She and her friend spread blankets and pillows in a pocket of starboard floor space. They started a trend: Opposite the captain’s booth, another couple laydown as the vessel chugged across the bay.

“You won’t see that on the A-train,” observed Jermaine Corey, a 26-year-old Rockaway native on his way to work in Manhattan. Before ferry service launched in May, Corey sat through delays and breakdowns on that subway line, and occasionally splurged to sit through surface traffic on the MTA’s $6.50 Midtown express bus.

But on this morning, he sat on a lifejacket box at the back of the boat, chatting with a friend. Other passengers leafed through novels, munched on bagels, and sipped iced coffee served on tap downstairs. The snack bar (where an attendant confirmed her job was ”chill”) sells tickets, too, which are also available via app and dockside kiosks. At $2.75, the heavily subsidized fare is equal to a subway ride.