I think we can agree on what we have been saying, the pandemic has sped up the need and desire for digital transformation. In fact, it has super charged a host of things from:

  • Redeploying staff
  • Creating new opportunities
  • Shifting productivity
  • Launching new products
  • Accelerating decisionmaking
  • Enhancing operations

When I had an opportunity to join a webinar about how the transportation industry was refueled—and how it has embraced technology in new ways in the past four months—I was more than eager to jump on and learn more.

When the series was first envisioned, it was going to be exploring reopening cities post COVID-19—but it quickly turned into a discussion surrounding reopening cities with COVID-19 and looking beyond COVID-19.

The exchange was moderated by Hani Mahmassani, NUTC director and the William A. Patterson Distinguished Chair in Transportation at Northwestern University, who kicked it off saying, “Public transportation plays a vital role in urban mobility and plays a key role in reopening cities and our economies.”

He was joined by three transit experts who weighed in on the biggest changes made initially, the biggest challenges, how the IoT (Internet of Things), AI (artificial intelligence), big data, and much more, all factor in, and what’s next. Let me pull out the key points shared from each agency.

Chicago Transit Authority

The CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) provides roughly 1.5 million rides on average weekday and serves the City of Chicago, and 35 surrounding suburbs, which incidentally, as you know by now is my hometown. Dorval Carter, president, CTA, has led investment and overseen $8 billion of projects completed, begun, or announced. What caught my eye is Carter opening up about what’s been on the CTA docket as it relates to transit since COVID-19. So, let’s take a closer look at what’s been happening inside the Chicago Transit Authority in the past few months.

What Changed: The first priority when the pandemic started was the health and safety of workers and customers. One of the things it did not do was cut service. According to Carter, one of the reasons was it would create capacity issues in terms of social distancing. “The more service on the street, the safer for our customers.” Even at 80% loss, it was still carrying more than 250,000 people a day. It also implemented ultraviolet cleaning and messaging/decals to promote social distancing.

The Biggest Challenge: One of the biggest challenges was the reality of the virus itself and that it was an evolving discussion, with guidance changing overtime. “We were building a plane as we were flying it.” The other challenge was the workforce, being primarily Black people with underlying health conditions. He says more than 300 people became sick and he revealed seven employees died. Those facts hit home pretty hard, especially if you had been working alongside of someone for years or had just known of a colleague who was taken ill and then died as a result of the pandemic.

How Tech Factors In: The CTA developed a dashboard for bus service to show times of day where buses will be more crowded, and it is developing a similar product for rail. It is also in conversations with tech giants to determine how to gather realtime information around that.

What’s Next: While there is no model or approach to dealing with this, Carter says, “We are an industry that likes to borrow from others that are successful.” Still, what works in one city might not work in another. Looking forward, he says, “Whatever the future is going to look like around this is, it’s going to be an integrated approach. It’s going to involve public transit, along with Uber and Lyft. If there’s any silver lining in the reality of what we’re dealing with here, and I say that in quotes, it’s the fact that it is forcing the type of dialogue and conversation around innovation and opportunity that would have taken more time to create outside of this environment.”

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority 

The WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) involves an increasingly integrated group of service planners, data analysts, schedulers, and bus stop maintenance staff for Metrorail and Metrobus in the National Capital Region. Peter Cafiero, managing director of Intermodal Planning, WMATA, leads the group, with an eye on transformation.

What Changed: WMATA split the workforce into two separate groups—A and B groups—that worked alternate days and don’t ever meet each other. It was trying to protect against someone testing positive and then quarantining a whole division’s worth of employees. “We closed a number of stations that were very low-volume stations or stations with a lot of alternatives. And that was both to reduce risk, but also to conserve cleaning supplies.” Even with all the precautions in place, roughly a third of the entire workforce has been out at one point or another.

The Biggest Challenge: Here the challenge is managing the service levels to move customers, particularly essential employees, but also to fit within the workforce that it had available.

How Tech Factors In: Leveraging existing data has been another challenge. A lot of the systems in place, particularly on buses, rely on knowing what the vehicle is supposed to be doing, what schedule it was on. “We pretty early in the crisis tossed all the schedules out, and so a lot of those data streams stopped or become wildly inaccurate. At the same time we lost farebox data because we stopped collecting fares when we back to backdoor only.”

What’s Next: Going forward, Cafiero would love to have better, hard data about travel, particularly outside of the transit system. “We’ve talked to some of the other operators in the departments of transportation to try to share data on what travel patterns are and how they’re changing. There’s a wealth of new data out there from third-parties about travel in general in a region. I would love to have part of that and be part of that. But we’re not there yet.”

Jacksonville Transportation Authority

JTA (Jacksonville Transportation Authority) has made a lot of moves in the world of digital transformation, with Nathaniel Ford Sr., CEO, JTA, leading the charge. He is a champion of multimodal transportation, walkable neighborhoods, public-private partnerships, and transit-oriented development.

What Changed: The first initial challenge it faced was a significant drop off in terms of its ridership on its system, having seen about a 75% drop off in terms of ridership. It immediately went from a weekday schedule to what it calls a Saturday schedule, which is a significant reduction in the amount of service that it provides. “We had to also make some structural changes as it relates to our infrastructure, increasing amount of distancing for our customers related to our bus stops, in our hubs, in our stations and ensure that we created the six foot social distancing.” It also implemented a split schedule, with an A team and a B team.

The Biggest Challenge: Our biggest challenge was scheduling because the Saturday schedule doesn’t have an AM peak period or a PM peak period that would be the normal type of transit pattern or ridership pattern that we’d normally see.

How Tech Factors In: Its business intelligence units started about five years ago, with thousands and thousands of data points as it relates to operations, finances, customer relations, in terms of data collection, ridership trends, and more. “The challenge is how do you take all of that data and put it in, well, one, ensure that it’s accurate, two, that you have the appropriate measurements, and three, how do you aggregate all of that data in a way that assists management as well as our executive leadership team in making good sound decisions and actually really sifting through some of the data noise, because there’s things that you collect as part of the process of operating, but it may not be very relevant in terms of decision making, and so how do you properly weight that data?”

What’s Next: It has built a realtime data-information system that’s called Amelio, which actually takes all of these data points and aggregates them into about a dozen different categories that actually gives the macro trend as it relates to customer service, operations, finance, employee success, training. “We were able to identify what routes were being more heavily impacted by the ridership decline, and we were able to make those adjustments.”

While these are just three transit agencies, all around the globe city transportation systems are evolving—and determining how data can help. Let’s all hope some good has arisen out of this pandemic.

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