What effect has technology had on public transportation?
“I think the industry is dependent on technology now in a way it never was before,” said APTA Information Technology Committee Chair Angela K. Miller, chief technology and sustainability officer, North County Transit District, Oceanside, CA.
Not only in ways it never was, but—more to the point—in ways most non-technology people never envisioned.
Who might think, for example, that it would be possible to add money to a smart card—at home, without going to a station and using a machine? And taking one step back, who might once have envisioned a smart card?
For many veteran industry experts who remember the days of paper tickets—and no smart card readers!—technology has opened up communication, enabling systems to reach their public and the public to access valuable time-saving information.
For example, signal train control technology has reduced the amount of space required between trains, so more trains can run more often with more passengers. And there are information resources to tell people where trains are, and to inform them when circumstances might restrict their passage.
It’s all about productivity, said Robert A. MacDonald, director, engineering services, B&C Transit Inc., “getting more with less. As the technology grows and the databases grow, they drive how you manage your railroad or bus system. The more information you get, the better the management capability.”
“I think anything that makes it easier for passengers to understand their travel will certainly make it simpler, straightforward, and more attractive to them,” said Patrick A. Nowakowski, executive director, Dulles Rail Project, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He added: “That certainly should entice more people to use public transportation.”
So what else is “new and exciting” in the public transportation industry? Read what a number of APTA members are saying.
New technologies and new applications in energy storage are being tested at rail and bus systems around the country. In its broadest sense, energy storage results in reduced energy consumption. Projects ongoing at various rail properties use wayside energy storage systems to better capture braking energy while also providing improvements in power quality. Other projects focus on on-board energy storage systems.
Wayside energy storage. Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) continues its pilot use of a wayside energy storage system through the use of lithium-ion batteries—working with the local power company. This technology captures braking energy, which in turn saves SEPTA money. [See related stories.]
“When I spend $12-15 million a year on the power to drive the trains,” said Andrew Gillespie, SEPTA’s chief engineer-power, “then a 10 percent reduction is a lot of money.”
Gillespie said SEPTA is unique in that it is the only system in the country that both uses a battery to capture and store electrical energy consumed by braking trains—and participates in the energy market. While the agency is seeking new technologies to refine its system, he acknowledged: “It may not be exactly the technology we are using now, but as we progress I think you’ll find that means and methods to store energy will become more prevalent.”
On-board energy storage. Through its standards program, APTA is developing modern streetcar guidelines, and one chapter focuses on power supplies for these vehicles. Efforts using on-board energy storage are also underway nationwide. But as John Smatlak, president, rpr consulting, points out, there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to making a decision about which new technology to use. [See related story.]
A variety of technologies are emerging that apply different strategies for charging these on-board batteries. Some use intermittent overhead wires or underground induction systems, while others use variations of charging stations at station stops. This technology can also address additional benefits such as voltage sag, power quality, and braking energy recapture similarly to wayside storage.
The key reasoning behind using this technology is aesthetics: the desire to run vehicles in transit corridors visually sensitive to the presence of overhead collector wires that are typically found in streetcar and light rail operations.
Smatlak pointed out that what works on a short, flat line in one part of the country may not work at all in a longer, hilly line. Additional issues or challenges concerning the use of this application include the added weight and size of batteries, the long-term life of operation, potential safety implications, and battery efficiency and capacity for such heavy demand loads as air conditioning and stop-and-go in urban settings.
While experts and system CEOs are enthused about this technological advance, Smatlak cautioned: “We have to present a balanced view of the benefits—and risks.”
Fare collection for transit agencies represents perhaps one of the most important applications for new technologies. Several public transportation systems are pursuing “open payment” technology that lets customers pay to ride by using a personal credit or debit card, which in turn makes travel easier. “This removes barriers to understanding complex fares for visitors and locals alike,” said Jane Matsumoto, deputy executive officer, regional TAP operation, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority [see related story].
This is also a huge opportunity for payment providers, such as banks and mobile phone operators, that have been active in promoting transit payment solutions, Matsumoto said. “It will be the challenge going forward to settle on one or a series of mobile phone architectures that truly provide payment choice for patrons and the benefit of competition to reduce transaction costs for transit agencies. Mobile may be the best technology to disrupt the usual payment environment while offering real advantages to public transit,” she added.
Nearly every APTA member contacted for this overview talked about the sea change in communication from systems to riders and back again. While all kinds of technologies are being used, the one that leads them all is smart phones.
“In a culture where information is literally at our fingertips on demand, we’ve got to plug into that,” said John M. Lewis Jr., chief executive officer, LYNX-Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority, Orlando, FL. “How do we push the maximum amount of information out to our public so they can make informed decisions?”
Matsumoto noted: “The emergence of smart phones may not only change transit, but change the world in how we shop, communicate, exchange services, receive detailed walking directions within a building, or pay for a Coke using any number of payment media beyond the simple credit or debit card. Struggling to pull out cash on buses, having exact change, will all be a thing of the past.”
“Technology allows us to instantly communicate with our passengers,” said Paul Jablonski, chief executive officer, San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. “We can provide real-time arrival information immediately with texting and smart phone applications. We can send out travel alerts. This technology allows us to overcome one of the biggest challenges in attracting new riders: providing to them an easy way to know when their bus or trolley will arrive.”
“It’s probably one of the efficient and effective tools that we have to operate our business,” said Mary Ann Collier, director of operations, Swayzer Engineering Inc., and chair of APTA’s Human Resources Committee, “whether it’s from bus/rail operations or the human resources aspect. It’s vital in all of those areas. Today we can do much more, much more quickly, as a result of access to information technology.”
Calling the flow of instant communication “hugely valuable,” Jeff Hamm, executive director/CEO, Clark County Public Transportation Benefit Area Authority, Vancouver, WA, added: “It’s increasing ridership, increasing customer satisfaction, and reducing the anxiety of waiting for the bus.” Moreover, he said, it provides riders with “some certainty about the reliance of public transportation.”
Technology, said Sue A. Stewart, safety and health administrator, King County DOT/Metro Transit, Seattle, and vice chair, APTA Bus Safety Committee, “helps us to work smarter but not harder in so many different ways. It helps our operators to work smarter, it helps our customers to get more information—and overall, it helps our agencies to provide a lean, functioning agency for the taxpayer and the consumer.”
Public transit, said LYNX’s Lewis, “needs to think of itself no different from any other commodity or service: people are exercising their choice based on a specific return. Whether it’s money, time, related quality of life, efficiency—whatever that touch point is for individuals, they are making choices based on that criteria. We’ve got to find a way to connect, and I think technology helps us bridge that gap.”
Martin Schroeder, APTA chief engineer, contributed to this story.