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Pace Focuses on Core Values; Service, Partnerships, Technology Keys to Success
BY WILLIAM MARONI
Public transportation general managers know it and so do riders: The long-term viability of a public transit system depends on its ability to innovate, especially now, given today’s increasing demands and shrinking budgets.
The quiet, tree-lined streets of a well-established suburb might not be the place one would expect to find innovative public transportation. But Arlington Heights, IL is more than a bedroom community bordering Chicago’s big-city bustle; it’s home to Pace, among the nation’s many successful suburban bus agencies.
Pace, the Suburban Bus Division of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), operates a major fixed route system and paratransit service that annually provides about 40 million rides, generates more than $72 million in revenue, has an operating budget of $214.8 million (suburban service) and $160.1 million (paratransit), and a capital budget of $57.3 million.
It employs 1,653 persons, manages 12 facilities, and serves 3,446 square miles—an area larger than Delaware and about 15 times the size of Chicago—with 199 fixed bus routes. Its fleet of nearly 2,700 agency- and contractor-owned vehicles covers 284 municipalities in six counties—suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will. This means Pace’s customers live and work in communities that range from densely populated urban areas to diverse suburban neighborhoods to rural parts of northeastern Illinois.
“We have to be innovative because we don’t have just one central business district to serve like many suburban systems,” says Thomas J. Ross (known as T.J.), Pace’s executive director. “To be successful, we need to be many things to many constituencies.”
One of those things is a lifeline for people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Because Pace has long been recognized as a leader in providing efficient, quality benefits to this population in the suburbs, the Illinois State Legislature in 2006 transferred responsibility for all of Chicago’s ADA services to it from the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). The move made sense for everyone: A single system for the region provided economies of scale.
Pace improved efficiency by expanding the number of shared rides, increasing vehicle utilization rates, and computerizing the dispatching system.
Ingredients for Innovation
Pace has pioneered many public transit advances, from single-card passes that allow access to all of its services to hybrid buses to reduce pollution to the use of controlled traffic-signals for shorter travel times along arterial routes.
What sets the agency apart—and makes it a leader—is how it drives innovation with partnerships, technology, and a commitment to deliver specialized services. Making this formula work, say Pace officials, requires a continuous focus on improving performance, reducing costs, and anticipating what customers want—or will want.
Partnerships. “Partnerships are paramount to our success,” says Richard Kwasneski, chairman of the Pace Board of Directors. “Given our wide geographical area and the distinct types of riders we serve, we need to collaborate across boundaries with government officials, private employers, schools, and riders,” he adds.
An example of Pace’s successful partnerships can be seen in its Vanpool Incentive Program, which provides passenger vans to small groups of five to 15 people traveling to and from their jobs and employer-based workshops.
“Employers and employees in our less densely populated communities didn’t have access to our fixed-route bus service,” explains Kwasneski. “We needed to create an affordable, flexible solution across counties.”
The initial challenge was to identify the right decision-makers among various employers and local townships. In many cases that meant forging partnerships among business owners, economic development officials, mayors, and neighborhood groups—most of whom had never collaborated.
Using federal capital funds and competitive grants, Pace secured a fleet of vans. The monthly fare charged to each participant is based on the number of riders and the average daily distance traveled. The fare covers Pace’s operating costs, fuel, insurance, and maintenance. In return, drivers receive up to 300 miles of personal use of the van each month.
Today, Pace’s vanpool program is the second largest in the country, serving riders in a cost-effective way while maintaining flexibility for the customer. A website offers commuters the ability to create a profile and gather information on others with similar travel patterns to form carpools or vanpools.
In addition to vanpools, the agency collaborates with private and public organizations on other demand-response services, including dozens of private and municipal providers to operate curb-to-curb service for older riders and persons with disabilities.
To keep performance high and costs low, the agency solicits competitive bids for more than 80 contracts, monitors its partners’ performance in real time, and retains the flexibility to use multiple vendors. None of these innovations would be possible without Pace’s centralized computer system.
Technology. Pace doesn’t simply use technology; it embraces it to ensure safety, on-time performance, and efficiency. For Ross, an engineer by training and by nature, it’s all about continuous improvement for the public transit agency and society.
The Intelligent Bus System (IBS), a satellite-based communications technology, helps Pace track buses, collect and analyze data, and communicate with its drivers and passengers. Completed in 2005, IBS has improved routing and scheduling because data are continuously generated on ridership levels and route efficiency.
The system collects data in quantities that until now were cost-prohibitive, leading to service improvements throughout the region. As a result, Pace managers are able to make better informed and more timely decisions for daily service and emergencies.
“We track the location of each bus,” Ross notes. “If an emergency occurs, dispatchers receive an immediate alert with information for first responders, including the correct police or fire jurisdiction and the vehicle’s precise GPS position.” With 284 communities under Pace’s jurisdiction, this is essential.
The IBS never stops looking for solutions and efficiencies because it monitors every bus’s performance every 30 seconds. Having that much data available in a complete matrix is a new tool that has become an essential asset. Pace managers can literally see where delays occur, measure service during long segments of a trip, and make adjustments in schedules and routes.
Access to “big data” is the foundation of fact-based decision-making; Ross knows it can prevent accidents. “Not having accidents is ‘free money’,” he says. “When we can see, store, and analyze any unusual movements by one of our vehicles, we’re able to help our drivers avoid accidents … and that has helped reduce our liability expenses by 50 percent.”
When an accident does occur, Pace has accurate data and pictures of the incident, which enabled the agency to avoid $5 million in unfounded lawsuits last year—funds that can serve more customers and expand rider service.
As Kwasneski says, “We don’t always know how our region will change, but we know it will change. New technology not only allows us to stay ahead of change in our region, but increasingly it’s going to drive major changes in our industry.”
It’s already happening: Pace used new data on passenger capacity, fuel, operating costs, and trip speed when it substituted smaller 30-foot and 35-foot buses for some of its 40-foot buses. The result: faster routes, lower costs, and a better match between vehicles and riders’ needs.
Commitment to Service. Pace’s leaders says that accessibility has always been a hallmark of the agency’s service. No one would argue with that statement, but it’s the agency’s enduring commitment to deliver “what’s next” that is integral to its innovation.
“When we see a need, it’s always better to take the initiative rather than wait for a crisis or a government mandate,” Ross says. “Keeping up with what’s happening in 284 municipalities is a good way to stay focused on what customers want.”
One of the things customers want is a quick commute, free of rush-hour delays. So Pace launched its “bus on shoulder” pilot project, which allows buses to use shoulder lanes to bypass slower traffic. Project development meant finding solutions to political and practical challenges, from jurisdictional responsibilities to engineering and public safety considerations.
Today, shoulder riding is on the verge of becoming a permanent part of Pace’s services. The practice has reduced travel times, improved on-time performance to 95 percent, and increased the appeal of public transportation for people who used to commute by car. With more than 1,000 daily riders, Pace recently purchased new coaches—complete with Wi-Fi and comfortable amenities—that it hopes will expand the service to other major thoroughfares into downtown Chicago and other major employment centers.
The pilot’s success owes much to Pace’s experience with partnerships and technical problem solving. But as with many of the agency’s achievements, it was the commitment to deliver a needed service that drove the project. Speaking about this and other Pace initiatives, Ross said, “Our customers wanted these services and we wanted to find a way to provide them.”
If innovation starts with seeing future trends before others, Pace has three key advantages.
First, Pace is governed by a 13-member board composed of past and present suburban mayors, including Kwasneski, and the commissioner of the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. These are individuals who have built their careers on understanding the needs of the public. As a result, Pace’s employees know how to respond positively when the board challenges the agency to deliver the services people want.
Second, Pace maintains a 10-member Citizens Advisory Board, a working group of representatives from their service region. These are individuals who not only know public transit, but also have strong relationships with local municipalities, civic groups, and the business community. The group members share expertise, seek each other’s advice, and work as a team. It also helps forge new partnerships and provides early guidance for short- and long-term needs across the six counties, Ross says.
Finally, there is Ross’ leadership. As a young engineering student in the 1960s, he foresaw the challenges that awaited an automobile-dependent society while his peers were captivated by Detroit’s latest models.
“We knew the popularity of the automobile would increase air pollution and lead to more deaths on American roads,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in finding safer, cleaner, affordable ways to give people the mobility and freedom they seek.”
What are Pace’s challenges for the future?
Since the agency was established in 1984, the region it serves has increased in population to more than 5.2 million. By 2020, the populations of all six counties are expected to experience significant growth—some counties will experience double- and triple-digit growth.
To prepare, Pace has launched Vision 2020, a plan to identify and meet the changing needs of residents and businesses.
The objective is to create a network of services that allows every person to have easy, affordable access to their destinations of choice—work, family and friends, health care, entertainment, or community events. This is likely to involve infrastructure improvements in the suburbs and new express routes on major roadways that will connect with smaller, community-based services at regional and community transportation centers. Development of the Vision 2020 plan involved Pace leaders holding meetings throughout the six-county region to learn about the public’s priorities.
While his staff solicits views from the community about the agency’s future, Ross is thinking about succession planning. He believes that public transit agencies are finding it more difficult to train and prepare the next generation of public transportation leaders.
“Our industry is changing so quickly, I worry that the managers who follow us won’t have the same opportunities we did to gain broad experience, make mistakes, and learn a variety of skills,” he says.
In this regard, he points to the benefits of being surrounded by a senior staff of public transit veterans who have been with Pace for 20, 30, and even 40 years. (Ross, who is only Pace’s second executive director, has been in his role for more than 16 years.) At the same time, he recognizes the importance of investing in new leaders and avoiding silos.
Part of the solution could lie in another of his priorities: Collecting the right information and making it available to encourage fact-based decision-making. For an agency that makes “accessibility” its mission, access to the best information may be the next milestone. Ross says that better data could help public transportation contribute in even more meaningful and timely ways to the debate on climate change and other transit-related issues.
Kwasneski offers this perspective: “Don’t be afraid to collaborate, reach out to other organizations, or brainstorm a problem with agencies throughout the country,” he advises. “Being a suburban transit system in a major metropolitan area, it’s easy to be overlooked. Pace has shown its work is important to the larger world.”
William Maroni is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He specializes in public transportation, international business strategy, trade, and labor and workplace issues.
A dispatcher at Pace's North Shore Division in Evanston monitors the location and other information for each bus in the system. In the event of an emergency, the system provides the dispatcher with information to facilitate communications with first responders.
Pace Practices: A Blueprint for Progress
Commit to Continuous Improvement: Continuous improvements, even those that are incremental, have strengthened Pace’s ability to control its future.
Partner with Diverse Stakeholders: There are no competitors, only potential allies. How can your partnerships enrich your view of other organizations in your community?
Learn What Others Are Doing and Why: Innovative ideas and programs are blossoming from coast to coast, as well as overseas. The industry is rife with experts and resources. Connect, network, and share.
Welcome Technology: No organization or industry can succeed with yesterday’s knowledge or tools. Embrace the technologies that are already giving public transit agencies a competitive advantage.
Push Your Board to Push You: Pace’s board serves as a barometer for communities’ future needs, an advocate for programs and partnerships, and a catalyst to raise questions (and expectations) that no one else could.
Tap into the Future: Listen to what forward-looking experts from transportation, engineering, business, science, public policy, and culture are saying about your future.
Cut Costs; Preserve Service: As Pace discovered new tools and practices to cut costs, none impacted service and access.
Advocate for Yourself: Demand the respect and recognition your system deserves, especially in the company of larger, better-funded organizations. When your agency leads, other organizations will follow.
Technology at Work for Safety
Pace, which recently won APTA’s 2014 Gold Award for Safety for bus systems with 20 million or more passenger trips, has also put technology to work in its comprehensive coaching, safety, and training program for bus operators and maintenance staff.
The program uses DriveCam, a G-force based event recorder, on fixed-route buses to help identify the causes of collisions and correct unsafe driving behaviors. Supervisors use the footage and other information to coach drivers toward corrective action to reduce or eliminate repeat occurrences.
In 2013, preventable accidents were 7.5 percent lower, the number of “coachable events” decreased by about 61 percent, and the agency saw a 25 percent decrease in liability costs, among other improvements.
To learn more, watch Pace’s video here.