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Left Behind--The Wave of Disruptive Technology


As disruptive technology continues to emerge and impact public transportation over the next few years, public transit executives must not hold on to the systems of the past or they will be left behind. It is becoming clear that the public transportation industry will experience more technology-driven changes in the coming decade than almost any other field. Will elected officials, board members, and environmental and transit advocates allow their transit systems to adapt and remain relevant in this new competitive mobility model?

The last two centuries had their corollaries regarding new inventions speeding past engrained technologies faster than some could adapt. In the late 19th century, Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light bulb and its adaption for city street lights dramatically reduced the market demand for gas and whale oil.  The large, integrated system of oil producers, suppliers, middlemen, and distribution companies was reduced to rubble almost overnight.  

Then, in the late 20th century, cellular telephone technology spilled out across the world. Learning from the mistakes of utilities past, many telecoms fearlessly skipped over the costly step of installing copper wire or fiber optic cables for telephone service in the developing countries of Asia and Africa (as had been done in countries such as the U.S. and in Western Europe). Instead, they simply put up cell towers to get nationwide telephone service to these countries.

While I served as CEO of the MTA in Baltimore, we confronted low on-time performance (OTP) on our bus system. A primary factor was that too many passengers relied on day passes purchased at the farebox. It took 30 seconds for a bus driver to punch in the required info and print out a paper day pass from the farebox. This process added over 56,000 lost hours of route productivity annually and slowed our entire system down because there were thousands of passengers using this payment option. Further investigation revealed that only 3 percent of passengers utilized our branded loyalty smart card—the Charm Card—with fares pre-loaded off the bus. We saw this as possible low hanging fruit in our multi-pronged approach to improve bus OTP and decided to quickly move forward on improving the market penetration of our Charm Card. One way to do this was to expand our point of sale (POS) network. We began a POS retail consignment expansion program and, combined with other efforts, quickly grew our Charm Card usage to more than 15 percent of our 250,000 daily bus riders.  

All that changed one day in early 2017 when I visited with Shashi Verma, chief technology officer of Transport for London (TfL), who showed me his latest transit fare paying initiative of contactless payments. Contactless payments use regular credit cards to pay for fares as they are tapped on readers at the Tube (subway) gate or farebox. Within months, 40 percent of TfL’s hundreds of thousands of daily passengers had switched to this new contactless fare paying methodology. Upon further research, I became convinced contactless, along with mobile phone electronic fare paying, was the future and what we needed to pursue.

When I returned to Baltimore, we ceased activities expanding the old smart card technology. I didn’t want us investing tens of thousands of dollars into today’s technology when it would be obsolete as soon as it was installed. We soon issued an RFP for mobile ticketing.

This is the lesson that our transit industry needs to learn: Technology and mobility innovation are moving so fast that they are outpacing our burdensome, labyrinthine government decision making processes. Think about the innovations right now challenging your past monopoly as a public transportation provider in your city:

* Transportation Networking Companies (e.g. Lyft)
* Autonomous vehicles (driverless cars and shuttle buses)
* Mobility as a Service (MaaS, with monthly subscription or a la carte payment for all public and private transportation/mobility options in a city)
* Car sharing (private shared cars like ZIP car)
* Crowd sourced transportation services (pop up mass transit-style services)
* Hyperloop (tube-based high-speed transport)

These disruptive new technologies have the potential to alter the transit landscape dramatically.

So, has Hyperloop technology overtaken maglev trains as the best option? How about autonomous shuttles? With live, mixed-traffic service now underway in Las Vegas and other cities around the world, when will these driverless shuttles begin to lower the cost of providing public transportation so much that it challenges traditional public bus and rail? If Google’s WAYMO driverless minivans or another TNC’s autonomous sedans finish testing in early 2018 and go live soon thereafter, will the cost of getting a private, driverless sedan to pick you up at your door upon demand soon rival that of the public bus? Will the convenience of this service outweigh the traditional public transit model where you have to walk two blocks to catch the bus at a time not of your choosing?  

Within a few years, the era of a monopolistic, taxpayer subsidized, utility style public transit agency providing all the public transportation in a city/region will be over.

These technology-driven, largely private sector innovations to mobility will challenge our traditional model of public transportation and allow consumers a real choice for the first time.  Have these coming realities sunk into the decision making matrixes of our public transit industry?

If we don’t want to be overtaken by these new and disruptive technologies, we need to put up our sails and catch the winds of change that are blowing.

Paul Comfort, Esq., is vice president, business development, at Trapeze Group, a company that creates, delivers and supports software solutions and services for transportation agencies. Prior, he served as CEO and GM of MTA Maryland.

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"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation. 
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