A New World, How Public Transit is Preparing for the Future

Kimberly J. Williams, J.D., Chief Innovation Officer, Houston METRO
Kimberly J. Williams, J.D., Chief Innovation Officer, Houston METRO

Kimberly J. Williams, J.D., Chief Innovation Officer, Houston METRO

Today, disruption exists in every industry and public transportation is no exception. Just a short 10 years ago, people didn’t use “Uber” as a verb, Lyft didn’t exist and a shared-ride meant 55 people on a bus, not 2-3 people in a car. But the world has shifted immensely over the last decade. While comfortably co-existing with personal vehicles and taxicabs for so many years, no one predicted that customers would start jumping into cars with a face only known through a mobile app. If such a thing even existed at that time. But here we are and how are public transportation agencies responding? Admittedly at first denial and then with resistance. But that’s changed as public transportation has learned to embrace innovation and smart city approaches.

  Transit agencies view innovation as an opportunity to highlight the critical role it plays in bringing a better quality of life through connections to work, life and play 

As customers demand more control over their trip, they expect to see it in every aspect of travel, whether its paying for fare with their mobile phones to tracking their trip in real time. And transit agencies are responding and stepping up to the challenge. The response has manifested in several new ways. First with people. In addition to listings for planners and schedulers, an increasing new set of positions are being embraced. Chief Innovation Officers and data scientists to name a few. Also important are robust training programs to bridge the skill sets of veteran employees to new technology and best practices. This is critical to keeping veteran employees engaged as the marketplace changes around them and attracting entry-level employees who have come of age during the technological revolution.

The next is a more wide-ranging strategic planning process. Transit agencies are known for doing transit plans that determine where service should be instituted or enhanced. But today’s strategic planning focus is shifting to a more philosophical approach, looking beyond just routes and destinations to the question of whether the plan is customer centric or focused on providing a “complete trip”. A concept that envisions a seamless trip from beginning to end from fare payment to multi-modal travel in one trip. More profoundly, agencies are taking a hard look at how they define and see themselves. Are they simply transit providers or are they moving to being mobility managers facilitating all travel modes toward providing a “complete trip.” This decision is important because it guides the agencies direction of people, resources and programs.

Thirdly, new approaches to the procurement and contracting process are ushering in innovation at a faster pace. Whether it be unsolicited proposal programs or public private partnerships, agencies seek to become nimbler in responding to ever-changing customer expectations. Particularly their exposure to the capability and functionality of travel modes offered by the public sector. This is reflected in the growing partnerships between the public and private sector. Public private partnerships are seen as essential to delivering large infrastructure projects as well as deploying emerging technology.

Policy considerations have earned greater attention as agencies look to issues around data privacy and protection to data management. Other new areas include cybersecurity. All have received greater attention in recent years as more software as a service models are being implemented.

With all this said, it is important that with innovation and new technology to never lose sight of why we’re here, the customer. Equity and access need to be at the forefront of our efforts. That includes being thoughtful about land use, particularly technology for all and areas that affect underserved communities. It can range from ensuring these more responsive and convenient services are in diverse areas to highlighting connections to blue collar jobs and affordable housing.

With these things in mind, transit agencies view innovation as an opportunity to highlight the critical role it plays in bringing a better quality of life through connections to work, life and play.

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