Lead, Follow Or Get out of the Way
In the early 1990’s, the US automobile industry was in a bad place. Sales had fallen to levels not seen in a decade. Quality, fit and finish all were below up and coming manufacturers like Toyota and Honda. Enough was enough, it was time for America to take its treasured business back. This required a top-down and bottom-up rethinking of every aspect of operation, labor management, manufacturing, and a re-focusing on the end user. Lee Iacocca famously said in a 1992 Chrysler ad, that the US Industry must Lead. Follow. Or Get out of the Way.
For public transportation, it is time to take our industry back and engage startups and technology providers to improve our product rather than following their lead.
Transit is the engine that moves the economy. We get people to their jobs, school, reduce the burden on an already taxed infrastructure etc.... If that’s too altruistic for you and capitalism is your thing, it has been proven that developers can charge more for office space in transit developed cities.
This is the real question. Modern cities and commutes are not designed for the typical mass transit fixed route network. Transit needs to evolve. For this to happen, we need three key things:
User data – 50 minutes is the typical transit commute. This is a critical period to collect data on travel habits, and even crowd source on-time information. Here’s the issue. Our industry doesn’t know how to capture the critical data to improve users’ lives during the time they are using our services. Let’s look at it another way: Facebook users in the US spend almost 50 minutes per day on the website. So, it is fair to say that Transit has the same user engagement as one of the world’s biggest websites. Let’s throw another wrinkle into this discussion; Facebook’s key metric is Average Revenue Per User – which at last count was $12.43 in the US. So I guess we all agree that an agency that carries 1 million people per year gets $12.4m of revenue from these passengers right? Hardly. Facebook knows its customers’ habits, how they use the site and even other sites that allow facebook login. Even if Facebook doesn’t truly have a commercial product they are able to make money through their user data. Like with GTFS, agencies should employ tools and analytics to better get to know their customers. After all, in those 50 minutes per day we can learn a heck of a lot.
Operations Data – Who else is tired of hearing “We need a big data platform that is hosted in the cloud”? Will this solve all your problems, maybe? The reality is that data is one of the areas where transit and transportation in general has access to copious amount of data, but it’s underutilized at best, and due to the size, quantity and complexity, completely disregarded at worst. Start with GTFS. No, GTFS isn’t what a really bad wheel of fortune player selects as her letters on the final puzzle. Agencies simply use GTFS and a file structure to upload their data to Google Maps which just brushes the surface of what is possible with this readily available data. The key is finding a tool that can quickly analyze GTFS, and give agencies real actionable intelligence to improve their system.
New on-demand modes – What does this mean other than word soup? Well, when we know our operations, and we know our users, we can engage them in co-creating solutions. This concept of “C2B” that I firmly believe in rings true in transit more than anything else. Customers provide data, agencies use this data to provide products that match the needs of their users. It is not that simple, to create new modes takes time, money, etc. But, there are a slew of technologies out there now that allow agencies to provide on-demand solutions for riders that make their systems attractive.
How about “now”? It is our time in the transit industry to lead. We have followed or gotten out of the way for too long. But, we must lead not in the typical monopolistic way of the past, rather in cooperation and conjunction with new methods of operation focusing on reducing cost and improving the customer experience.