Business Monday

Intelligent technology will change how we use mass transit

Mitch Bierman is a partner with law firm Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman.
Mitch Bierman is a partner with law firm Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman.

Imagine finding the fastest way to get from your home to your destination using buses, commuter rail and people-movers, track them all in real time and purchase an e-ticket all on your cellphone from wherever you are. Imagine doing that and receiving vouchers for discounts at nearby stores and restaurants pushed to your device. As they say, “there’s an app for that!”

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) have arrived. Mobile apps and wayside signage now provide real-time data on the location and progress of buses, trains, trolleys and street cars. Passengers have access to real-time information on usage and delays and up-to-the-minute details on the best routes on their smart phones and tablets. They make public transportation more user friendly, predictable and efficient.

South Florida will benefit tremendously from upgrading its transit technology. Use of public transportation is certainly on the rise, but there is room for major growth. Soon traffic frustration caused by congestion and delays will approach those faced by residents of Los Angeles and other infamous examples. Many South Floridians already commute of 90-120 minutes and spend $50-$100 a week on tolls. ITS provides some measure of hope. The emergence of smart technology for transit options like Metrobus, MetroRail, MetroMover, TriRail and even All Aboard Florida could lure more riders as public transit becomes more convenient because passengers know when the ride will arrive, when and where the tightest connections are, when they need a route change and how much the fare will cost. Passengers can also board vehicles faster when they pay their fares on their devices.

Chicago, New York, London and other major metro markets have turned the convergence of big data (large stores of digital information), and smart technology into powerfully intelligent solutions for their mass transit riders.

The Chicago Transit Authority’s smart phone app is the second most popular such app in the city, after its public schools website. Using Real-Time Passenger Information (RTPI), live data is streamed to apps or public display terminals to report when the next train will arrive — not just when it’s scheduled to arrive. Users avoid long outdoor waits in the Chicago winter, staying in nearby coffee shops until their devices alert them that the next bus or train is about to arrive.

Tourists and locals alike can use the app to find the best route — including connections or transfers — to a given destination. Once on board, users can swipe their smart phones to pay fares or have fares debited from existing accounts.

Consumers won’t be the only winners. For the transit agency, ITS delivers vast improvements. The emergence of big data allows public and private mass transit providers to capture and analyze vehicle or rider trends to deliver more effective solutions. Maintenance departments have access to diagnostic data as every major mechanical subsystem on the vehicle is monitored in real time. Vehicles can be serviced before they break down, avoiding major service disruptions that significantly inconvenience the passengers.

By linking unprecedented amounts of data from buses, trains, GPS transponders and even cameras, dispatchers can reroute vehicles around trouble spots, track user statistics and payment trends, even monitor vehicle status and alert the garage regarding maintenance issues.

Moreover, computers can track and log driver acceleration, deceleration and general performance. So, if a bus or train is in an accident and someone makes a claim, for example, investigators can establish how fast the vehicle was traveling or how long it took to brake. This can help determine the validity of a claim or defend against it in court.

Such tools have other applications that cross transportation modalities. A mass-transit app can provide information to private car drivers about available parking and allow them to reserve and pay for a parking space at a park-and-ride facility and then conveniently ride and transfer across multiple modes of public transit. The system can determine when lots are full and steer users to other destinations. Miami-Dade Transit is currently implementing an ITS system for its bus and MetroRail service designed by Clever Devices of New York. Other counties are also exploring solutions. But to make them work effectively across a multi-jurisdiction region stretching from Miami-Dade through Broward to Palm Beach counties and even the Orlando area with the planned launch of All Aboard Florida, city and county leaders will have to choose solutions that integrate seamlessly together.

Just as we see more vehicle toll solutions accepted across state lines, eventually ITS for mass transit will be a ubiquitous solution. One smart phone app might open the door to public transportation, routing maps and fare payments around town and across the country.

ITS will provide analytic data and solutions that will make transit faster, safer and more efficient by putting everything literally right in the rider’s hand.

Mitch Bierman is a partner with law firm Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman. He focuses his practice on government affairs and public/private transactions, with an emphasis on public transportation and airports. He currently chairs the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Transportation Committee.