What’s on the Minds of the Leaders of the World’s Top Mass Transit Agencies?

In 2012, Regional Plan Association brought together the chief executives of public- transportation agencies from New York, Los Angeles, São Paulo, London, Hong Kong and seven other world cities for a candid, off-the-record dialogue. What strategies and technologies are transit executives adopting to improve their systems? What obstacles do they face?


Introduction by Gordon Feller

You ask an average mayor what’s their biggest concern. It’s moving people around the city efficiently, productively, and inexpensively. We thought it would be a good idea to have the director of special initiatives from the Regional Plan Association here with us from New York to give us a view of what’s on the minds of those people who lead the mass transit services in the world’s great cities. What you don’t know about the Regional Plan Association is it’s nearly 100 years old. They are, by far, one of the great planning institutions in the world but they’re the civic planning institution, which is to say they’re not the planners that are being paid by the city or the county or the states of New York or New Jersey or Connecticut which is their tri-state focus. They are the civic planners who are bringing the voice of a different type to the planning dialogue. As you may know and I hope you do, this event was not organized by Cisco or Toyota the lead sponsor or any of the other sponsors. It’s actually organized by the Regional Plan Association staff. With that in mind, let me introduce you to Juliette Michaelson from the Regional Plan Association to give us a glimpse of what’s on the minds of the great cities and their urban transit leaders. Thanks, Juliette.

Juliette Michaelson

Good morning. Vicente offered for me a perfect segue when he started talking about the city exchanges that Barcelona engages in because this is exactly what we had in mind when we put together the Transit Leadership Summit. The Transit Leadership Summit is a series of events that will take place over the next 3 years. One happened last year and 2 more to come. The concept is to get together the CEOs of the world’s most innovative transit agencies in a small group setting, off-the-record so they can have candid discussions of their biggest challenges and receive advice from the other transit agencies of what might have worked in their cities and see if they apply. In order to be as candid as possible, we limited the group to 30; it was a very intimate group. The beauty, of course, is that these agencies are not competing with each other. They are operating on completely different continents in many cases, certainly different countries. In fact, they were peers so they were really the best source of advice for each other. That also encouraged them to be as frank as possible with each other and they were.

Over the course of 3 days, we learned a lot of very exciting innovations happening and I’m just going to go over a few of them here. The first is in analytics. We talked about this yesterday. I’d like to focus on Singapore which is one of the cities that came to the Summit because they have really taken this concept the farthest. They have learned to analyze over the last several years the data collected at the turnstiles from their smart cards, from their tap-and-go cards. They use it to describe, predict, and even improve their transit operations. Singapore, I should say, is a city that is growing very, very fast. Their GDP has doubled the last 10 years. Their population has grown 25%. Their transit demand is going through the roof. The reason that they’ve put so much effort into analyzing this data is simply because they have tried other more traditional crowd management strategies −having staff in platforms, encouraging employers to allow for more flexible work schedules, having off-peak fare decreases, and so on− still, there was as much congestion as you see in this picture and this picture. It continues to be painfully overcrowded. Fortunately, they’ve had for several years a smart card, a card with a chip that you tap into the system. Because a smart card is associated with only one particular customer and each customer only owns one, that data that is accessible to the transit agency can be analyzed and compiled. You can learn things like how often does the person access the transit system. Is it always at the same time? Is it always at the same station? For systems that have a tap-in and a tap-out like Singapore, San Francisco and any other city whose fare depends on distance or zones, you can also figure out how long it takes from your origin station to the your destination station. Because Singapore’s transit data analysis is so quick −in 15 minutes they can crunch the live data− they can tell immediately if the route is taking longer than usual. Then they have the system to redirect people to other parts of the network. Let’s say the problem is on the Metro, they can redirect people to the redundant system on the bus express line, for example. Also, they control the tolls that they use to control congestion in downtown Singapore. These can be changed to the minute. Again, if the transit system is overly burdened, they can lighten the tolls on the road and vice versa. By the way, they can also use data crunching for long-term planning. As I said, there is so much growth happening on the island that when a new housing development or commercial development gets proposed, they can model that in a very sophisticated way −thanks to all the data that they’ve been collecting all those months and years. The system has worked really well for Singapore. We were surprised to hear that even though many of those cities have access to the same data −in other words, many cities have these smart card systems− very few of them go through the trouble of analyzing. I suppose it’s like what Colin Harrison was talking about yesterday that there are these clouds of data that just exist but are not necessarily analyzed and taken advantage of. These data can also be used in other ways.

Another topic that came up a lot at the Summit is fair equity and fair policy, how to make sure that people of different incomes have access to the transit system. A smart card system, because it’s linked to one particular person, theoretically −I’m not sure that it’s ever been done− allows you to segment the market and charge less those people who could afford less. By the way, this has been done in other areas. In the US, food stamps now are distributed on a debit card system with varying amounts. It’s totally possible to imagine this replicating to the world of transit but I don’t know that it’s been done yet. Several CEOs at this event were intrigued by the idea.

These so-called smart card or contactless cards were adopted by many cities in the last 10 to 15 years. I’d say they’re probably the best that we have right now. New York still doesn’t have it. As Jon Walton pointed out yesterday, they’re still a local currency. If you go to San Francisco, you need to buy San Francisco’s card; if you go to LA, you need to buy LA’s card. This is San Francisco’s and Hong Kong’s, by the way. A few cities are looking to adopt a more universal card and that is simply a bank card, credit card or debit card. Instead of tapping your specially-produced transit card, you would just tap your chip-enabled credit card. For the transit agency, the advantage of this is that they no longer have to produce a special medium for collecting fares. They don’t have to maintain ticket vending machines. They don’t have to have the armored trucks picking up cash. The whole system is cashless. For the customers, the benefit is that you can use the same card no matter where you’re going. You don’t have an additional card to carry in your wallet. I’m happy to say that it looks like London is going to be the first to transition to this system by the end of next year. They’re thinking the whole Tube and bus, I think, is going to be accessible with this bankcard technology. They have already done experiments on certain bus lines during the Olympics and were very successful. Other cities are looking into this, too: Washington DC, Stockholm, and a few others.

Yesterday, we talked about the importance of making data available for the thousands of smart developers who have the passion and the time to turn them into really useful applications for transit customers. We talked about how neat it would be to have like a Google Map that shows you the red parts of the system and the green parts of the system. For transit, I’ve never seen that but some cities, including San Francisco, Montreal, Boston, and others, do make real-time information and data available about the precise location of their buses and trains. Boston released this data about 3 years ago. The transit agency features on its website 53 applications developed by private entities. I’ll just show you 2 of them here. One of them shows where the bus is on a particular line, and the other, the train. They’re still a little crude but you can imagine in the future, we’re going to have prettier, more sophisticated data. Many cities are still not interested in releasing this data. We talked a lot about this. In some cases because these are transit systems, there are security concerns although the cities that have released the data say they’ve never experienced a single incident of terrorism based on the data available. There are also some physical infrastructure complications about how do you get the signal from the train through a very long tunnel if there’s no Wi-Fi in the system, and so on. It is possible. The culture just has to change slowly.

Another topic that we talked a lot about at the Summit was customer service and branding. Hong Kong has hands-down the most developed branding and customer service strategy. We heard all about it and it was just fascinating. They are constantly promoting their system. They’re running TV ads. In fact, I’m going to show them to you. They pay close attention to trying to create an emotional bond between the customers and the transit providers. Let me just play this 1-minute video because it’s so not like what we have in the US. How can you get mad at them? If that wasn’t enough, at the busiest stations they have what they call opinion zones. They have places for customers and transit agency staff to sit down and have coffee, talk, ask questions, talk about how the service can be improved. No one else at the Summit came close to Hong Kong in that area. But other cities did talk about the importance of communicating with their customers. Of course, this new wave of Facebook and Twitter and various online platforms have made it a lot easier for information to go from the agency to the customer and back. Nick Bowden from MindMixer was telling me yesterday the effort that they’re building a website for Washington Metro to get ideas for the long-term future of the Metro system.

I’m just going to go over this quickly because I only have a couple of minutes left. You might be surprised to hear me say that transit agencies are not always the best government entities out there. Just in New York where I live, there are 6 different entities that provide train service. For the most part, there’s very little coordination between them. Santiago, the capital of Chile, has made great strides in this effort to consolidate and organize what had been a disparate and disorganized transit service. Until recently, the government operated a metro system and a few bus lines. For the most part, it was a million small bus companies that provided redundant service, schedules were not coordinated, schedules were not really followed, and the whole thing was a big mess. For years, the government tried to get a handle on this situation. Finally in 2007, the government created a new transit agency called Transantiago. They did not buy, they did not take over all of these lines but they did help them buy buses. They reorganized the routes so that the buses feed into the metro system. It’s just a generally much more comprehensive system. They also issue a common fare card. It’s been hugely successful. There were bumps along the way but it’s now a reliable and better service than before.

The very last urban mobility innovation that we talked about at the Summit is what Susan Zielinski was talking about yesterday. Transit agencies −the most progressive among them anyway and mostly in Europe− are starting to think of themselves not just as a transit agency but as a part of a comprehensive mobility network. London is a great example. Ten years ago, they created one agency Transport for London that controls the Tube, buses, ferries, bikes, the roadway congestion charge, pedestrian spaces, everything and they set out for themselves a clear, comprehensive strategy for how to improve transportation in London as a whole and then specific goals in each area. They have been hugely successful. The congestion charge has really helped shore up finances for the public transit services and has improved them. Traffic has gone down. The sheriff trips taken in a car has gone down 11%. In the world of transportation, that’s phenomenal.

Many American cities have not gotten to this point yet. Why is that? There are many, many exciting innovations to be made. We heard a lot about them in the last couple of days. Transit just takes a long time. Bill Reinert’s panel yesterday was talking about the development and life cycle of cars was so much longer than tech. Well, I’d say the development and life cycle for transit is multiple times than it is for cars. This mismatch is big source of the problem. It’s not just about technology. It’s also about people. I tried to make an equation but I’m not a math person so it’s not going to be as impressive as Matt Grob’s presentation. The point is technology and new ideas are great but you also need the right people, the right places, and the right time. Sometimes, you just have to wait every 10 years for that to happen and that’s frustrating.

Anyway, I’d like to end by saying that I feel very lucky to have access to a group of folks who think and breathe this stuff all the time. We’re going to have 2 more of these Summits this spring and the spring after that. I would love your ideas and input about how you think the transit agency and transit systems could be improved with some of the technologies that we’ve been talking about in the last couple of days and generally, new ideas, and also why they haven’t caught on as fast as they should have been. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Meeting of the Minds is made possible by the generous support of these organizations: