Smart Transportation is About More than Wires and Chips

On his very first day as Chairman & CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Jay Walder demanded that the agency's web site be overhauled with customers in mind — emphasizing directions and real-time schedule information. He had put money for electronic "countdown" signs into the MTA's capital budget in 1993, during his previous tour with the agency. Later, as Transport for London's head of finance and planning, he was instrumental in introducing the "Oyster card," the popular contactless fare smartcard valid on London's various public transportation modes: the Underground, buses, trams, overground commuter rail, and TFL-contracted river boat services.

Public transportation in the New York region desperately needs the technologies Walder is highlighting. In the information age, smartphone-toting riders rightfully expect accurate, immediate information about their trips. Century-old signal and electrical installations go begging for replacement parts, as vendors abandon manufacture of products obsolete everywhere else in the world. Electronic systems can run trains more frequently, speed buses through lights turned green just for them, and enable drivers to pay tolls without slowing down.

But the hard truth is that spiffy new computers and sophisticated software are not enough to deliver service efficiently and well. An organization can throw all the best technology in the world at a problem, but if its people and culture are not in sync with the hoped-for functionality and service, technology won't fix the situation. As attention is focused on upgrading hardware and wireless technologies, it's important to remember that changing the soft infrastructure of bureaucratic organization is at least as important.

Walder knows that the MTA's culture and organizational structure must change as well, observing in his first-100-days report, Making Every Dollar Count, that the "MTA is essentially the product of a merger among several companies, but it never took the first step that is always taken by management in any private sector merger — eliminating redundancy by taking the best from each asset and using those building blocks to transform the newly merged company." Yet Every Dollar doesn't grapple with the silos and redundancies within each of those companies — where historic rivalries and separate hierarchies result in poor service as well as wasted money.

Why doesn't the station agent (aka token booth clerk) know about line disruptions affecting the station? Why doesn't the conductor know anything about the PA announcement customers on the platform just heard? Because train crews and station personnel are in completely different chains of command, with separate command centers. Traditionally, a train operator or conductor has reported a problem (stuck door, sick passenger, smoke in tunnel) by radio to the management hierarchy in the rail command center. In many cases, the supervisor there must alert the power control center to shut off the third rail. But it simply has not been standard operating procedure to inform the stations' command center that an incident could be relevant to customers waiting for a train.

Yes, the right information could be broadcast on electronic signs. But even a whiteboard would do — if the procedures and expectations were in place to ensure that human beings communicated with each other with existing technologies. Like established radio systems. Or corded telephones. Moreover, having the electronic signs in place doesn't guarantee that they'll display the right information. People have to figure out what to tell the signs to show — whether they're typing incident news in as it happens, or designing the software that routes it automatically from onboard the train.

The situation has been even worse for bus riders. Automated bus location has been tested over and over again since the mid-1990s, to no avail. In its early days, GPS really wasn't up to the job in the canyons of Manhattan. So New York City Transit required that companies competing to provide the system include a secondary locator technology to supplement GPS. The preferred solution counted rotations of the bus wheel. It required a device to be installed on the wheel. The bus mechanics' union refused to service wheels with the device. The pilot failed.

From the start, NYCT's bus locator was envisioned as an upgrade to the bus department's sophisticated radio system, so it was managed by radio engineers. By the late 1990s, more flexible, less expensive communications technologies — like cellphones — were available to all. But there was no way within NYCT's management and contracting structure to reconceive the locator pilot as something other than a radio-engineering project. So it got immensely more costly. And ultimately failed again. NYCT and New York City's Department of Transportation are now working together to test a new solution along Manhattan's 34th Street.

Riders rightly want bus arrival signs. But the true value of an effective locator system is in getting real-time information to dispatchers, who can use it to reroute buses to optimize service. Dismantling the union work rules and management silos that have impeded this project for over a decade is key to Walder's goal of improving service significantly enough to promote bus transit as a peer to rail in the MTA region.

Walder's signature technology project is a local version of the Oyster card. This year the MTA, New Jersey Transit, and the Port Authority will partner to pilot a fare smartcard usable across rapid transit, bus and commuter rail services throughout the region. There will be technological difficulties to overcome — but even more challenging will be the interagency rivalries and contradictory union contracts and work rules. Uber-consolidated Transport for London had authority over all the players in the London transportation universe. Here, Jay Walder will have to use power, persuasion and passion to propel New York into his smart new world.