Transit Labs Focus On User Experience Tech

Several cities have launched transit labs with the goal of finding new tech and streamlining P3s for transportation system improvements.

  • New York is mounting a new effort to evaluate how technology can improve transit user experience.
  • Several other cities including Los Angeles, California; Jacksonville, Florida, and Aspen, Colorado already have projects and funding under development including public-private partnerships.
  • Every city has a different take on what innovation looks like but all transportation officials agree better use of new technology will drive transportation systems into the future.

Decades of structural underfunding has left most mass transit in the United States wholly unprepared to deal with an influx of urban residents that expect more sustainable mobility. Some cities, however, are creating innovation labs to improve the transit experience for commuters, and changing thinking around public-private partnerships in the process.

One of the latest is the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA) Transit Tech Lab. The lab was created in October to develop technology that will improve how the transit system functions. The body is also tasked with finding ways of making it easier for private companies to work with large authorities like the MTA.

Shortly after its establishment, the Transit Tech Lab requested that technology companies across the country submit pilot program-ready solutions to lessen delays on busses and subways by November 30. The lab is currently evaluating responses, but notes that a number of potential technologies including sensors, cameras, software and route data analysis could be used to make improvements.

“The future of public transit will determine the future of New York,” Rachel Haot, executive director and former chief digital officer for both New York City and New York State, said in a statement.

“The future of public transit will determine the future of New York,” said Rachel Haot, Executive Director of TIP in a statement on the Transit Tech Lab. 

Technologies chosen by the Lab will go through an eight week ‘refinement’ program with the goal of ending up at a 12-month pilot test of the new tech. The program advisory board includes executives from BlackRock, Blackstone, and Union Square Ventures in addition to transportation executives and policy analysts.  For companies the entire process is unpaid, although MTA says they’ll gain the “experience” of having their solutions evaluated and readied for use in a major city. The potential for larger public-private partnerships as a result of these efforts isn’t clear, but promising pilots could lead to bigger projects.

The focus on improvements to bus service comes as the MTA nears a long-term shut down of the L Line in order to repair train tunnel damage.  Passengers will be redirected to bus service and other train lines as repairs are under way.

Spurring innovation

Other cities such as Denver, Colorado and Jacksonville, Florida have also recently begun taking steps to drive innovative transport initiatives.

Members of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization in November released plans for a 3.2-mile corridor along Bay Street that will connect the city center and a new mixed use area around TIAA Bank Field. The transit system will rely on driverless shuttles that run on a sensor network which will relay real-time information back to the transit authority.

The city is also looking at solar panel-lined sidewalks and roads. Officials are looking at partnering with technology companies in order to leverage new ideas and capabilities during the construction phase. The Transportation Planning Organization also has planned a 2019  “code bash” event that will bring developers together to work on projects for the innovation district.

In the same month, the city of Aspen, Colorado launched a new pilot program that will reward commuters for making sustainable mobility choices.

A new application called Miles will log individual data such as a commuter’s preferred route, mode of transportation, and speed. If a user opts to bike or walk instead of travel by car, the app will reward them with miles that can be redeemed for incentives such as gift cards for local businesses.

The technology and the Miles application are the result of a partnership with HDR Engineering and Aspen’s Shift mobility lab. Shift is a $2.5 million project funded by the city to find ways of encouraging residents and visitors to use mass transit and cut back on car traffic into Aspen.

Notably, Miles has already been used in San Francisco and Sacramento, California.

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