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Role of IT in Enhancing Transit Systems

Lisa Nedley Walton, CTO, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA)

The rapid growth in population and increased urbanization across cities have given rise to a plethora of technical, social, and economic problems, such as traffic congestion, overcrowding, and lack of parking space. The major challenges in the transport industry revolve around ineffective communication systems, accidents and safety, inconsideration of pedestrians and bicycles in the physical design of infrastructures and facilities, and high maintenance cost.

However, during the past several years, the City and County of San Francisco has made significant strides in improving the transportation system. By taking all these challenges as an opportunity, I was able to understand the importance of technology. The adoption of trend setting technologies such as big data and analytics have really helped the city in aggregating real-time accurate data about the traffic demand patterns from diverse systems. Automatic data collection systems including automatic vehicle location systems, automatic passenger counting systems, and electronic ticketing systems are becoming ubiquitous in large transportation systems and are having an impact on the quality and availability of information.

 SFMTA takes transit to the next level by utilizing analytics and algorithms to anticipate traffic impacts such as construction, weather, and upcoming events    

To enhance the efficiency of the transportation system, urban public transportation industry must hire the right people with the right skill set who have a firsthand experience on the latest technology and can manage the entire transport system seamlessly.

Unlike other municipal transport agencies, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which was established in the year 1999, provides four modes of transit (walking, bicycling, taxi and driving) that enable more than one million people to traverse the city each day ensuring safety and reliability. We not only focus on transit side, but also on street side parking, traffic signals, and streets colors and how we manage traffic flow and more. By following a structured system engineering approach, SFMTA is able to manage all these assets under one roof.

In order to remain competitive, municipal transportation agency needs robust partnerships and solutions. SFMTA leverages its strong relationships and contacts made over the last decade to stay abreast of technology. I understand the needs of our organization thoroughly and what our standards are around technology, which is the key to stay ahead of the curve. We clearly define what our requirements are and what we can’t accept to our vendors.

At SFMTA, we make use of cameras to implement red light running and illegal right turns under the automated photo enforcement system (AES). By deploying forward facing cameras on buses, we enforce ‘transit only’ lanes under the transit only lane enforcement (TOLE) program. SFMTA has designed the AES systems in such a way that it takes a photograph during a red signal to ensure that every citizen abides by the traffic rules. SFMTA takes transit to the next level by utilizing analytics and algorithms to understand vehicle flows and traffic science and subsequently analyzing historical data trends to anticipate traffic impacts such as construction, weather, and upcoming events.

Future Initiatives

SFMTA is on the verge of finishing the implementation of a new platform, which enables us to improve the communication between the vehicles and managed services. We are also looking forward to extending cellular service indoor tunnels to allow customers access their cellular network in the underground and in trains. Along with that, we hope to increase the span of the network from our ride-way to various areas across the city. With the help of a large asset management system, SFMTA truly manages all of the assets efficiently including vehicles, rails, over-headlines, and more. In order to improve safety, we are implementing traffic signals, where vehicles communicate with the intersections and ensure that service vehicle has a ride-way through the intersection.

One of the important projects that we are working on is customer information system. I am really excited about the next-generation Information system, which includes arrival predictions. The system will be built with advanced technology that informs the rider about the traffic and keeps them abreast about the activities throughout the trip. All these facilities help riders manage the time, and make them feel like public transportation is better-off than traveling in private vehicles.

Leadership Principles

The core strength of SFTMA lies with our proficient team that manages everything from open sky network to email. To bring my vision into reality, at SFTMA, we recruit the right people, guide them in the right direction, and motivate them to work closer with the business and more efficiently. My first year in the organization involved meeting with leaders, building relationships and understanding services and working towards accomplishing the desired tasks. It is important for any leader to first understand their organization and then embark on initiating changes, which includes the introduction of new technology.

With more autonomous vehicles and transition in the retail arena, we look forward to bringing trendsetting changes in our realm. With the help of IoT based technologies, we really want to optimize car-to-infrastructure interaction to ensure better transportation and communication facilities across the city.

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