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ThinkTransit Keynote: What’s Relevant for the Future of Transit

Feb 24, 2017
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As I was readying to write this blog post this morning, I read my twitter feed and today’s headlines (note: sometimes the tweet lead differs from headline):

Blurred (Transit) Lines: Apps Like Uber are the New Public Transport

Building Affordable Housing in a Neighborhood Without Affordable Transportation Misses the Point

Money, Resources Pouring in to Smart Columbus Transportation Program ($417m!)

Algorithm Aversion and the Psychological Barriers and Moral Dilemmas Facing Self-Driving Cars

These are just a few examples of the many transit and city related issues that filled my feed. And this is just  in the first couple hours of my day. We have so much information coming at us all the time that it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, never mind figuring out what to focus on as an executive or manager within a transit agency. What we do know is that change is afoot in a macro sense and also in the transit industry. In my upcoming ThinkTransit: Trapeze Technology Conference keynote in Chicago (one of my adopted cities), I want to help you to decipher what is worth focusing on because they are either non-negotiables or the trends are clear, vs. what is very much in play and may change five times between now and 2020. We also want to drive change in our agencies and shape the change that’s coming from the private sector so it works with our core mission.

One thing we do know is that high quality transit is not just about moving people, it’s about creating great places. Places that we want to live, work, learn, raise children, plant roots, etc. 

You can tell a lot about a place by how they allocate their money and space. I recently came back from Stockholm and Amsterdam where transit is a way of life in Northern Europe. In two weeks, I was in a car once - a taxi on New Year’s Eve. Every single other trip was by transit, walking or biking, and this in the winter. But they have allocated their street space and their funding to this very infrastructure. I know what you are thinking…. We are not Europe! I get that, and we in the U.S. have made tremendous progress over the last decade on this front in many cities and towns, but it's not enough. We are not changing fast enough to keep up with the influx of people, and the state of our transit infrastructure.

Pic I took in Amsterdam… nice way to get to school, huh?

Enter a myriad of options and technology plus new business models. I was with Zipcar over a decade ago now, and we were using every bit of new technology we could get our hands on to more efficiently deploy assets for shared use. Technology is 100 times what it was then and yet how much have most of our systems evolved? In my city of Washington D.C., where Zipcar has been on the curbside as an extension of public transit for over 10 years, we have a mesh of options. From Lyft, to Capital Bikeshare, to Via, to the cities own Circulator bus and Streetcar. In Chicago where I was the Commissioner, we launched the large-scale Divvy bike share system (which I encourage you to try while you are at ThinkTransit), studies find it’s often faster than the CTA options. Is this a bad thing? No, it’s another option in a city where the real enemy is the single occupancy vehicle and we need to give people as many choices as possible.

So what’s the answer to our questions? Our historical lack of investment, aging infrastructure, and poor land use planning? The influx of city dwellers and new transportation options? Some of the answers may be with our friends in Europe and Asia (and in innovations we are now seeing in American cities).

Believe it or not they have some of the same problems. Everyone likes to kick the can down on the road on maintenance, even Stockholm. But, they seem to have a better handle on core capacity focus vs. local routes, concession arrangements with professional operators at high service levels, partnerships with private companies for non-core services, embracing technology and curating the public and private transport ecosystem, and fundamentally, a pretty relentless focus on the customer. I was riding a beautiful articulated bus in Stockholm that ran on Biogas. The digital signage in the bus was stellar and had next stops, connections, PSA’s and then this message popped up in the picture below. I leaned over to a local and asked “what does that sign say?” The local person filled me in that the Swedes were proud that their buses ran on human waste and the sign said “Now running on your picked fish and Christmas ham” and “operated by Keolis.”  

After I stopped laughing, incredulously tweeting that this message was on a city bus, it occurred to me that this said a lot. First, the fact that they have time to have a sense of humor and josh their customers tells me that they have the space to be proactive, curate and communicate an experience. Also, because they are not focused on operating buses, they can focus more on the customer. Not once did a bus not come at the moment the app, or google said it would. Because transit is so well run, more people take it, and more space is allocated to it with less argument (I know, chicken and egg).

I was on stage with the Minister of Transport for Finland a few months ago, and she explained to me how they had focused, for two years, on a regulatory scheme that would equal the playing field between all of the private and public options, and also let them co-exist on their merits with transit. How, I asked (Knowing that their transit systems were far more developed than ours in most, if not all American cities)? They were building a platform that all public and private options could plug into with one payment system. But, if you, as a private company, want to be included on the national app, you have to open your data, and your API’s, even to your competitors. Wow! So they are a small country, like a large region in the U.S. (think Chicagoland), but still, they are creating the marketplace, and then setting the terms, owning the data, and shaping the change. Not only that but cities and their transit systems are now looking at what other parts of the experience can they curate? Discounts at local café’s as you are passing by in Montreal, and literally paying people to take a trip during off peak times in Singapore.

Why aren’t we more focused on being the aggregator vs. the operator? Creating the mesh-network of options vs. buying and driving buses? We often focus on the nuts and bolts vs. the big picture and the end-to-end service that the customer wants. It’s hard to do everything well. So, as we are expanding our reach to the entire ecosystem, we have to focus on the core of what we do well, and possibly the core service. Maybe we should be more focused on the platform, the data, the experience, and the customer. No matter the era, these are the elements that will always be relevant.


**Trapeze Group - Remember, the only way to see Gabe Klein's keynote is to register for ThinkTransit.** 

Gabe is a co-founder of CityFi, an advisory services firm, and the former Commissioner of the Chicago and Washington D.C Departments of Transportation. In both cities he revamped technology platforms and government processes while focusing on putting people first vs. automobiles on city streets. Gabe honed his creativity and leadership skills working in business, including Zipcar, where he served as Vice President, Bikes USA as national Director of Stores, and his own electric powered, organic food truck chain, On The Fly.
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