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What Public Transit Has to Do with Business Systems & Technology

You all know me as a fractional CTO and architect, but I have a soft spot for the public transit space. I’ve spent a decent amount of my career in public transit, and that’s made me see how vitally important it is to North American cities.

Public transit is critical throughout the world, but it’s particularly underutilized, underfunded, and underemphasized in our US culture. Vitally important to the growth of cities and their competitiveness in the world market, public transit deserves more investment and attention. 

One of the things that has become apparent to me from working in this realm is how many differing parties with differing aims have an interest in public transit.

There’s the ridership that’s vocal, has money, and advocates for specific routes and rails. I lovingly refer to these people as Karens – they complain at meetings about bus stop locations and noise, but they still want the rails to service them. They’re the loudest voices, and they bring up some good points at these meetings, but they live in a way that public transit doesn’t affect their normal daily lives.

Then there’s what a friend of mine calls the silent majority. These are the lifeblood of the cities – the folks who come into the city every day to work in the hospitals, cook in the restaurants, do construction, and do everything else that makes a city go. They’re not as vocal and don’t advocate for themselves for many reasons, but they make up the vast majority of the ridership and are arguably the most dependent on it.

When it comes to transit authorities, some are more progressive than others but ultimately, they’re trying to cut costs unless they’re given federal money for work on projects.

Public transit agencies are underfunded and understaffed, and some are more poorly run than others. There’s usually penny-pinching and a management-created adversarial relationship with transit unions. Transit agencies and unions don’t necessarily have to be in opposition, but they often are.

The unions tend to advocate more for the silent majority, and they share good information about how to better serve those people. When it comes to transit planning, it’s important to marry what transit agencies are hearing from town-meeting Karens with the union’s information about the silent majority. Getting a forum involved including the operators makes the silent majority’s voice heard more clearly.

If you’re wondering: what does this mean to me and what does it have to do with business systems and technology? The answer is: an awful lot.

In the US, there aren’t a lot of vendors making software for this space. Those that are, are usually capitalizing on one or two problems a transit authority has but not looking holistically at the problem because it’s more cost-effective to focus on one or two areas and charge a ton for it. With only a few small competitors, there’s no pressure in the market to do more.

It’s critical that transit authorities and riders have good systems so the transit authority can manage their people and their fleet better, the transit union can have better insight into what’s going on day to day to help the membership, and the end consumer knows where transit is at any given time and the options they have to ride.

It’s also important that transit authorities listen to what their union membership is saying along with their schedulers and service planners (who should be riding the system with drivers and operators so they can see what those members are seeing when creating plans and schedules).

A lot of the solutions to these problems aren’t necessary technological (although technology can certainly help), but they involve management and how management listens to their people. There needs to be a culture put in place by the managers at the top that has managers beneath them listening to all their people and all the groups they interact with (including unions), constantly accepting feedback, and taking it all into account for whatever plans they’re making. There needs to be more holistic listening at middle management that goes all the way up through senior management.

I’d recommend checking out some of my writing on good and bad managers to learn more. I’ll be sharing more articles on transit coming soon. Subscribe to my email list here so you don’t miss them!