Smart Technologies for Sustainable Public Transportation

By May 2, 2012Blog

About the Author

A recent report by the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institute, called Transit Access and Zero Vehicle Households, revealed several striking statistics about Detroit transit. Of the 136,000 households without cars in the Detroit metro area, 85% have access to transit, but only 26% of jobs are accessible to these households within 90 minutes via that same transit.

It seems impossible to think that there is no connection between the challenges the city faces and the poor mobility of its population. This personally interests me because I am attending graduate school in Southeast Michigan. It is also important to me because I care about creating a sustainable future. And sustainability means more than protecting the environment; it also means protecting and enhancing people’s lives. Imagine the potential to create economic value by simply connecting labor with jobs through smarter public transportation.

Sustainable economic value is created when people can easily access their jobs, schools, shops, and entertainment. Committing resources to drive technological innovation that improve regional public transportation will broaden access and give struggling American cities a jumpstart. Local governments can then capture that value, reinvest it in more transit improvements and further improve accessibility — creating a virtuous cycle. Other sustainable benefits will include less air pollution and higher safety.

Detroit is a long way from realizing the dream of public transit held by so many and is trapped in a vicious downward cycle. The city suffers from generations of deficient supply chain management that has led to poor relationships with bus parts vendors, leaving mechanics without the parts necessary to repair buses quickly when they need them.

This leads to more breakdowns, longer delays and stranded riders who are the last to know of route and schedule changes. This exacerbates disagreement amongst the regional transit planners, which has prevented the formation of a regional transit authority, a necessary step to receive federal funding for intercity transit infrastructure projects.

One way for Detroit, and cities like it, to break the cycle is to become an incubator for new technologies that facilitate successful public transportation. Advanced sensors could connect bus fleet managers and part suppliers with data to proactively anticipate maintenance as opposed to scrambling after breakdowns. Software packages incorporating supply chain analytics could be used to evaluate and optimize route planning and asset allocation in near real time. Social media could be used to gather ridership data while delivering updates on new routes and services to transit patrons. Advanced revenue management systems, like those used by the airline industry to maximize per-seat-sales, could be developed to ensure that no regional participant in a transportation network is short-changed.

I represent a generation of socially and environmentally minded business students who see these opportunities and are taking steps to bring them to fruition. Recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Detroit based non-profit Transportation Riders United (TRU) along with Ross School of Business classmates from the Tauber Institute for Global Operations. TRU’s mission is to “improve and promote transit in Greater Detroit.” I helped create an electronic dashboard for the leadership of the organization. This management tool consolidates numerous progress reports into high level metrics that will enable TRU’s leaders to prioritize goals, maximize resource efficiency, and quickly respond to new transit priorities.

This is one step on the long road to a sustainable public transportation system in Detroit. But every journey begins with that one step, and I’m here to tell you that there are many of us that are willing to take it. To my generation, creating a sustainable future is a land of fantastic opportunity.

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