The past decade has seen a proliferation of advanced technology used in delivering public transportation services, such as mobility-on-demand mobile applications, real-time bus arrival information, driver-assist/autonomous vehicle functions, and security-related surveillance software. Each of these technologies addresses the real needs of public transportation providers, such as providing increased safety and security or reducing harmful vehicle emissions. However, with each new technology implementation, public transportation agencies face multiple challenges, such as integrating new systems into legacy technology platforms, staff training to utilize new technology capabilities fully, and the ongoing maintenance of the full technology infrastructure at the agency. Additionally, each new technology implementation increases the complexity of the technology ecosystem, adding to the risk of cascading systemic failure from one piece of technology to another (famously described in the 1984 book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies by Charles Perrow).
While agencies of all sizes have technology-related challenges, rural, small, and mid-sized agencies are significantly constrained by smaller staff, limited access to technical skills in the workforce, and funding capacity for technology implementation, utilization, and maintenance. Many of these agencies work in close collaboration with state departments of transportation (DOTs), which typically administer, at a minimum, 49 U.S.C. 5311 funding for non-urbanized transportation and the state Rural Technical Assistance Programs. However, not all state DOTs have the on-the-ground operational expertise to support these smaller agencies as they explore new and innovative technologies.
Smaller transit agencies’ lack of technical capacity can result in underinvestment in technology. On the opposite end of the spectrum, these agencies can become overinvested in technology that they struggle to utilize fully or that hurt operations due to system failures or incompatibilities. There is a need to understand how rural, small, and mid-sized agencies can “right size” the technology suite to meet operational needs and organizational capacity.
The objective of the research is to develop a report for public transportation officials at state DOTs and rural, small, and mid-sized transit agencies to act as a guide for facilitating a clear-eyed assessment of transit technologies as well as the resources needed to manage the full systemic impact of implementing them. This will include a review of best practices related to specific technologies, a state DOT and operators survey, interviews with technology vendors, and follow-up transit operator interviews to better understand the practitioners’ perspectives. A key focus will be the concept of “right sizing” the suite of technologies to avoid situations where overly complicated or expensive systems meet relatively simple needs at smaller agencies.