The public transportation industry is filled with companies from across the globe. Init (Innovations in Transportation Inc.) is no exception. Founded in Germany more than two decades ago, the company put down roots in Virginia 10 years ago and now is a flourishing leader in the U.S. transit market. I had a chance to speak with Init USA President Roland Staib to learn how this German company became so embedded in the United States.
University Start Up
Init started off as a part of Karlsruhe University in Germany says Staib. “It was a spin off.”
Karlsruhe University is a major technical university in Germany, which includes an institute for transportation. It was here that Staib got his start in transit.
“I started to work there as a student. I needed to work anyway to earn money. And so I picked a job there, and this is actually where I met [Dr. Gottfried Greschner, Init founder]. He worked at that time for the university.”
Staib worked for Greschner at the university until he spun Init off, “Pretty much I worked for the university and at some point in time you got your paycheck from another entity. It changed all the time depending on where the funds came from. It was research work in demand-oriented public transit, actually.”
Staib says that the research also had practical applications as it was put into operation in a small German city in a way much like some systems are run today.
“It was on-demand very similar to what you see here as paratransit, but bus stop-oriented,” Staib says.
“They had a very, very dense network of bus stops, and if you wanted to get picked up you needed to call in.”
After college Staib became a software programmer and started his own business, which allowed him to get experience in project management, sales and management in general, all the while Init was growing.
The company’s first project outside Germany was in Stockholm, which Staib explains with a laugh, “It was kind of funny how we got there. We had the first system up and running in Germany. This is when we kind of developed also from a software-oriented, pretty much small software house to a turnkey system provider.
“There was some publication [of the system they were running in Germany] in a German trade magazine, and the guys in Sweden many of them have a good knowledge of German.
“So one project manager read the German magazine, he couldn’t understand it completely, but [he had] pictures and text. Then they called us at that time and said we want to try a small-size CAD/AVL project. We saw it in the magazine. Don’t you want to come and present your solution?”
Staib says at that time they didn’t have a single word of documentation in English, which he thought could be problematic, but they decided to give it a shot anyway.
“We said, OK, maybe a little bit far reaching, but may not hurt. Let’s go there. Let’s present. And maybe not this time, but there’s always follow up,” Staib says.
They won the project, a proof of concept built on one route with 10 buses running on it. The project included everything the nascent company proposed, including CAD/AVL, real-time passenger information and traffic signal priority. This was Staib’s and Init’s first foray into international business, and with the project’s success he began to explore the North American market.
Staib traveled to the United States to pitch what Init could do for transit, but he ran into skepticism from agencies. “They would all look at it and they would all [say] great, great technology. Yeah, but we don’t know. Works in Europe. Who knows if it works here? Everything is different here.
“So at some point in time we decided that we needed to show something and this is when we [worked] with Akron, Ohio. They let us install a very, very small, limited-size kind of proof of concept system. Pretty much the same thing we did in Stockholm.”
With the success of its system in Akron, Staib says the company decided it was time for a U.S.-based office.
“In 1999 we established the office because we kind of had the situation then that we had contacts, people were interested in our technology, but it was just like nobody would give you a contract if you had no local representation. There was no way. And obviously it doesn’t work. So it was kind of a hen and egg problem with looking for the first real project and establishing a local office,” Staib says.
More Sophisticated Systems
Now, 10 years later Init has flourished in the United States, which Staib admits has been helped by changes in the transit market. I asked if he felt that technology gap had closed in the decade since he first pitched the company, and his response, “Absolutely.”
“[It is] way more sophisticated than it was 10 years ago. Looking forward technology and really evaluating technology. At that time kind of, people wanted a GPS system. Many really had no clue exactly from a more functional level and specifically highly sophisticated functions. They just wanted a GPS system that shows where their buses are on a map. It was pretty much it.
“And I guess the major drive toward a more sophisiticated technology comes through the real-time passenger information requirements that you see all over the place. Real-time passenger information, customer service information. That pretty much drives the need for more functional systems. And this is, I guess, the major change that we see.
“And then also there are agencies who operate under a very high functional operational level. Very flexible. Having very flexible operational modes they really manage, control their service. They don’t just have the buses out there. Let them run and do whatever. Have a map so they can see where the icons are and they are happy.
“No, they really want to manage service in a proactive way. And they are looking for the proper tools to do that.”
Staib says these high functionality systems are looking to make service changes not by the quarter or by the month, but much faster — by the minute.
“It doesn’t really matter from a customer perspective,” Staib says. “This is what I said, that customer orientation changed.
“The customer doesn’t really [care if] that bus comes, if that bus is half an hour late. As long as the buses come regularly. And there are many agencies right now who look into service modes like this.
“If all of a sudden the bus breaks down, bring another bus in, spread the buses out along the line, let them short turn, pull a bus out here, move them to there, all these actually. We name it CASR, Computer Added Service Restoration actions.”
Staib says this a more active way of running a system that links really good passenger information with operational control allowing them to work closely together to make better ad hoc changes. One difference in a system such as this would be the placement of street supervisors in the operations center instead of, well, on the street.
“Historically the dispatchers didn’t really know what was going on out there,” Staib says.
“So you had on-street supervisors. And these on-street guys pretty much managed the traffic. They told whatever bus, hey turn around, go back, you’re too close to the one in front of you. And all this functionality now can be done by a central dispatcher based on all this information that’s in the CAD/AVL system. So that changes.
“I know for example from a German agency, they computed the benefits of buying that system and they got their ROI just by pulling all these many people that they had out there into the control center. They didn’t need so many people anymore and could provide a better quality of service.”
Init has offices in six different countries on four different continents. With the advancement of technology in public transportation, I asked Staib if he felt that transit was becoming more similar around the world.
“Transit is surprisingly similar. There are specifics,” Staib says. Mainly due to work relations where local law comes in.
“Overall and I think it’s coming together. Ten years ago you saw a completely different style of how transit is operated [in the United States] compared to Germany, compared to Sweden, for example. But more and more the way how transit is managed it’s an international way.
“You see all this customer information all over the place. You see the more flexible, the more proactive service. The control. So it’s perceived individually from the transit agencies. Each and every transit agency claims they are unique. There’s nobody else who operates the same way,” he laughs.
“And to some degree it’s correct. As I said, there are these minor things where they are specific or special or have their special modifications to whatever needs. But overall to a very large and, as I said, very surprising degree, if you look into how they work — and we do that — we see that more than transit agencies themselves and it’s very similar.”
When I asked if working with all these different agencies had its own challenges, his simple reply was, “Yeah.
“As I said, the requirements are not that different. They’re really not that different. Transit agencies work all pretty much the same.”