Having a Plan for Successful Implementation

Oct. 3, 2011

Even though Wichita may be the largest city in Kansas, Wichita Transit (WT) faced the same issues as any sized transit agency throughout the country; finding a method to increase ridership and improve the efficiency of internal operational processes, are just a few of them.

The aging transit system was becoming increasingly difficult to band-aid and several years ago it purchased new vehicles. Along with that decision, WT decided to deploy an ITS-based system which would permit it to move forward and provide room for growth.

Prior to the start of the project, all of the deployments had been single system based purchases or implementations. This was the first multi-faceted project. The only electronic ITS-based systems WT deployed were a software based scheduling program for its paratransit services and electronic fareboxes on the fixed-route vehicles. The other functions performed by the operations and special services divisions were performed on a manual basis.

A project of this scope is a huge undertaking for any agency, but this being WT's first, it had to rely on lessons learned. In talking with transit peers, critical to success was correct detail in a comprehensive RFP, staying in budget, establishing a plan and timeline, putting the proper internal team in place, and keeping an open line of communication between all groups.

Based on the scope of the project and the problems presented by working with multiple vendors, it was decided to develop an RFP which would seek a contractor experienced in systems integration, rather than continue to purchase individual software applications and complete the integration process internally. The ITS industry has been in existence long enough that there are multiple companies which have been involved in deploying projects of such a large magnitude.

Five objectives critical to the RFP:

  • A comprehensible listing of specifications on the different ITS applications that were wanted
  • A comprehensive description of the services expected of the contractor
  • An easy method for the respondents to identify their adherence to the set of specifications and services
  • Experience and history of the contractor on previous projectsAdherence to the set of required local and federal regulations

The resulting RFP requested information from vendors on the deployment of several ITS applications. They were: CAD/AVL (computer-aided dispatching/automated vehicle location) with mobile data consoles (MDC); automatic passenger count system (APC); customer information system (CIS), including DMS/IVR/Web application; development of a closed microphone radio system; automated announcements (vehicle-based internal and external); fixed-route operations and scheduling program; integration of existing paratransit scheduling program; integration of existing electronic farebox system; integration of existing head sign system; and integration with the existing on-board camera system.

As part of the selection process for a contractor, one of the tasks always handled by a project manager is to conduct in-depth reference checks with all of the respondents. A thorough interview process regarding the project history of each respondent was very helpful in making the ultimate decision; the vendor had to be involved in all phases of this project and would need a successful track record with implementing similar projects. The contract was awarded to Avail Technologies based on the findings.

One of the early concerns WT had regarding the project was the acceptance of the new system by operators and dispatching staff. The drivers and dispatchers had been operating on a manual system so training was key to assisting them to be comfortable with the new automated system. The vendor was on site to assist and to work with the operations, dispatching and drivers to allow them the level of comfort in mastering use of the system efficiently and comprehending the data. This also allowed them to see the advantages they would receive from the system, once it went operational.

Keeping a schedule

As with all projects of this magnitude, it is not a surprise to encounter some delay during the implementation process. This project encountered two major ones. The first was due to the style of radio that was currently being used by WT. The vendor was able to discover the cause of the problems and quickly formulated a solution so that could have put this project several months behind schedule, resulted in less than a one-month delay.

Second, following the time the project had been awarded, the IT department for the city of Wichita had begun to work with a primary software company for IVR services. Avail was asked to assess the software program and see if it was compatible with the new ITS system. After reviewing the product, it was determined that the IVR software could be developed to become compatible with the transit system. Some delay occurred while the IVR-based company reworked its product and process to become compliant with WT's new system. Based on these two unforeseen delays, the project had to adjust the schedule for less than a two-month delay.

Expect for the way you operate to change

The change within the daily operations of WT has been immense. Any time an agency moves from a manual count system to an electronically generated database; there will be several divisions within a transit agency that will have access to data that will make the efficiency of their functions much easier to perform. The availability of real-time and accurate data associated with a new set of report generation concerning all facets of ridership will be a huge boost for our transit services.

Moving to utilizing the integrated ITS system has permitted WT to have access to real-time data and complete those previous functions in a much more efficient manner. As an example, the data produced by the on/off counts for the fixed-route service will prove to be invaluable in the planning efforts of any changes on existing routes or implementation of future routes.

Educate your shareholders and your riders

Since WT is currently in the "acceptance stage" of the project, the public has not been made fully aware of the changes being made to the transit system. Following acceptance of the system, WT will be implementing a marketing campaign to introduce the riders to the new system. Once the marketing campaign is released, WT expects to see a significant boost to its ridership numbers. With the real-time delivery of vehicle location information through message signs, Web services and an IVR system, riders will be able to create their own trips and feel empowered to use the system.

It can be a bit scary to acquire a project of this magnitude, but the key is to mitigate your risk. Create an internal plan for growth with the right team. Think about where you would like to be in five, 10 and 20 years as a transit system. Consider your shareholders, your riders. Be selective and ask for what you want. Choose the right vendor to partner with on the project. Do your research and work with your transit peers. Following these basic project management tenets should lead you to a successful implementation in any of your future projects.