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Thoughts on Transit

The Foundation of Transit Software: Education Communication Implementation

by Ecolane / April 14, 2015

For many people, the future can be a very scary place.  For Ecolane’s implementation project manager Kevin Dow, however, good planning and communication can bring predictability to the unknown.  While no one can know for certain what to expect in the future, Kevin’s training and experience have enabled him to influence project outcomes to ensure good results for both the agency that is implementing software, and ultimately for our riding public.

Teach to Learn

Transit software has come a long way in the last decade.  The technology enabling more efficient communications is becoming more commonplace, but in rural areas, there are still agencies using pen and paper to manage their route scheduling.  “On the rail side we’ve had technology for decades,” Kevin pointed out.  “It evolved from early switches or controls of the trains through to automation on the trains to keep them from colliding with each other.  Now, we’re to the point where trains can run themselves.”

Paratransit software, in particular, has made leaps in the last twenty years. Smaller agencies, which carry the bulk of passengers, are only coming online with modern software relatively recently.  As these smaller agencies move away from their legacy processes, which could include “post-it notes”, to a high-tech solution like what Ecolane offers, the learning curve can be steep.  People like Kevin are up for the task of educating this new generation of users.

Project managers are leaders.  One of the most important jobs of a leader is to develop other leaders in their organization.  Developing leaders requires teaching skill sets and translating past experiences into present decision-making.  Kevin draws on his experiences as a teacher to make this work. He was a high school math and science teacher early in his career, followed by eight years as a program manager in the Technical Services at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).  He has also taught in the early career program, an important part of APTA’s efforts to educate young, motivated transit professionals are identified and taught specific management skills.  Although the course is taught in just 3 to 4 hours, the content is new to the group.  Kevin had to condense a typical three-day course into three hours in order to give the students a strong sense of the basics of project management in transit.  “I learned early on that one of the things that makes me successful at what I do is that I’m always learning and constantly teaching.”   

Kevin has a true passion for public transportation software, but not because his paycheck depends on it.  During a stint living in Virginia and working in Washington, DC, he relied on public transport to get around during the day, and his perspective on transit evolved since those days.  He thinks back to that time as “an hour where I could be productive on the way to work.  It afforded me a better quality of life.” 

Because of his experience, he knows what both the passenger and the agency go through when there’s a significant change to a service.  Communication isn’t key to him because the checklist says it should be; communication is key to him because he knows, first-hand, that passengers need to be informed just as the drivers and office personnel do.    

In the Beginning

Like many technically complex projects the implementation of transit software can be a long and winding path.  Kevin Dow knows all too well what to expect when he initiates one.   While each agency is unique, Kevin is familiar with the challenges he’s most likely to encounter. 

 “When a new client is brought into our platform, I set up a kick-off meeting to officially introduce them into the project management process.  I will get basic information establishing the communications process, and from there we pull data out of the legacy system or process they were using. We define what their system priorities should be, how they currently operate their business and what they want to get out of the new system.  We identify the multiple ways in which Ecolane can help their processes and also introduce potential agency policy changes, taking advantage of the transition time to ensure as many gains are realized as possible.  

“Once we get through the initial project introductions and set expectations, our focus turns to helping clients through the implementation process and training.  My preference is to have the agency learning the software along the way. Sometimes we’ll take client data and ask them to enter it themselves into our software.  That way, they’ll start getting a feel for the platform early in the process.  By manipulating data, features and functions of the system, they’re not caught unprepared when we start training with them on-site.”

Bumps in the Road

There are some keys to arriving at a successful implementation, and one of them is to focus some attention on those directly delivering the service, the drivers.  Drivers are often used to delivering service as they always have, and any changes we ask them to make to their set patterns can be difficult to accept.

“Identifying a champion among the drivers is essential,” Kevin said.  “The trick is to find the ringleader.  People who can influence others in the right direction are key to a project’s success so converting drivers to fans and getting them on board quickly is worth the effort.  They need to start their training early, too.  Generally, we only need to show the merits of the product, such as how easy it is to communicate with dispatchers.  Usually once they’re shown these basics, things turn around pretty quickly.” 

In a typical rural transit agency’s office there are often many experienced professionals.  They know their business backward and forward, but they don’t necessarily have a strong grasp on technology.  “Having to learn new technology can be scary.  I go through everything step by step to make them comfortable with Ecolane’s system,” Kevin said.  “Again, the key is to identify the point person in the agency.  The point person will take the responsibility to learn everything they can so that they can train and champion the new system with everyone else.

“Thanks to these point people, we know the client will be in good shape after Ecolane completes their implementation.” 

Communication is Key

While training for the users is vital, it’s important to remember that the reason for the upgrade is ultimately for the passengers.  “The bread and butter of agencies is the client.  Communicating with them is critical to a successful upgrade.” 

Whether the agency is communicating scheduling changes, processes or even fare changes, the riding public should not experience surprises.

The word to use when describing how Kevin approaches a job is strategic.  Organized, knowledgeable and communicative all describe the strategy that Kevin brings to each and every job.  Outside of Ecolane, Kevin is an avid photographer because the hobby reminds him “to focus on the simple things and things that are most important.”  Every detail matters, both to the agency, and to their riding public.

Tags: Transit Trends Transit Operations

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