A Framework for Making Successful Technology Decisions Key Terms

  • Date: February 16, 2022

Before we go any further, it’s important to clearly define transit and technology. These concepts might seem so basic that it could be tempting to skip over them. However, taking the time to articulate your agency’s understanding of these elements will provide invaluable guidance throughout the decision-making process.

Transit: Define What It Is for Your Agency and Community

Take a minute to think about the priorities that guide your agency. Are you more focused on ridership (aka “moving the masses”)? Do you care most about coverage (that is, providing a minimum level of service to all community members)? Do you seek to balance the two considerations?

There’s no universally correct answer to these questions, and as much as we’d all like to see one, there’s no solution that optimizes both ridership and coverage 100% of the time.1 But there are answers specific to your community that provide indications of when your transit service is successful or not. Whether or not they are spelled out in your mission statement or strategic plan, your priorities are already evident in the ways that decisions are made about every aspect of your operations. If you don’t have clarity on what constitutes success for your service, take the time to document these priorities formally. Having this definition will help you make decisions more effectively, including ones about technology.

1 For more information on the ridership-coverage tradeoff, see Chapter 10 of Human Transit by Jarrett Walker. A summary by Christopher Yuen can be found at https://humantransit.org/2018/02/basics-the- ridership-coverage-tradeoff.html.

Technology: What It Is and Where It Fits

We use many items every day without a thought for how they came to be or what life was like before they existed. Over time, what was once a technological revolution becomes mundane— and possibly not even something we’d categorize as “technology”.

When technology is working as we expect, we barely notice it. Our frustrations often come from an expectation that “it should just work”, the “it” being almost anything digital, automated, or electronic.

Expecting technology to do what it’s meant to do isn’t unreasonable. Broadly speaking, technology is meant to help us, either by doing work faster or by doing more than we can do without it.

Before we add a new element of technology to our transit operations, we need to identify a more specific purpose. What are we going to be able to do more of because of this technology? What scale can we achieve if we use this technology? A train is useful to board only if it’s heading in the direction you want to go. Likewise, a piece of technology must achieve productivity or scale in a way that aligns with your mission, or it should be set aside. With that in mind, here’s a working definition of technology that we’ll use for this white paper:

A technology is a system designed to increase productivity or enable scaling in service of an overall mission.

Every single transit agency already employs technology that increases productivity in a scaled way in every community. What technology is this? Vehicles. Whether your fleet includes buses, sedans, cutaways, or other vehicle types, you are already successfully deploying technology to meet your mission.

The technology of transit vehicles is rapidly evolving, but vehicles aren’t the focus of this white paper. Instead, we will take a closer look at electronic- and information-based systems that are being adopted now, are quickly developing, or are not really on the market yet, keeping in mind that these systems should be chosen based on how well they support your service design and overall mission.

By making good technology decisions, we want to end up with a set of systems that support and make transit either more efficient, more usable, or, ideally, both. Making decisions about when to add, remove, or update any technology can be daunting, but there are ways to make it more successful in the long run.