Transportation tech isn’t easy

But a system that communicates is absolutely critical

AS THE LEADER of a transportation agency, there is no shortage of people ready to tell me how technology is going to revolutionize the way we do business. From autonomous vehicles to on-demand sensors to drone-based package delivery to solar-powered roads and road-straddling super-buses (that one turned out to a bust), it’s a veritable cornucopia of real and not-so-real revolutions. And within that world of technophiles, there’s a subset waiting to tell me (and you) about how wireless communications will underlie and enable all of those revolutions to our transportation systems. As with so many things in life, they’re totally right, and yet it’s so much more complicated.

As we look at a world of smart cities, internets of things, on-demand customer expectations, and real-time transactions, communications obviously matter. In the transportation world, we’ve known this for a long time (for example, traffic signals generally work better when they can talk to other traffic signals), but we haven’t always recognized the power of the network or the multiplier effect that can result. Looking more deeply, it is becoming clear that there are many reasons why the ability to communicate throughout our transportation system is absolutely critical.

From ride-hailing apps, to travel time displays on highways, to tracking the delivery status of your package, our customers have become accustomed to a world where all types of information and functionality are at their fingertips, all the time. Twelve years ago, the idea that you could find out on your phone when your bus was going to arrive was mostly a fantasy; six years ago it was an interesting novelty offered by more advanced public transit agencies. These days, if you can’t tell me precisely when my bus is going to arrive, then you might as well not bother pulling it out of the garage in the morning. In the world of municipal transportation, we are making progress on parking payments and traveler information, but progress is still slow and somewhat haphazard.

Communications (and technology in general) has the potential to improve our operations, making us more efficient, allowing us to do our job better, and saving us money. Tracking snow plows in real time not only allows us to better supervise the work that is being done, it also allows us to tell customers when their street was last plowed and make sure that private plowing contractors are billing accurately for their work. While that may not sound very exciting, it can be extremely valuable (and it gives you something to do) when you’re a resident stuck inside in the middle of a Nor’easter.

In 2016, Cambridge (like many progressive cities around the country) made a commitment to Vision Zero, the elimination of traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Although achieving Vision Zero will require a wide range of multidisciplinary activities, improved communications technologies have the potential to enable many of them. These could range from simple things such as providing maintenance staff with real-time, detailed information about the roadway safety defects they are being asked to fix (while being careful not to distract them from their driving); to more complex improvements such as sensor-equipped, automated streetlights at crosswalks that get brighter when they detect pedestrians waiting to cross, to make people more visible to passing traffic.

While it’s clear that the future success of transportation will increasingly depend on our ability to deploy, manage, and effectively use a range of new and emerging communications technology, it’s not as easy as it looks.

At the municipal level, it’s hard enough to find and retain the technical knowledge we need to properly manage our transportation networks, much less expand our capabilities to include dealing with all of the new technologies that are coming at us (and if you’ve ever watched an engineer struggle to set up a presentation projector, you know what I mean).

At the same time, we are often trying to integrate legacy and newly deployed systems (neither of which are always well understood by users), a range of potential communications technologies (that are, again, not always well understood), and customer needs that are always evolving (and also not particularly well understood—do you see a theme here?).

Finally, communications costs money and, potentially, lots of it. Whether we own and maintain the networks ourselves or whether we use third-party networks, there are significant capital and operating costs, and those operating costs don’t go away. What really scares me (financially) is the thought of tens of thousands of smart cities devices out there “at the edge” doing great things, but each with its own little $20-a-month cell phone plan.

As an example, let’s look at Cambridge’s recent deployment of a pay-by-phone system parking pilot in Harvard Square. From the customer side, this seems like a simple initiative: you download an app, fill in your customer information (name, license plate, credit card), and you’re ready to go. But on our side, there’s much more going on. From a pure communications and technology perspective, we had a very challenging integration between two vendors: Passport Parking, which provides the pay-by-phone system; and Conduent, which provides our Parking Management Information System (which still runs partially on a mainframe) and manages our Motorola handheld ticketing computers (which use a fairly ancient version of Windows Pocket Edition). We also had to activate wireless data communications on those handheld computers, which costs tens of thousands of dollars per year. Don’t get me wrong; this is a great benefit to our customers and it is clearly the right thing to do, but it’s equally clear that we have to think carefully about the cost and complexity of the initiatives, so we can make the right strategic investments that truly benefit our customers, our operations, and the safety of our communities.

Although Cambridge (like almost every other city) is in the early stages of figuring out the best applications for technology, there are a few examples of things we’re doing that might be of value of others.

Cambridge is a very collaborative municipality, but figuring out communications in a municipal environment requires even tighter coordination. We can work even harder to take advantage of network effects and avoid missed opportunities. Although our E-Gov IT governance process can feel a little bureaucratic at times, it provides a venue for making sure that coordination occurs, and for identifying the resources that will likely be required to implement projects.

There are some great tools out there for things like asset management, work order management, and project management; all of which get even better when we connect them together in real time. Many of our current initiatives are focused in that area, not only because it helps to make our operations better, but also because when implementation doesn’t go totally smoothly and we need to work out the bugs, it’s not on public display.

On the transportation side, we are working to create a communications network to support our operational needs, particularly for our traffic signals. And we are taking an “all of the above” approach that involves a combination of fiber, microwave, mesh, cellular, and potentially other networks to make those connections. In assembling this network, we are also trying to anticipate and accommodate potential future needs, but without becoming so paralyzed by those future unknowns that we aren’t able to move forward.

There are a number of potential steps we need to be working on to ensure that we have the right communications approaches in place, and that we actually use them the right way.

Communications technology creates some interesting opportunities for partnerships, and not just the type where the public sector gets taken for a ride by the private sector. In this case, the public sector controls assets (right-of-way, streetlight poles, traffic signals) that may be useful to other sectors. In addition, there are new partnerships emerging in response to new needs. For example, the municipal utility in Stratford, Ontario, is leveraging a network it built to support the installation of smart electricity meters to provide broadband access that may eventually grow into a communications backbone for transportation. This is also a good example of a government mandate (to install those smart electricity meters) creating unexpected co-benefits.

It’s no longer considered particularly brilliant to point out that government agencies need new skill sets to address technology challenges. But as the ad for Huntington Learning Centers reminds us, “saying it and doing it are two different things.” The technology experts we hire need to also be experts in analyzing, questioning, and improving our business processes, both to address technology and communications, but also to reflect industry best practices. In Cambridge, many of our departments are setting out to hire business analysts who can lead their technology initiatives while also helping to generally improve how they operate. As this expertise becomes dispersed around city government, we become both less dependent on our IT department, and better able to work with the IT department when we need to.

Working in a smaller city, it’s easy to get a bit depressed by all of the progress being made in larger cities that have access to more resources, are the location for the latest pilot by Google/Facebook/Microsoft/SkyNet, or just seem to have a better PR department. But if you’re even starting to think about questions and ideas around technology and communications, you’re probably ahead of 90 percent of those around you. If you get even one program off the ground, you’re making progress, building new muscles, and most importantly providing better service to your constituents. I can’t overestimate the value of starting small as a way to make sure your progress is sustainable, whether that’s financially, operationally, environmentally, or by some other metric.

Meet the Author

Joseph Barr

Director of traffic, parking, and transportation, City of Cambridge
While communications are absolutely critical, they are also more difficult than you might think, or than others might lead you to believe. But since the world doesn’t stand still, we all need to move forward and try to tackle this issue. My advice is to start with a problem you really want to solve, build some expertise, and grow from there. And if anyone tells you they have this all figured out, they’re either lying to you, or lying to themselves.

Joseph Barr is the director of traffic, parking, and transportation for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is also a member of the board of directors of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.