The last time New Yorkers relied on public transportation as much as they do today was 1948. Public transit use has been steadily growing over the past few decades, with ridership increasing by nearly 39 percent since 1995.

Over the years, public transportation has ballooned into a $61 billion industry, which employs nearly half a million workers, making it that much more imperative that the systems are efficient, reliable and, most importantly, safe.

ADVERTISEMENT

More than a year after an electrical fire caused the death of a Washington DC’s Metro passenger, action to improve riding conditions by lowering train speeds is not only too late, but does not address the issue at hand.

The public transit is in dire needs of a more proactive approach that can allow for regular monitoring of key systems, so that maintenance needs can be addressed long before problems arise. 

Why maintenance of public assets has to be handled differently now

The aging public transit infrastructure is not a new problem, but it is one that is approaching critical mass.

Without raising awareness for at-risk areas and addressing these concerns with a prescriptive long-term solution, our nation’s transit is vulnerable to a series of systematic and catastrophic failures, the effects of which could generate a ripple effect harming both the economy and population.

Fortunately, the problem is not irrevocable, but the time for action is now – and this will require strategic investments in emerging technologies to better inspect, document, repair and monitor the critical assets and systems that comprise the transit infrastructure.

In years past, transit agencies relied solely on paper-based tracking procedures such as forms and spreadsheets to monitor critical assets. This can range from a bridge or highway to a traffic sensor or rail flange, and every part in between.

As technology continues to mature, the focus is gradually shifting towards finding the most cost effectiveness. However, for many transit organizations that operate as extensions of a public sector budget, the delayed adoption of newer technologies due to prohibitive cost factors is becoming more of a safety concern.

The days postponing an upgrade to save money are gone, as are the early adopter stages.

The necessary technologies are not only becoming widely available to both the public and private sector but thanks to cloud technology, these upgrades can be achieved without a major upfront capital investment.

Now that these emerging transit technologies are affordable, we as a country must begin to implement a more modern approach that can bring our sensitive systems up to contemporary standards before we encounter any more catastrophic events that result from the aging infrastructure.

Safety procedures require employees in the field to perform critical inspections to uncover potential hazards within assets like tracks, bridges, signaling equipment, roadways, signage, electrical systems and other areas.

Using a paper-based system, the workers have to document observations, take them back to the office, and hand them off to someone else who inputs the information in a central file. The built-in problems in this method are obvious.

First, the amount of time required to record information this way is unacceptable by modern standards. Regardless of the severity of the issues uncovered during an inspection, the time between observation and repair can be costly.

Safety notwithstanding, this method leaves almost no room for preventative maintenance to be applied and adds a considerable layer of guesswork to the equation creating needless service outages, delays and overall system congestion.

According to a recent Forbes article, delays are causing overcrowding, which is significantly reducing consumer confidence in public transit systems despite the essential function that they serve for everyday commerce.

The capacity for physical storage required to run a paper-based system isn’t sustainable, especially for federally funded agencies that typically have to store seven years’ worth of data.

In addition, trying to find a specific document quickly or easily in the case of a safety inspection or funding review can be near-impossible.  

Perhaps the most concerning factor is the high potential for inaccuracies. Without a system in place to unify how data is recorded and analyzed, each inspector would have his or her own distinctive way of describing things.

The resulting information will be open to interpretation by whoever else examines it, and systematic irregularities—or human error—that could be noticed by technology would not be caught.

Standardized data processing technology is ubiquitous with almost every other aspect of our lives—from the way we get our news, source our food and even educate our children. It’s inconceivable to not use the advanced technology, which we have at our fingertips, to systems of such crucial importance.

Modernizing the transit infrastructure

The good news is that technology can not only eliminate nearly all of these stated issues but it will also allow organizations to institute preventative measures to ensure safety, increase efficiency and make transit a sustainable industry.

Making these changes will require key investments from both private and public entities within the industry, one such way would be to use cloud-hosted asset tracking technology that is delivered on a subscription basis, which would shift capital expenses to operational costs.

By changing this collective mindset from funding reactive repairs to creating proactive measures, the industry as a whole can reinvent its approach to focus on sustainable returns on the investments.

Transit agencies must begin auditing the unique needs of the organization to identify issues and explore technologies that are tailored to solve its problems, both now and in the future.

The time to get started on building a 21st century transit system is well past due. Cost is no longer the prohibitive barrier it was years ago. But the more time spent dragging our feet on the matter, the higher the likelihood that America’s infrastructure will continue to crumble.

Whether we measure the cost in time spent waiting on delays in the broken systems, or in fatalities from preventable accidents, make no mistake the price of inaction is considerably high.

We live in a time where the voice of the average citizen is amplified louder than ever before, so it’s time to make your voice heard on this matter before the transit sector is beyond repair.

Kevin Curry is responsible for all global application sales for Infor Public Sector, Healthcare and EAM business, including federal, state and local governments, higher education and non-profit organizations, hospitals and health systems, extended care providers, and more. Curry joined Infor in March 2012 after eight years with Oracle, where he was responsible for government and healthcare application sales in the U.S. and Canada. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.