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5 Minutes With… Erik Johanson, director of innovation at SEPTA.

Posted by Dave Songer on Jun 22, 2018

Erik Johanson, SEPTA [Credit - Matt Courchain, SEPTA Communications]“People hear the word innovation and they often think of it being about technology, but what I’m finding more and more is that the notion of innovation can mean so many different things that have immediate impacts.”

With the responsibility of carrying more than 300 million people on an annual basis across its rail, tram and bus networks, The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has been working in its current form since 1965. The US’s fifth largest operator was in the news at the beginning of the year to announce that it was calling time on something of an institution for those who have ridden its network in the last 50 years: transit tokens that were, as the stamp on the coin read, “GOOD FOR ONE FARE”.

The reason behind that change was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the onset of technology. One of the leading lights behind such overhauls is also the subject of the latest 5 Minutes With… Erik Johanson. As the director of innovation at SEPTA, Erik shares with SmartRail World’s Dave Songer what he thinks are the most significant changes that have taken place on its network, how to effectively link up the modes of transport that make up a modern network and why it is a mountainous state in the US’s North East that has the best rail journey.

Dave Songer (DS): Hi Erik, it’s great to be able to include SEPTA in this feature. What do most like about working for the operator?

Erik Johanson (EJ): Well, I’d have to say that the thing I most enjoy is the impact that we have. We move more than one million people a day throughout this region and it’s incredibly gratifying to have a job that means so much to so many people. Rail’s been of interest to me ever since I was a political science major at college, as it was there that wrote a senior thesis on my hometown’s transit system. I chose that subject because it’s so fascinating to me, and going through the process of carrying out academic theoretical research about public transport in general – and SEPTA in particular – really helped make me think it could be a career for me.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (4) [Credit - Matt Courchain, SEPTA Communications]

DS: What does your role as position of director of innovation involve?

EJ: We really produce three things here in the Office of Innovation at @SEPTA. The first is performance management, for which we monitor our KPIs (key performance indicators) as an organisation in which I run a process called SEPTA SAT where we work with divisions to manage their own performance. We also run innovation teams that are cross-departmental multidisciplinary teams of people focusing on the big strategic aims of the organisation. The third role is actually emerging right now: internal consultants within various divisions and departments that focus on more discreet targeted issued they’re looking for guidance on.

It’s pretty cool being heavily involved in a transportation industry that changes so fast it’s almost hard to keep up with everything. The fundamental changes I would say are the binary to multimodal shift; it used to be that you’re just a transit rider or a car owner. Now those things still exist but you’ve got literally dozens of other ways for your mobility and we fit into that but we’re constantly looking at how we fit into it and how we can better compete with it is a major focus of my department. That multimodal switch is definitely the most pronounced change that I’ve seen over my career – a big step up in the number of options people have now.

DS: With what you know now, if you could offer yourself advice ten years ago what would it be?

SEPTA operates a rail and bus network [Credit - Matt Courchain, SEPTA Communications]EJ: That’s a good question. I would tell myself to be much more practical in how I viewed the notion of innovation. People hear the word innovation and they often think of it being about technology, but what I’m finding more and more is that the notion of innovation can mean so many different things that have immediate impacts. Such as business process innovation, or the various impacts of our business that could result in innovations, like process reengineering.

DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?

EJ: It’s an ongoing one, actually: to bridge the gap between all of the various interests and expert perspectives that exist in an organisation this large and this complex. My job is to work with groups effectively – every group has a different way of looking at our challenges and opportunities. So bridging generational gaps, technical gaps and being a bridge builder is the most challenging thing I face on a day-to-day basis.

SmartTransit is the only dedicated strategic technology conference for North American bus, rail, and metro transit agencies of all sizes is supported by SEPTA and is held in Philadelphia, October 23rd-25th 2018

DS: How has the industry changed since you began working in it?

EJ: I would have to say automation; how the autonomous, connected, shared and even electric vehicles, are going to change our industry, but also the competitive landscape, is probably the biggest thing I foresee. Mobility as a Service – someone’s got to figure out how that’s actually going to work though!

DS: Can you give some details on project(s) that SEPTA is working on?

A SEPTA train [Credit - Matt Courchain, SEPTA Communications]EJ: There’s a tonne of work going on, so it’s hard to pick one example but I would suggest one that I’m directly involved in. It’s not a rail project but it is a big deal for SEPTA: the electric bus project. We’re buying a fleet of 25 all-battery-powered buses as part of our sustainability programme. We’re all now realising how much needs to change if we’re going to enable those buses to operate with the same operational flexibility that diesel and other buses have, so we’re working through all the different parts of service planning, infrastructure and depot operations to make sure that those buses have a seamless integration when they get here. It’s very complicated but it kind of goes into that notion of: ‘you can talk about autonomous, shared electric vehicles but there’s a tonne of legwork and planning to actually making them work’.

DS: What do you think you will be talk about at SmartTransit, which you’ll be speaking at in October?

EJ: I would probably say that I would talk about the emerging role of the Office of Innovation at SEPTA and the ways that we’re managing both very practical process-based innovation and technological innovation to pursue a broader culture of innovation at SEPTA.

DS: What’s your favourite rail journey in the world and why?

SMW Download - Understanding the Key Threats and Trends in Transport Safety and Security EJ: Well, that an easy one. My wife and I got married in Vermont and we had a small wedding in a town called Randolph, which we chose purely by looking at Amtrak network map and finding a B&B on a section where we thought it would be scenic. We took a Vermonter train for 8.5 hours from Philadelphia to Vermont and got married at the depot in Randolph and then took the train home that weekend. It’s a beautiful journey, but I think if I hadn’t have chosen that particular train ride then I think my wife may have had something to say!

DS: Indeed! Thanks again for your time, Erik.

Focusing on how technology is integral to delivering a safe, reliable, cost-effective, and sustainable public transportation network for the benefit of communities, just some of the may speakers at SmartTransit 2018 are Jeff Knueppell (General Manger, SEPTA), Luiz Manuel Ramirez (Chief Executive Officer, MBTA) and Kimberly Williams (Chief Information Officer, METRO Houston), download the prospectus here


If you enjoyed reading this, why not check out the last edition: Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer at Houston METRO.

Would you like to get involved in this feature? This informal feature gives our readership the chance to get to know more about the personalities behind the industry, what it is that inspires them and where they see the industry heading. Get in touch with Dave Songer: to find out more.

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Dave Songer

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