“My current role is definitely the most challenging because there is so much uncharted territory and unknowns. What decisions I make today will shape the growth and development of our city for a generation to come.”
Known by the shorter, less formal title of METRO, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in Houston, Texas, operates the entire rail and bus network in the state’s most populous city. The operator has put in a lot of effort in recent times to make its network more accessible for everyone, ploughing its resources into developing passenger-focused technology such as its system specially designed for the visually-impaired.
From Houston’s METRO, Kimberly Williams, its chief innovation officer, joins SmartRail World for this week’s 5 Minutes With… In the interview, Kimberly gives some more information on the passenger-focused technologies METRO has worked so hard on, explains why innovation isn’t just about tech, the rise and rise of autonomous vehicles and how her law degree has proved invaluable throughout her transport career.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi Kimberly, fantastic of you to join us this week. Can I start by asking what is it that you most like about working in the rail industry?
Kimberly Williams (KW): I enjoy the variety of the work that I do. With the 'disruption' now occurring in the industry, it’s an exciting time to be in public transit. No day is the same and I enjoy that, but most importantly I feel I’m making a positive impact. What we do affects the daily lives of citizens in the fourth largest city in the US and knowing that we provide a way for people to access jobs, education, health care or cultural amenities gives meaning to my work.
DS: Can you give me a description about your role? What are your key areas of responsibility?
KW: The role of chief innovation officer goes beyond just technology, it speaks more to how we create efficient and accessible transit using innovation. That could be technology or a new way of service delivery. The Office of Innovation is the research and development arm for Houston METRO. We are also responsible for developing its strategic plan, which looks ahead of the growth in our region and how @METROHouston can be the one-stop mobility solution. We manage the unsolicited proposal programme that allows us to test new options, as well as managing the agency’s public private partnership efforts. We have already implemented pilot tests on electric buses and new, enhanced safety measures.
DS: I see you are a Doctor of Law – can you tell me how you have applied the skills you gained from that in your rail career?
KW: Being a lawyer has helped me tremendously. The background of critical thinking and evaluation is something I use every day to make sound decisions. I spent several years in procurement so it was particularly applicable to managing the solicitation and contract administration aspects of the position. Having a strong research background is an invaluable skill; so much of innovation today involves new products and companies and requires new policies, procedures and public policy creation or updates. Being able to draft and interpret such documents is important to ensuring consistency as new applications are deployed.
DS: The rail industry must have changed since you began working in it – where would you say the most pronounced changes have occurred?
KW: Definitely the disruption effect brought on by technology. Transportation is an old industry and had fallen into a certain way of operating. The widespread use of smartphones have changed passengers' expectations because so much more is automated now – customers expect high frequency, convenience, flexibility and on-demand service. There’s also more focus on being multimodal, integrating between public and private transit providers.
DS: What do you think will be the biggest changes in the future?
KW: The growth of automation, connected vehicles, smartphones and seamless mobility. While automation has been discussed for decades, the technology and public support is growing and we will soon see cities balancing between autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles. This will have a ripple effect, not just on transit but on land use, curb space and parking. Riders will be more reliant on their smartphones to manage their trips and will be looking to multiple modes to travel.
DS: What has been your biggest career challenge to date?
KW: My current role is definitely the most challenging because there is so much uncharted territory and unknowns. What decisions I make today will shape the growth and development of our city for a generation to come. We need to make the right decisions to ensure we improve mobility and air quality. Seeking to create an integrated multi-modal system of efficient and accessible public transportation in the US’s fourth largest city definitely keeps me up at night!
DS: What advice would you offer someone looking to begin a career in rail?
KW: I didn’t start my career in rail so the first thing I did was join find a mentor. From there I immersed myself in the relevant trade organisations and took advantage of conferences, seminars and workshops to quickly get up to speed. The networking aspects of this was also invaluable. It was tremendously helpful starting out, so I would also say don’t shy away from new projects and initiatives – even if it’s not in your core skill set. Try and expose yourself to as many of the functions of your agency as you can because it’ll make you more well-rounded and provide a view of where your career can take you.
DS: What are Houston METRO's key business priorities/projects? Can you share any details?
KW: Our key priorities are always our core business of operating a safe, reliable and affordable transit system. Related to that we’ve focused on looking towards the future in terms of creating the Office of Innovation, which we discussed earlier, and we’re also concentrating on creating a high-capacity, high-frequency service.
We recently overhauled our entire bus network which has been well received and has led to many other cities are modelling their system on ours, and have identified the priority of pedestrian and cyclist safety and an accessibility programme for those with disabilities. To that end, we have tested new technology known as Mobileye, which provides the operator better sight of pedestrians and bicyclists. We’re also testing a Bluetooth beacon that works on smartphones to assist those who are sight impaired to better navigate our network, and hence encourage transit independence.
DS: You’re due to speak at SmartTransit later in the year – what do you think you’ll cover at the show?
KW: My panel will be a series of experts answering questions from the conference participants. I expect we will cover the growing changes in the industry and new transit business models from transit network companies to micro-transit. I expect a lively and informative conversation about the current and future state of the transit industry.
DS: What’s your favourite rail journey and why?
KW: Our red line light rail line heading to the North of the city. The Burnett Plaza stop is particularly nice because it’s on a bridge overlooking downtown that has a beautiful sunset!
DS: Sounds like a fantastic journey, Kimberly. Thanks for taking part this week.
If you enjoyed reading this, why not check out the last edition: Craig Ellis, chief technology officer at the Go-Ahead Group.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.