“It’s now not enough to just say that a train is going to be every 15 minutes; people want to know more than that. They want enough information to make decisions on their own and know their options.”
The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is a state agency that operates underneath the Maryland Department of Transportation. It provides the core service for the Baltimore and Metropolitan region, which includes local bus, express bus, metro rail and light rail, and also oversees the commuter train that goes throughout many different parts of the state of Maryland – connecting the DC and Baltimore and a bit further west.
From the MTA, its chief innovation officer, Michael Helta, has kindly agreed to take part in the latest 5 Minutes With… In the interview Michael explains to SmartRail World’s Dave Songer about the great deal of work the MTA is doing out to make its passengers’ journeys better, including upgrades to its operations that improve how it communicates with passengers, how Uber is providing inspiration and what role he thinks autonomous vehicles will play in the future.
Dave Songer: So good to have you on board this week, Michael. Can you begin by explaining what you like about working in the transport industry?
MH: I’ve been in the industry for about eight years now and I really appreciate how the industry is always evolving. There’s a new thing every single day and it never gets boring. There are also an infinite number of things that we can continually improve on and the big part of it is that it directly impacts on hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis. The core of how a lot of people get around to access their jobs, to get back home, for their leisure – whatever it is – we’re a major component of moving people and helping provide them with an access opportunity. Doing that is a really important kind of underpinning and skeleton for urbanised areas and so there’s an altruistic side of it that you’re directly doing things that can improve people’s lives which I think is an incredibly powerful notion and one I think that really gives me motivation to work as hard as I do.
DS: What does your role as chief of innovation entail?
MH: It’s a position that was created about three years ago and I’ve been in it about six months now, before then I came up through the capital budgeting and then I managed our project development group and the planning office that involved looking at any capital projects looking at preliminary designs, stakeholder engagement and any short- or long-term plans that the agency is involved in.
In my new role it’s kind of a combination of all of those and it’s looking at ways that we can do things better – I like to look at it from the perspective of the customer. What are the things we can do to improve the experience of the customer; how can we be more reliable; how can we be safer; how can we provide more access; how can we communicate better? I look at all of those and find ways to improve communications and expectations with our customers and let them know when a train or bus is coming. There’s an external process: things that the customers see, but then it’s also internal, such as figuring out how we can improve our own operations, for instance how can we harness technology to leverage data to help us with better decision making to create a more reliable experience.
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
MH: I would say the increase in the amount of data that’s available. Big data is here and in the past a lot of transport agencies didn’t have massive amounts of data and certainly didn’t have the quality of the data that they have today. Now it’s about getting beyond the anecdotal evidence and getting into quantitative evidence, using the data to help us make smarter decisions that can improve services.
Another big thing is that customer expectation’s have vastly changed due to the increased communication that we see in our everyday lives – whether text messaging, emailing or social media, everybody expects to know everything as quick as possible and what they don’t know they figure they can work it out and find a way to get to that answer. That really pushes us to be much more proactive and much more aware of how we’re communicating to our riders, many of whom are now used to services like Uber that tell them how to get a ride when they want it, how long it’s likely to take and how much it’ll cost.
It’s now not enough to just say that a train is going to be every 15 minutes; people want to know more than that. They want enough information to make decisions on their own. I think that’s what people really want: to be able to make a decision on their own and know their options. Those changes make us realise that we need to figure out better ways to present information to our riders and allowing them to have information at their fingertips.
DS: What do you predict will be the biggest changes in the rail industry over the next few years?
MH: This isn’t here yet but I think it’s coming quicker than many of us realise: connected autonomous vehicles. What those are going to do to help people move throughout a region, what they’re going to do to the infrastructure as far as capacity goes and how are our vehicles going to integrate into that system. The working world is very different now and people don’t have to make their way into the office in the way that they used to have to – that’s a lot of people changing their travel patterns and I think the autonomous vehicles will mean that we have to figure out news ways to structure the services that we provide. For transit services it is a vital piece but how do we fit in with all this?
DS: Can you give some details on project(s) that Maryland Transit Administration is working on?
MH: We’ve recently launched a massive upgrade to our real-time arrivial information for your bus system that moves around 250,000 people a day. That’s included us upgrading every bus with new GPS sensors and integeated them into our real-time feeds and we’re also looking into launching mobile ticketing app at some point this summer. We’re working on ways to expand our dedicated bus lane network and upgrading our smartcard system to be more effective in the future.
Cross network ticketing for mobile ticketing. Real time is bus-only at the moment but my goal is to bring all of our other modes into the fold within the next few years. The redesign of our signage and way finding for rail stations is going to be taking place and that will help buses to connect better with the train stations so the journey is as seamless as possible and we’re removing all the barriers and those conflict points where you’re npt sure where you should be going.
DS: You're speaking at SmartTransit in October, what do you suspect you'll talk about at the show?
MH: I think I’m on an innovation panel and I’ve been discussing how my agency and the industry what we can do and what we are doing to make journeys better. It’s good timing because of all the work we’re doing and hopefully I can learn something from the other agencies as well.
DS: And finally, what’s your favourite rail journey?
MH: I really enjoy taking our Metro rail out to the end of the line at Owing’s Mills because it goes elevated and I get to see all different parts of the city and it reminds me of whom we’re serving and the ways in which we can improve and the impact that our service has. It’s a pretty ride through the city and a little out into the country and it keeps me centred and grounded as to what my mission is here.
DS: Thanks very much, Michael.
If you enjoyed reading this, why not check out the last edition: Erik Johanson, director of innovation at SEPTA.
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.