First is WorstJuly 20, 2011 by: Samuel Scheib
“Don’t ever, ever be the first to try out a new technology in transit,” Gregory Thompson told me over lunch. I had just started my first job at a transit agency and we were about to be the first in the country to install a major technological upgrade to our system (I won’t say what). My former professor was not happy to hear this. He worked for BART in the 1970s when they were the first to use a new fare kiosk system that was plagued with malfunctions and errors. He had observed the same problems each time a transit agency tried out a new technology and he didn’t want us to make the same mistake. “Don’t use a technology until at least six transit agencies have successfully implemented it,” Greg concluded.
And so the prophecy came to pass. The system never worked entirely as advertised and was the source of constant frustration and Thompson’s words have rung in my ears since. I have written elsewhere that great transit is based on on-time performance and customer service; technologies (advanced fareboxes, trip planning, automatic vehicle locators) can augment an already quality service or underscore the problems of a struggling one. Technology should not be a crutch, but if it is brand new it should not be used at all. So why is that?
When a new bus pulled up one day and the doors opened up with a squeak and a clunk I suddenly remembered two things I had heard regarding the auto industry and doors in recent weeks. In a news article I read something about BMW having a division entirely devoted to making the already satisfying sound of their doors closing even better. Then a friend happened to mention the windows on his Audi open slightly when the door is closing so the air escapes creating a tight seal. That is impressive. A brand new bus is not going to compare favorably with German luxury cars but even a standard Honda or Ford will lap a Gillig or New Flyer on the sound of its doors closing.
Similarly I watched my colleague’s iPhone ringing during a meeting and it occurred to me that the first versoin of that instrument worked brilliantly even if improvements were made to later generations. Why did those work so well? The simple answer is scale, a few thousand Gilligs versus a million BMWs. Transit technologies are installed one transit agency at a time whereas iPhones are sold in the hundreds of thousands. The research and development budgets of a major tech company and a transit tech company are as different as streetcars and strollers. This post is just a word of warning. It is good to come in first but not to be first in line for a new transit technology.