Can Data Visualization and Analytics Solve Detroit’s Transit Woes?

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on the road.

Toliver took over as DDOT’s deputy director in 2013. He’s a consultant with MV Transportation, a firm that manages transit for municipalities, and he most recently oversaw Seattle’s 1,000-bus operation. Toliver is friendly and fairly open, but he also has that air of wariness that beleaguered civil servants can carry. When Mayor Duggan was publicly upset with DDOT’s performance soon after he took office in January, it was Toliver’s head that was temporarily on the chopping block. (His contract has since been renewed for two more years.)

Gogue says the advent of cheap, cloud-based data storage will help revolutionize the efficiency of public transportation, and he sees DDOT as an irresistible test case for Transit Labs’ technology. “We can take data from multiple sources and quickly and cheaply analyze it to identify patterns,” he explains. “All of these things weren’t possible or were too expensive 10 years ago.”

“The cloud is the future,” Toliver agrees. “We’re trying to figure out how to use that technology to help productivity. In Detroit, part of the problem is that they cut so much talent—nobody knew how to run transit, and [MV Transportation] is not the first company to try to come in and fix it.”

Toliver says he’s passionate about how technology can help spur the success and sustainability of transportation networks. “We have three key objectives: Getting more buses, getting more drivers, and making the environment safer for passengers and drivers. The role of technology is helping day-to-day operations, maintenance, and making sure we’re able to maintain those changes. We know it’s critical to have decisions based on data and not gut feelings or historical information.”

In addition to the 90 new buses coming to Detroit as part of the federal grant—including a “handful” of hybrid-electric vehicles and 10 60-foot rigs—DDOT has already begun to make changes. Once reliant on city police officers who were already stretched thin for protection, DDOT sought and won funding to establish its own police force and equip each bus with eight “smart” cameras that can detect when drivers brake too hard or otherwise drive unsafely. Toliver says DDOT has also begun talking to SMART about how they can coordinate services.

Gogue says that’s a good start, and Transit Labs’ goal is to help DDOT gain the ability to run analytics on the fly. “We had DDOT on our radar, but in talking to people in the industry, they said DDOT would be too hard to work with,” he says. “The challenge is that organizations like DDOT aren’t used to moving at a tech startup pace, but I’m very confident we can make it a world-class transit system. It’s run by very capable people with a desire to improve. The only thing we’re bringing is technical know-how.”

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