Faisal Jameel is CTO of NJ TRANSIT, one of the country’s largest public transit systems, where he specializes in digital transformations.
Most of us agree that public transportation could use a good, strategic shake-up. It’s a dated experience, and a new generation of riders are chomping at the bit for an enhanced commute. But how does one implement an experiential commute while still maintaining and running a massive public transportation system? I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating this question, absorbing input from my staff and ridership and learning from experiences at other transit companies.
Digital transformations at this scale are typically focused on new market disruptions or sustainable innovations. As most public transportation systems are the incumbent in their space, focusing on sustaining innovation allows them to leverage their existing competitive advantage. Disruption is an opportunity long before it evolves into a threat. It just requires you to seize it.
When you’re an incumbent in the space, studying compensating behaviors of your existing consumers will often unveil new performance metrics. Why do customers move to the end of the platform or to the back of the train? If you can solve the problem before your ridership has identified it, say by creating a way for your riders to identify which train car has the lowest occupancy rate (which in turn helps prevent platform backup), you’ll easily earn the trust and loyalty of a new generation of riders.
To initiate a digital transformation, one must identify the true job to be done and then integrate around it. In my opinion, this job is, “How can we help commuters travel while also bringing additional value to their experience?” We can embrace complementary disruptors to solve longstanding problems, such as the classic “first mile, last mile” problem. Integrating rideshare partnerships and models into a rider journey offers a solution for getting riders to and from the public dispatch point — something that has plagued public transportation for generations. It can be extended to providing them with Infotainment while they are on board and partnering with park and ride providers with integrated payments in a single mobile app as an example.
As a proponent of experiential commute and digital transformations within my organization, I’ve found that one of the most important steps in becoming a more well-informed advocate for riders is to consume the very system (i.e., the trains, the buses, the ticketing processes) I hope to transform. I recommend this approach for fellow transit leaders and advocates, as well. Get to know the full scope of headaches your riders face and perform some contemplative problem-solving as to your power and ability to create effective solutions.
No person is an island, and you cannot build an integrated customer journey by yourself. Digital transformations require us to seek support from both inside and outside sources. Internally, this means fostering buy-in from other C-level executives by researching and showcasing the value that integration can add to their organizations. It also means making strides to nurture emergent strategies. Central to this idea is maintaining (or creating) a culture that encourages speaking up. Externally, it means getting creative with your network and identifying outside partners to help you realize your vision, such as finding an ISP to provide Wi-Fi services on your trains and busses through the support of ads.
Public transportation technology and brand managers must be able to anticipate the needs of their ridership well into the future. This encompasses not just resource management, but also identifying processes and profit formulas that will scale with their consumers and their brand. This is only achieved by continuously sharpening the saw of strategy and exploring new lanes and methods of improvement, while maintaining constant flexibility. Your deliberate strategy should always have an accompanying emergent strategy. While public transit may very well have a breakthrough innovation coming, most transportation disruptions will be incremental in nature and will require ongoing nurturing and engagement.
Now is truly the time to focus on transportation disruption, so that we can pivot and incorporate our new reality into an integrated customer journey. This means seeking technology solutions and disruptions that will adapt public transportation to our new normal. For instance, what could IoT-enabled sensors and real-time car capacity updates mean for public transportation in a post-Covid-19 world? With enough ingenuity and perseverance, my team and I are dedicated to finding out, and I encourage other transit organizations to start doing the same.
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