MTA Harris County Widens Its Digital Reach

Randy Frazier, chief technology officer of Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, wants information directly in the hands of transit passengers

A part of Randy Frazier’s job as chief technology officer at the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) is to ensure passengers reach their destinations timely and efficiently. Frazier, who works with METRO’s chief information officer and other directors, oversees a number of projects as a part of the METRO’s new customer service initiative. The METRO initiative aims to provide first-rate service to the operation’s approximately 35,000 daily boardings.

For example, METRO completed the installation of a GPS, computers, and antennas on its fleet of 1,230 buses. The updated technology provides the METRO with real-time information on the location and estimated time of arrival of buses at its more than 10,000 stops, according to Frazier. The setup can also identify and respond to emergencies in some cases, he says.

“We want to be able to say we can get our data our in as many different ways as possible, whether it’s our customer’s smart phone, flip phone, or web page.”

Looking forward, the METRO expects to introduce seven apps yielding similar data by the end of the year. Such information will be available to consumers on their mobile devices.

“METRO riders could be standing at their stop, text a bus stop number, and receive information on when the next bus is coming,” Frazier says, explaining the technology. “We want to be able to say we can get our data out in as many different ways as possible, whether it’s our customer’s smart phone, flip phone, or web page. It will help our riders ride our system better.”

Future plans for METRO’s technological enhancements don’t stop at mobile. METRO is also studying the feasibility of adding new wireless LED signs to at least some of its stops, and with these  new signs, METRO customers would be able to obtain the arrival times and other information easily displayed at METRO stops instead of having to check their mobile devices. But given the expensive price tag, the organization is considering building smaller signs, which are a fraction of the cost of larger versions. “The price quickly gets high when you have an area as big as Houston,” Frazier says.

On another front, METRO plans to conduct an app design competition for the general public this fall. The purpose of this competition is to generate ideas for the best use of the data METRO uses, Frazier says. “We’re taking the data we use internally to help manage our fleet and giving our customers more tools to help them plan and make their rides easier,” Frazier says. “Smart people are everywhere and can develop applications.”

Diligent as METRO is about providing customers quality service, it is similarly committed to ensuring it is running an efficient workplace, says Frazier, a former prosecutor. METRO has more than 350 servers with a department of only about sixty-five to seventy people, so fewer people are supporting more equipment. “It’s a matter of spending less time having to maintain our infrastructure and more time trying to help our customers and coming up with better ways of doing things for them,” Frazier says. “If you’re just trying to keep all the lights on internally, you don’t have as much time to brainstorm for external customers or assist the internal ones.”

As for the industry in general, with the degree of connectivity in the marketplace, including the saturation of cell phones across economic boundaries, customers increasingly expect real-time information, Frazier says. With that in mind, METRO will soon launch mobile ticketing, which Frazier believes is among the most significant strides in the industry. “Riders would be able to buy a ticket right on their phone,” he says. Frazier also believes wireless Internet for buses is on the industry horizon and indicated that METRO is investigating adding the service to some of its routes.

“For our customers, that level of technology is more personal,” he says. “Meaning, ‘What can I do on my phone? What can I connect to and what kind of services can you offer me that I can do anywhere, like from my bed?’ They don’t want to go to the grocery store to get a ticket. It’s a matter of being personally connected. And that connection is truly direct between customers and the METRO,” Frazier says.

In fact, METRO recently participated in a meeting with a number of transit agencies throughout the US, where the topic of mobile ticketing was highlighted. “We’re one of the first ten to introduce mobile ticketing. But whether it be a ticket, schedule, or the next bus, it’s one of the next big things. You want to get information into the hands of customers on a direct level.”