It is with great pleasure that I present Full Path Transit Technology, my new consultancy dedicated to serving the needs of community transit1. I created it with the goal of providing thinking and tools around technology that respond to the current moment the industry is in.
And what an interesting moment it is. Until a few years ago community transit was a sleepy and staid niche in the transportation sector, below radar even within many transit circles. Now that flexible transportation options are front and center in so many transportation and urban planning conversations, community transportation providers are confronted with a striking set of opportunities and crises.
On the opportunity side, technology offers a chance to transform operations by increasing efficiency and dramatically improving the customer experience. For the first time, graceful and timely communication between all the actors involved in service provision is possible in a wide range of scenarios. Few are the providers who are not ruminating on what an “app” could do to bring greater mobility and dignity to those they serve.
The crises stem largely from the fact that this is not change that the transit industry started or invited. Instead, it was barbarian hoards from Silicon Valley that smelled inefficiency and latent demand for greater mobility options. They came with new business models (and some repackaged old ones) fueled by billions of dollars in venture capital. The response by the industry has been slow. After a period of dismissing the new arrivals, followed by worried observation, many larger transit agencies are now in reaction mode as their ridership declines, due in large part to competition from Uber and Lyft.
Most community transit providers do not have even the privilege of reacting. Cash-poor, even by transit standards, they have few resources to retool. Even if they did, the current ambient level of hype makes it unclear how to proceed. Which technologies are truly relevant to a provider serving marginalized populations? Will an app really help? How can agencies engage with the sea changes surrounding them while providing service in a fair and equitable fashion? The questions are many, daunting, and increasingly urgent as the divide between public expectations and agency capacity grows.
The Full Path Approach
It’s in this context that Full Path jumps into the fray, taking an opinionated stance rooted in years of successes and failures putting technology into the hands of small organizations. Here is a quick take on how we think about responding to the challenges ahead.
Technology In Its Place
We believe in appropriate technology. The term comes from a movement in economic development circles, but I don’t mean it in the sense of a creating a new water pump design or a better mosquito net. Rather, we embrace its broader philosophical approach to creating technological tools — the focus on simplicity, decentralization, sustainability, and empowerment of the people using the technology.
In a society where technology is held out as panacea, it’s valuable for mission-based organizations to work with the support of philosophies that provide a vision for applying tech only where it makes sense and can be sustained over time.
A motto for Full Path on this front might be: “Use technology, not too much, mostly open2” (with apologies to Michael Pollan).
Understand the Systems and the People
With technology properly humbled, we can focus on people, how they’re solving their problems, and where they need a hand. Solutions that come from a genuine curiosity and interest in understanding of how things are operating, combined with compassion for the people running them, will achieve much better results than technical fixes built on little interest in how things work and loaded with assumptions about how things should work.
Build on Strengths
If you’re worried that VC-funded goliaths are sucking up all the oxygen in the flexible transit space, you have good reason. One of the key shifts that Uber, Lyft, and similar start-ups have brought is the bundling of technology and services. Rather than think of them as tech companies providing a service, it may be more useful to think of them as service providers with particularly robust in-house technology. So robust that, by design, it may be impossible to ever catch up with them.
So how to respond? The roots of the solutions to keep community transportation viable lie precisely in the community-based nature of the sector. Cash-poor services have persisted not because they are profitable on the ledger, but because they play critical roles where they serve. We believe it’s possible and essential to develop technology systems that reflect that reality in their design.
In practice, that means working towards systems which are small and simple enough that they play well at the scale of a community provider, while also being open enough to allow for integration with other systems and services. Happily, recent trends in the larger software development world, namely microservice architectures and distributed authentication systems such as JWT, make this approach easier than it’s ever been.
If you’ve embraced small and open and you then want to scale up, the next step is think about how your components are going to integrate and exchange data with other components in some way — maybe yours, maybe ones belonging to other organizations. Just how those connections are made can lead to new possibilities for service delivery, that’s where platform-centered thinking comes in. With thoughtful design, it’s possible to build lightweight and effective systems for coordination, whether it’s between operations and finance within an organization, or between a group of organizations committed to a mesh of transportation options.
At the broadest scale, a platform approach makes participation in a mobility as a service network possible. It’s in this opportunity that I think community transportation may find its greatest chance at continued relevance in the years to come. More on that soon.
Just the Beginning
This first post is just the start. Stay tuned to learn more about what we’re working on.
If you’re interested in exploring how we can help your organization, please contact us. We’d be delighted to hear from you.
“Community transit” is a term that merits some explanation. I’ll be using it in my work to describe a wide range of personal mobility services that lean towards the small and are provided by a public agency, non-profit, or other community group (such as a faith-based organization). Conventionally, it has been used to describe volunteer driver programs and transportation targeted to serve veterans, older adults, people with disabilities, people in rural or small communities, and folks needing medical transportation. At its broadest, it’s a definition by exclusion, meaning almost any transit that isn’t provided in a city by a full-size bus or a train. Often, community transit is designed to be flexible by going off-route on request or by having no route and being door-to-door service. Sometimes it involves using taxis or other private transportation providers working under contract. Think of it as the set of mobility options that is designed to respond with finer-grained precision when the blunter instrument of conventional “fixed-route” transit cannot viably serve the needs of a particular group of people. I use the term “community” with some misgivings. Larger-scale transit is a crucial resource to any region and I do not mean to imply that it is in any way anti-community. Rather, my intent is to identify the mobility options that are at the scale of and tailored to specific and identifiable communities rather than entire urban areas. ↩
“Open” can mean many different things when it comes to technology. Most folks have heard about open source software, but that’s only one form of openness and often not the most important one. Other key forms are open data, open data formats, and open application programming interfaces (APIs). The value and relevance of each varies with the situation. ↩