Written by Move Forward
This article was originally published on December 27, 2016
Welcome to Move Forward’s new Q&A series where we’ll interview today’s movers and shakers in the transportation world. Today we’re featuring Adam Mehl, the Market Development Specialist at Metro Transit in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Learn more about Adam’s experience and future plans for the 2016 Transit System of the Year.
Could you tell me a little about your background and how you came to be the Market Development Specialist for Metro Transit?
I’ve been at Metro Transit just about five years. Before that, I worked in various nonprofits, mostly in public radio and human services. I came to Metro Transit for the marketing position and worked on technology projects from the get-go. We didn’t have an app when I started, so I made the case and helped determine what we’d need to do to make it a reality.. At the time. we did not want to build our own app but share our data and let third parties use it, which was standard for most agencies. Even so, I kept looking into it and found out where an app would make the most sense.That’s how we ended up where we are today.
I also worked on website redesign early on, well before the app was even close to a reality, and through that started dealing with a lot of the technology projects here at Metro transit, those kinds of app-related, web-related programs, and things like texting communications with our customers. In addition, I’ve done branding campaigns and promotion for certain ridership events. Thanks to a very supportive agency, I’m able to do what I’m doing today.
I’m not formally trained, I’m just an enthusiast who wanted to learn more. I started researching on my own, going to conferences, talking with other people in the industry. It was an interest and passion I had and was thankfully encouraged by the agency to explore. Researching and watching the transit industry, as well as other industries utilizing apps, was a great way to figure out a use case that would make sense for us.
What are the core technology capabilities of Metro Transit that you bring to the market? Where does Metro Transit fit in within the industry?
Metro Transit is using technology to give customers easy access to information and lower the barriers to communicating with us. We’ve been using SMS messaging to alert customers about planned, long-term route detours, stop closures and other issues and are hoping to use the same system to provide real-time updates in the future. We will also very soon be using SMS as a way for customers to let us know about public safety issues they encounter while traveling on the system. This is a feature that will eventually be built into the app itself, but it is really important that customers without access to a smartphone have the same ability to contact us when they may not feel comfortable making a phone call. We’re also trying to help customers make choices with real-time information, like a feature that shows how full a bus is. On top of those things, we have a full website redesign on the horizon. As part of this project, we’re building a site that has more flexibility and can change more fluidly as customer needs change.
What in your experience has been the most radical change in the transportation sector, which has set the pace of technologies and innovations to come for the coming decade?
Private mobility companies are the huge one we’re all dealing with now. There’s a lot of ways for people to get around not using their own vehicles. That used to be mostly the domain of public transit. That’s changing, and now there are many players in the game that are giving people more options. That enables folks to take more transit and other modes where they leave their cars at home, so figuring out how we continue to fit into all that is important. We’re all really looking towards how we can leverage modes outside of transit and convert customers to use their personal vehicles less. In some people’s view we’re competing with ride providers like Uber, Lyft, and CarShare, but I think we’re working in tandem with them towards similar goals. The whole point is to give people options other than driving alone.
In addition, just the ability to buy a fare on a phone is a big shift for transit agencies. One of the things I haven’t seen talked about very much — beyond operational savings and the ease of offering fare payment to a customer — is the relationship you build with someone simply by being present on their phone. Being on someone’s home screen is something that I don’t think a lot of companies really appreciate. Ten years ago, online dating was seen as a non-mainstream pursuit. Now, with Tinder and other dating apps, they’ve moved into the phones, which are an intimate space; it’s our own personal little world. It makes the idea of them more normal. Transit apps haven’t really explored that, in my personal opinion. I’d believe that’s a real, tangible benefit of having an app on a customer’s phone — building a bond that normalizes behavior like it did for online dating.
Conversely, what are the gaps that remain to be filled?
The biggest gap is figuring out how we fit into this ecosystem with other transportation providers and how to look holistically at all the ways people get around. For a very long time, it was just transit and personal vehicles. Then, at least in our market, it was transit, personal vehicles, and bikes as the big ones. Now we’ve got these other players within the last five years that are so much bigger and growing quickly. Now we have a lot more actors vying for a piece of the action. Finding out the way to bring those all together is key..
Outside of the work you do for Metro Transit, what’s something new in the world of transit you’re excited about?
I was just at a conference for mobility as a service and had a lot of conversations around trying to fill those gaps. Figuring out the private sector’s role, the public sector’s role, I think those are going to be intertwined a lot more than they have been in the past, and more visible. That’s what’s most exciting for me. Every time there’s advancement in technology that allows us to connect each other with transportation, it seems to have a ripple effect that affects us, so I’m excited to see that play out.
Where do you see Metro Transit in the next five years?
I’d like to see us be leaders in technology. Our new mobile app will be a jumping-off point for looking at what we can do beyond just the basics. If you go on the Wayback Machine and take a look at the early Metro Transit website, it was really basic and just had schedules and not a whole lot else. While what we’re doing is very exciting and important to me now, I’m hoping that in five, 10, 15 years, we get to look back on this app and I can have the same feeling of, “Wow, I can’t believe that’s where we started and here’s where we’re at today.”
Are there any new features or upcoming upgrades that you’re excited about and would like to give us a sneak peek into?
In addition to the app, improving service itself which is always exciting. This past summer, we opened our first rapid bus line with faster, more frequent service, and stations with shelters, real-time information and other features. . It’s a lot like light rail, really — customers buy their fares before boarding and generally don’t have to look at the schedule — they just walk up to the station and the bus will be there within 10 minutes. I’m excited we’ll have more of that service in other corridors over the coming years, and that we’re using technology in all these new, exciting ways to make our service more efficient and better for customers.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give someone who wants to break into the industry?
Be persistent and just ask the questions. I think in my case it was one of those situations where it wasn’t necessarily that anyone was against it, there were just different strategies in place. A lot of people are coming in like myself, who think really differently about transportation and the government’s role and how technology can handle that. If you’re not hearing about it or the agency’s not doing it, it’s not necessarily that they do not want to do that. There’s a whole group of people doing things one way, and not thinking in the same space. It’s not always going to come up on its own, so keep asking those questions. Do that, do your homework, make your case, and it’ll be pretty hard to deny what you’re asking for.