A Case Study on Applying the Systems Engineering Approach: Best Practices and Lessons Learned from the Chattanooga SmartBus Project
Chattanooga, Tennessee is a city of about 170,000 people (about 500,000 in the metropolitan area) located near the Tennessee-Georgia border. The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority's (CARTA) provides transit services for the City of Chattanooga and portions of nearby counties. CARTA serves this area by providing fixed-route bus service (16 routes), curb-to-curb transit for people with disabilities (Care-A-Van), a free electric shuttle in the downtown area, an incline railway up historic Lookout Mountain, several parking garages, and management for much of the on-street parking in the downtown area. It is a moderate-sized transit organization in a moderate-sized community. In 2003, CARTA undertook an ITS project, SmartBus, which entailed introduction of many interdependent technologies across the entire range of CARTA operations:
- Various network technologies were deployed to provide connectivity across CARTA's fixed and mobile assets
- Technologies were deployed to help automate and modernize many field operations, such as automatic passenger counters and new bus fare boxes
- Technologies were deployed to help automate and modernize many back office operations, such as new dispatch and revenue management systems
- A data warehouse was developed to consolidate data collected during CARTA operations, and reporting tools were created to take advantage of this data warehouse
The deployment was challenging and susceptible to risks of failure. Effectively managing the risks, CARTA successfully implemented the SmartBus technologies over a period of 6 years, from 2003 to 2009, with most of the deployment completed. In November 2009, the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO) of the United States Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) published an independent evaluation report documenting CARTA’s experiences in planning and implementing the SmartBus project. Presented below are lessons learned from CARTA’s experience that could be beneficial to other mid-size transit agencies’ planning for implementation of ITS program.
Before the start of the SmartBus project in 2003, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) was not a heavy user of ITS technologies. The agency had computerized systems to support mostly back office operations, such as accounting, timekeeping, and payroll. The agency had a GIS software application to manage paratransit operations, though same-day reservations often had to be managed manually, and drivers used printed manifests to manage and record its routes. Fixed and flex route buses were equipped with fareboxes and headsigns, but operating these devices required considerable manual input from drivers. Incline Rail ticket sales were recorded in manual logs. Thus, a mixture of standalone applications and manual procedures were used to manage CARTA operations. With SmartBus project, CARTA successfully deployed ITS technologies to significantly automate the processes, integrate applications, and improve efficiency and productivity in agency’s operations and services. CARTA’s success story is summarized below.
- Develop a long-term vision for increased operational efficiency with the use ITS technologies. With the advent of the SmartBus project, CARTA envisioned an environment where manual processes were eliminated and data shared freely among applications. This would lead CARTA to automate many activities that previously required manual steps. It would also create a data-rich environment where CARTA could mine archived operations data to identify opportunities for improvement. For example, the integration of fuel usage and maintenance data through deploying and utilizing a data warehouse allowed CARTA to include both maintenance and fuel costs when assessing the cost-effectiveness of different fuels.
However, making the transition from an organization that made limited use of technology to one in which technology would be an integral part of its operations was challenging. There were a number of activities that appeared as success factors to CARTA's meeting the challenge:
- Use systems engineering processes to manage ITS deployments. CARTA developed documents including, for example, a systems overview (concept of operations) plan that described its long-term vision for ITS and a systems engineering model with “V” processes tailored for CARTA. Various planning, process model, and design documents helped the agency keep track of its deployments and helped ensure that long lead-time activities were completed in time to support its future plans.
- Build a data warehouse early on to facilitate and manage ITS integration. CARTA developed a data warehouse early on. The presence of a data warehouse simplified CARTA’s other deployments in two ways. First, the data warehouse provided reporting tools, which eliminated the need for sophisticated reporting tools in individual CARTA applications. Second, applications could be integrated with the data warehouse, reducing the total number of interfaces that were required.
- Sequence deployments with consideration to mutual dependencies among applications and avoid temptation to do too much too fast. CARTA scheduled its deployments so that systems were deployed sequentially, avoiding deployment of dependent systems haphazardly or simultaneously. For example, one reason the CARTA data warehouse was its first ITS deployment was that so many other systems would need to integrate with it. Deploying it first meant that it could be operating stably before these other integrations occurred.
- Be flexible to accept schedule delays when needed to help manage deployment risks. When changes to CARTA's deployment schedule were needed, CARTA was willing to accept delays in order to control risks. For example, when the bus arrival time prediction system was deployed early to take advantage of an outside funding opportunity, CARTA delayed other deployment activities so as not to overburden its limited IT resources.
- Perform a through testing of the systems before introducing them to operations. CARTA displayed a strong commitment to thoroughly testing all systems before accepting them as complete and introducing them to operations. CARTA found and corrected many problems during final testing. If these problems had occurred in an operational system, they could have reduced the confidence of the public and CARTA management in the ITS plans.
The SamrtBus program’s independent evaluators concluded that CARTA's approach to transit ITS deployments had been a success. Most of the technologies the agency identified in its 2003 plan were in place by the end of 2009, with the final few scheduled for deployment by the end of 2010. Those whose jobs were impacted by the technologies spoke favorably of their use. Following a systems-engineering approach helped CARTA successfully deploy ITS technologies and improve operational efficiency and productivity across the agency.