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.
The Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority's (CARTA) SmartBus ITS program offers valuable guidance on information technology (IT) resource management while implementing ITS at a mid-size transit agency. CARTA's IT resources were limited. The agency had a Manager of Technology who was responsible for most IT functions at CARTA, from maintaining desktop computers to overseeing ITS deployments. With limited IT resources, CARTA took steps to control the maintenance burden that would be placed on the Manager of Technology as ITS-based systems were brought online. As noted below, CARTA’s experience offers valuable guidance to help ensure that an agency’s IT manager does not become overburdened as new ITS applications are deployed.
- Consider using virtual servers to reduce the number of physical servers. In general, the presence of more physical servers implies the requirement to perform more maintenance. There are more systems to back up and more pieces of hardware that might fail. For most of its projects, CARTA required that applications run on virtual servers hosted on a single physical server housed at the CARTA facility. This approach allowed CARTA to reduce the number of physical servers required to support its IT processes.
- Restrict applications to the use of a single database engine. Each database requires configuration and maintenance. If multiple database engines are used, then the IT staff will need to be familiar with the configuration and maintenance tools for each type of database in use. The tools to support data integration with the Data Warehouse could also differ for different database engines. With this in mind, CARTA required that all newly acquired CARTA applications use the same database engine.
- Limit the number of active deployments to a manageable level. CARTA's Manager of Technology was responsible for overseeing all ITS deployments as well as maintaining already deployed systems. Thus, each active deployment placed an additional workload on the Manager of Technology. To alleviate the burden, in the cases where some deployment activities were moved forward in time (e.g., deployment of the bus arrival time system), other activities were delayed to keep the workload manageable.
- Test applications thoroughly before accepting them. Developing and documenting a thorough testing process can be a time consuming activity. However, the process of fixing a problem in a production system can be even more time consuming. Also, the time required for testing can be scheduled. When problems occurred, they typically disrupted schedules and required immediate attention. With limited resources, identifying and correcting problems during scheduled testing periods is much less disruptive than correcting problems as they occur in a system that is already in use.
- Make appropriate use of consultants to assist with the deployment process. At the start of CARTA's ITS deployment, a Manager of Technology was hired whose primary responsibilities were the deployment and maintenance of technologies at CARTA. CARTA supplemented this person with an outside contractor who provided additional resources when needed, and contributed a complementary set of skills to that of the Manager of Technology. For example, from 2003 through 2009, CARTA used its consultant primarily to provide systems engineering, specifications development, and testing processes services. This allowed the Manager of Technology to focus on other areas where his strengths and experience were concentrated.
The more ITS technologies are deployed, the more IT personnel shall be in demand at a transportation agency. Taken together, the approaches above allowed CARTA to effectively deploy and maintain its ITS technologies with the limited IT support staff that was available. CARTA’s experience on IT resource management shall serve as guidance to similarly mid-size transit agencies’ ITS program.