For the first time, the Community Transportation Association of America’s (CTAA) annual Small Urban Network (SUN) meeting of fixed-route bus professionals took place in, you guessed it, a small city. Asheville, in the hills of western North Carolina, welcomed nearly 70 small-urban transit professionals from around the nation who gathered for two days of training, networking and tours all focused on big transit ideas for America’s small cities.
And of all the sessions that took place during the conference, the roundtable topic discussions where small groups of conference participants rotated through a series of seven key transit topics areas in 20-minute intervals proved the most popular. Attendees actively discussed their views on topics like the future of transit, technology, procurement, operations, human resources, economic development and ridership. CTAA had table leaders taking notes while the productive discussions took place. Here’s what we learned:
- At the ridership table, attendees — the majority of whom acknowledged declining ridership at their systems — discussed the importance of defining the success of their agencies on factors other than simply counting rides. The outcomes of the trips provided, all agreed, are a more telling statistic, and much discussion revolved around how to evaluate and communicate these outcomes. Marketing, communications and target markets were also covered at this table.
- The need to educate local elected officials, business groups and other key transit destinations (like health care providers) dominated discussion at the economic development table.
- Not surprisingly, the human resource table played host to a number of conversations about hiring and retaining drivers. Hiring for attitude, leadership development, value-based hiring and targeting efforts to younger employees were also covered.
- The procurement table pointedly discussed the need for more scalable procurement regulations for smaller transit operators and many participants offered specific areas in which this goal could be reached. Among the many ideas bantered about, GSA purchases for standard buses, raising the purchase thresholds for procurement regulations and the sharing of successful procurement practices for small-city transit systems stood out.
- Two issues permeated the technology table discussion. First, participants covered low-cost fare collection strategies, with an emphasis on phone-based systems. Next, attendees acknowledged that they need to be more educated technology consumers, to best ensure that they’re making the most appropriate and cost-effective buying decisions.
- At the operations table, replacing aging buses took center stage. The pros and cons of rehabilitating aging buses was a key topic as was the impact of transit asset management regulations that are now law.
- Finally, at the future table, conference attendees discussed what they really expect from autonomous (driver-less) technologies in terms of both timelines and potential. Interestingly, when asked how they might set up transit in their communities were they afforded the ability to start fresh, not a single transit leader thought they’d serve their community just as the current service does. In other words, all admitted that the advent of transportation network companies (TNCs), demographic trends and political realities would result in transit service design changes.
Each year, CTAA’s SUN Conference provides small-urban transit managers a focused opportunity to look at what they do and how they do it – all within the confines of sharing best practices and innovative ideas with peers. Best of all, the SUN is that rare chance for small city transit leaders to spend time at a conference that covers only operations of their size and scope. As one participant noted at the conference’s conclusion: “It’s the most beneficial conference I attend every year.”
Image Credit: Routematch