TTC IT: The Better Way

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) bills itself as “The Better Way,” but how can you make The Better Way…well, better?

Why, IT, of course.

Enter John Cannon. He is a TTC lifer. “I’ve worked here for 32 years,” the affable, silver-haired CIO said. After working in corporate security, equipment management, management services and material procurement, he moved into the IT department eight years ago.

In his mission to make the Better Way better, Cannon has led the very IT evolution of the TTC, and is improving public transit for the masses via forays into GPS, SMS, and online.

All aboard

It all started off with a bang.

“When I came in, we were just coming off of Y2K, so we were patching our current systems instead of outright replacing everything,” he said. Rather than indulge in a little IT department panic, Cannon got his run as CIO off to a good start by using the scare to put in place a forward-thinking, cost-cutting policy that would eventually even earn him some green cred, too. “We put in a 10-year review process for equipment so that we would tweak things, but generally let them go. It keeps things in a state of good repair.”

While a solid move, it typified the business-as-usual of the IT department back then. IT was still in the back-room at that point. “We’re not an IT company — we’re a transit company,” said Cannon. “IT has always had a support role, but it wasn’t seen as a strategic directive…initially.”

That all changed in 2006. A change in the make-up of the Commission resulted in an annual general meeting that was to bring IT front and centre for the TTC of the future. “The new head of the Commission took an active interest in IT and wanted to put into place customer information systems for the public,” he said.

And, apparently, all at once and as soon as possible.

“They said, ‘Now, we’d like you to look at GIS, next train announcements, an online trip-planner…all at the same time,’” said Cannon. It was indeed intimidating: many of these initiatives had been tried elsewhere and either failed, or taken a very long time to run well. In New York City, for example, the next train arrival system took more than five years to implement.

Cannon and his staff of 168 got right to work.

Delayed again?!

The next two years saw a bunch of projects that have come to fruition in 2008 and 2009.

First up — service delay notifications, one of the somewhat easier endeavors. LCD TVs were installed in subway stations, where partner OneStop Media broadcasted information. Now, all they had to do was hook up their system with the transit control system, and then relay any delay information to the screens, alerting customers to service disruptions.

After a successful pilot in the Dundas station, it was so far, so good. Now, sending service disruptions in e-mail form and SMS is the next step, which is due for June.

Cannon was able to use the same technology to send next-train-arrival-time data to the terminals: a complete roll-out of that is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year. But alerting riders to how long it would be until the next streetcar or bus would be along…well, that was a little trickier.

Next vehicle arriving in…

First off, all surface vehicles run on a 25-year-old proprietary system, making retrofitting a big pain. “We had to add GPS by integrating it with very old technology,” he said. More hardware hassles lay ahead — the TTC now had to geocode all 11,000 bus-stops in the city.

It seemed to work well enough. The technology was first put to work successfully in the new “talking bus” program that automates stop announcements on streetcars and buses. But now the GIS, geocoded bus-stops, and GPS would have to work together to locate the streetcars and buses, calculate how long it would take to reach the next stop, and then relay this information to visual displays attached to the stops.

That meant, of course, that rugged LED-based monitors actually had to be installed at each stop. A streetcar pilot is already underway now, but Cannon estimates that it will take around three to four years to get screens up at each of the stops.

By June, the TTC will even be able to send out updates for certain stops via text message, and users can sign up to have notifications sent to them over the Web as well. Speed and accuracy is key. “We have to make sure we have that accountability of information,” said Cannon. “We’ve heard some stories that other (arrival notification) properties are still two minutes behind. People will have no trust in that information.”

You’d think that a complex project with such a tight timeframe would be hell for an IT team — even one of Cannon’s size. But they do have an advantage: a refreshing sense of real purpose. “They’re a great bunch of people, and they know that they’re bringing about change and are helping people,” according to Cannon. “So there’s a lot of excitement here. It’s daunting, but they’re getting it right.”

The best-laid plans

Meanwhile, back at TTC HQ, the public has been clamoring for the long-awaited online trip-planner. Its debut has been pushed back a few times, but the system is now due in July. “The conversion of current data has been a challenge. It makes sense internally for the staff (when giving directions), but it’s not very user-friendly. We just want to make sure that it is accurate,” said Cannon. Hopefully, it should be worth the wait — the trip-planner should contain some handy extras, such as notes on when to obtain transfers, and nearby lodging and sights.

(Along with the trip-planner, a newly redesigned Web site is in the works that will improve the ease-of-use of the site and also offer an online store where people can buy passes and other fare media.)

Next stop: success

Using IT to better The Better Way isn’t easy. The blogosphere is always abuzz with nitpicking over the Commission’s every technological move, and commuters can get very cranky when it comes to their transit, ongoing improvements or no.

But Cannon is determined to keep the “Red Rocket” roaring into the future and up-to-date with innovations that will keep its customers as cheery as possible. “All I hear is positives, although you do get, ‘What’s taking you so long?’. Bloggers don’t have a lot of patience.”

He said that the TTC is moving in the right direction, but cutting the Commission some slack would be nice. “We’re not just ramming something in so we can say, ‘See — we got something in.’ It’s not about that,” Cannon said.

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