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Transit Industry Perspective: Q&A with Robyn Chiarelli

Transit leader provides insight into new technology

Meet Robyn Chiarelli. Robyn is Executive Director at Sun Trolley, a charming trolley system located in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The Trolley system provides convenient transportation to endless entertainment and dining options in the heart of the city. Riders have the ability to track the Trolley in real-time with the free Sun Trolley Tracker app. The mobile app utilizes a GPS system that shows you exactly where the Sun Trolley, Water Trolley, the Pelican Hopper, and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea free shuttle is located. Get Chiarelli’s insight into how mobile ticketing benefits transit agencies, the impact it’s making to the industry, and where transit will be in the future:

Q: Can you give me a little background into how you got into the industry? Tell me a little about your role at SunTrolley?

Robyn:  I’m the Executive Director at SunTrolley and have been in that position since July 2014. I’ve been involved with the board of directors since 2007 – first as a volunteer working on route planning and marketing and then in 2009 I was invited onto the Executive Board of Directors as a representative of the Florida Department of Transportation.

I got into the transportation industry on accident. I actually have a biology and an environmental science degree and I studied at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. First, I wanted to be a doctor and then I wanted to be an environmental scientist. For 5 years, I was an biological science technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We were studying a species in South Florida with a 5 year grant and once the grant was over, I was unemployed. I went to a conference for air quality and I came across people there that had commuter services information, and they encourage employees and commuters to take alternative routes to get to and from work. We talked for a bit and really hit it off and at the end of the conversation they told me I should apply for a job at their organization. I didn’t have any experience in the industry and I didn’t take it seriously until they introduced me to the CEO of the company. Within the next 3 days, I had a job. From there I was Outreach Coordinator for South Florida Commuter Services and after that I was recruited to oversee the entire program, while I was there I took on additional projects as my expertise expanded.

Q: How has the transportation industry changed since you’ve been in it?

R: The first thing that comes to mind is Uber and the fact that everyone has a smart phone. Now everybody has a computer at their fingertips, which is great because no matter what financial background you are, many get smartphones before anything else. If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I think the triangle really needs to add communication to its list. Communication is key and without it the world would be turned upside down. Everything from the Baby Boomers to now the Millennials play a huge part in the workforce and in turn, greatly impact the transportation industry.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing?

R: Since we all utilize our smartphones to communicate, mobile technology is rapidly progressing. No matter what demographic you are, pretty much everyone has the Internet at their fingertips. I think mobile ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft have really turned the industry on its back. Awhile back, I called a bunch of local hotels as a secret shopper to see if they’d recommend the SunTrolley to their guests. The first thing out of most their mouths was Uber-this, Uber-that because it’s considered extremely convenient for vacationers. I think there’s a huge opportunity for our industry to sell to these individuals, however, this poses as a huge challenge for us. We’re really seeing a hit in our ridership numbers due to these apps and I think that we need to continue to focus on the background of the SunTrolley. Instead of just focusing on getting from point A to point B, we really need to hit on the fact that it’s a charming experience you wouldn’t get with ridesharing apps.

There’s really a holistic approach to the transportation industry – it’s great when an industry can help both public and nonprofit organizations be better at what they do. I think that’s what Uber has been doing and now they are starting Uber Pool, which allows people to carpool. Now they’re really entering the multimodal landscape. I think the Department of Transportation and transit agencies need to take a look at these entities and really start taking them seriously. The bottom line is moving people to the places that they need to get to. Ultimately, this improves economic development and makes the world a better place by allowing people to access education and employment opportunities.

Q: How do things like mobile ticketing impact the transportation industry?

R: I think that it’s a similar concept as Uber. Mobile ticketing allows people to have the power in their own hands. Having knowledge is power. I think you have to be able to pay for your goods and services and part of that is researching it beforehand. Today, you can get that control immediately. In the past, I’d research how to pay for transit and now we have the ability to purchase and manage fare tickets in the palm of our hands.

Q: Why do you think mobile ticketing is important?

R: I think mobile ticketing is really a game changer. Not only from a customer’s standpoint, but an operations standpoint. As a transit agency, when you’re not handling cash it allows you to free up staff time to do other tasks. Having to count cash and having a back room where there’s cash requires high levels of security and security cameras, and it really becomes more of a hassle. And from an end-user standpoint, it’s really a game changer to be able to utilize mobile tickets rather than ticket stubs.

Q: What type of innovations in the transportation industry do you see happening within the next 5 years?

R: I ask myself this question a lot. On a larger scale globally, I think that innovation needs to focus on reducing the cost of building capital expenditures, such as buses or rail. The one major factor that prevents society from moving forward is the cost of building and operating these transit options.