In the Spotlight: Matt Cole, Cubic Transportation Systems
For this month’s In the Spotlight article, we decided to catch up with the man in charge of Cubic Transportation Systems (CTS). CTS is a subset of the Cubic Corporation, a global defense and transportation company. They specialize in transportation payment systems. You have probably interacted with Cubic’s technology. London’s Oyster Card, Chicago’s Ventra system, and many other such systems around the world are all products of Cubic. Matt Cole is president of Cubic Transportation Systems and senior vice president of the Cubic Corporation. He is currently working on a new project – NextCity.
A key component of NextCity is a prototype transportation app that will tell you the fastest way to get from A to B, offer you coupons and deals if you travel at certain times, and would establish a single account system that would cover payment for all modes of transportation (yes, that includes ride-sharing, biking, tolling, etc.).
Matt took some time to talk to us recently about his background and the exciting future of NextCity.
Tell us about yourself
I have been with Cubic since 2003 when they were in the midst of London’s Oyster card project. I came on to look after the financial aspects of that project. Since then I have gradually been given more responsibility at Cubic. Some of my projects over the years have included the commercial relationship with Transport for London (the culmination of which was the big restructuring of the PFI Contract in 2008 that really paved the way for the contactless payment system that exists in London today) and the Opal card in Sydney, Australia.
While in Australia, I was tasked with finding a way to grow the Asia Pacific business. As I began my work, I noticed some intersections between people talking about how transportation is priced and paid for, how the data in transportation is used to make cities flow more effectively, and the need for integration between systems, and I noticed that people were talking about multimodalism more.
I started to think – How can Cubic play a bigger role in making some of this happen? And how can Cubic grow at the same time? This led me to come up with the NextCity concept.
I presented it to executive management and people liked it as a framework for the company globally. They gave me the chance to lead this new project so I transitioned out of my role in Australia and moved into a global strategy and business development role in late 2011, based in San Diego, and we’ve made great strides since then.
My mission now is to make the NextCity vision happen as quickly as I can.
Tell us about Cubic Transportation Systems
Cubic came about in the early 50s as a defense company. We focused mainly on location-related technology. We didn’t enter the transportation market until the early 70s. This was a result of noticing that many of the mechanical fare systems that were being installed at the time weren’t being run very well.
Over the next 45 years, we evolved fare collection technology from mechanical systems such as coins, bills and tokens to magnetic-stripe ticketing (the MetroCard in New York City is one of Cubic’s systems) and then to what we call closed loop transit smart cards – think Oyster cards and DC SmarTrip cards, and now, of course, the open payment systems in London and Chicago that directly accept debit, credit, and mobile phones at the turnstile or on the bus.
Since we launched the NextCity vision we have been purposefully broadening the company’s product lines in line with the vision and have continued to grow on the foundation of being the leader in smart card systems and electronic fare collection systems.
Why did you (Cubic) join Eno?
I’ve watched the evolution of Eno – starting out with traffic safety origins but broadening out to policy and research. Many of your members are working on similar concepts as NextCity. We want to be engaged in your conversation and help move the ball forward on the policies that will allow projects like NextCity to flourish.
Tell us about NextCity. What problem is it trying to solve?
The problem is a multi-faceted one. First and foremost, we have congestion at peak times and extra capacity off peak. We have disparate degrees of congestion depending on the mode. We have urbanization and population growth projections in urban areas that suggest that our problems will only become more complex. We have a series of disparate modes of transportation ranging from walking, cycling, taxis, buses, trains, subways, and personal cars. I would argue that the modes are becoming more disparate because of some of the great disruption that’s occurring in this industry. You have all of these individual modes that are trying to tackle this problem of congestion.
So the problem we’re trying to solve is how to optimize the whole transportation system through technology by bringing together these disparate modes.
The way we think we can do that is by using our foundations as a company as an organizing principle or coordinated framework for creating this integration.
The heart of NextCity is this concept that we call “one account.” This is the notion that you would be able to use the same payment instruments all tied to a single account across all of those modes.
In addition to “one account,” we are developing a series of data-driven tools and applications that allow agencies and operators to plan and manage cities more efficiently and provide proactive information to individual travelers – such as personalized and predictive journey alerts.
How are you going to protect all that data?
The privacy and data question is one that I get a lot. I believe there are three core ways you can answer that question.
First, you give people a choice. You don’t make it mandatory for them to register with the system and you provide them with an anonymous option. So in all of our smart card systems there is an option to have an unregistered smart card where the system does not know who you are. That concept needs to be maintained.
Second, if someone does choose to register you have to give them an insurance policy. You have to say we’re going to hold the data that you chose to give us in a highly private manner, here’s how we’re going to use it, and here’s how we’re going to protect it. All of our systems have specified degrees of security that apply to either national or international data security standards.
Finally, if you’re going to use the data there has to be mutual benefit to both parties. There has to be a process where the individual says yes, I would find predictive journey alerts useful and I would like you to use the data for that purpose.
How do you plan to standardize the data and information across different transportation providers?
The inbound data will definitely be varied. A transit smart card transaction will have different data components than a transaction from a toll tag going under a tolling gantry or a payment from a ride-sharing provider such as Uber. So the standardization will take place in the “one account” engine.
Basically the common denominator of all this inbound data will be tying the transaction to a known or unknown (anonymous) account. There will be common information about the transaction – the origin point, the destination point, the value of the transaction, for example. The “one account” engine would process the payments, deduct the value of the trip from the account balance, and the aggregation of that common data can be used to develop personalized profiles or journeys taken that would now be stored in the one account system.
What about low-income workers or travelers who don’t have smartphones or internet access?
Most of those customer segments are those that have unregistered smart cards in the transit context. So those options would continue to exist but the benefits that we were talking about before (like journey alerts) would be greatly reduced if they don’t have access to mobile phones.
I think over time the size of this segment will reduce dramatically as technology is becoming increasingly accessible.
Aside from getting people to work and home using the best route and at the best price, what other utility do you see this app having? Do you envision it playing a role in transportation planning or infrastructure investments?
This hits on what is one of the pillars of NextCity, which is using the data from a planning and operating perspective.
The micro applications we were talking about – using data on an individual level, looking at users preferences and habits – you can also be doing that in aggregate both in terms of what’s happening today, where are the issues, where are things operating efficiently, where are people likely to be going at certain times, through to planning and development type applications where you can look at all of this data and say okay, where is there an opportunity for improving capacity by investing in additional transit modes, or running more buses, or increasing the number of Uber cars in the city by X percent, etc.
What are some of the biggest challenges in implementing the NextCity app?
The big challenge will be getting all of the necessary pieces together in the same place.
I think another challenge is the market. The reality is that there is going to be competition. We’re not the only company trying to accomplish this or capable of doing this. Both public and private operators in a city are going to have a number of contractors that are doing all or part of what we are trying to do with NextCity.
The reality is going to require the supply base to play nicer with each other and to integrate more. It’s going to take some time for the marketplace to realize that there’s enough benefit to all stakeholders. I think convincing them to work together will be the slowest process.
I think there will also need to be policy changes. There will need to be some public policy written to establish some type of multimodal fare policy that can deal with consumers changing modes using the same payment system. It will take time to convince public agencies and private operators to come together and agree on policy.
Technically it’s all possible. What will dictate the pace is how quickly the marketplace decides to work together and how quickly the operator and the agency organizations work together. And bringing it full circle, that’s why we joined Eno and want to be a part of the policy conversation. I think it’s through forums like the ones Eno creates that perhaps we can move that ball along.
How close is NextCity to reality?
I think we’re very close. Everything that I’ve described is within the technical capacity of a company like Cubic. In fact, we have deployed as pilots or full production parts most of the key segments of NextCity.
(Photo: The Daily Telegraph)