SAN JOSE, CALIF. -- The room is a narrow cut of office space that could accommodate roughly 10 desks. Windows border one side; the other is an orange wall that opens to a nearby kitchen. It used to be a conference and lunch area.
But the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California’s Santa Clara County has big plans for this small space -- it now serves as the VTA Innovation Center, adorned with flat screens, digital workstations and other gadgetry. A grand opening event on Feb. 18 brought technologists from across the Silicon Valley to hear about a program that will act as a "living laboratory" for testing new technologies.
Independent from the city and county of Santa Clara, the VTA serves the region as a quasi-governmental entity that funds, plans and manages transit operations throughout the county.
“I’m hoping this Innovation Center is going to be the incubator of new ideas, but it will also develop and pilot existing ideas that have not yet been applied to public transportation or transportation in general,” said Nuria Fernandez, the VTA’s general manager.
Fernandez said the new initiative aims to rethink how VTA delivers bus, rail, roadway and other transportation services. As a catalyst for ingenuity, the center intends to pair itself with academics, startups, tech firms and nonprofits from the region. The center also will operate the VTA’s open data portal.
“We can’t pave our way out of congestion, but we can certainly utilize our infrastructure that we have in better ways. That’s why we’re gathered here today,” Fernandez said.
Current VTA projects include expanding Internet connectivity on buses and rail, improving county transit routing systems and installing sensors for clearer insights on traffic conditions. San Jose Vice Mayor and VTA Board Member Rose Herrera said innovations developed at the center are likely to be tested in the North San Jose Transportation Innovation Zone, an 11-mile stretch of roadways that contain 21 traffic signals, 670 street lights, a VTA bus yard and the intersection of two light rail lines. The area is well known as the testing grounds for Google’s self-driving cars. “This will allow innovators to emulate real-world conditions for the testing of, for example, self-driving vehicles, automated traffic enforcement, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, street light innovations, and sensors for collecting data on traffic, noise and air quality,” Herrera said.Tech startups and civic hackers will play a significant role at the center as well. The county is working with Transitmix, a company that sprouted from the civic tech organization Code for America, to deploy a system to route buses on the fly based on geospatial data such as population metrics from U.S. Census data. The startup AmigoCloud also is adding to VTA’s suite of mapping tools. The company is prototyping what the VTA tentatively calls its Multimodal Trip Planner, a tool that estimates trip times and costs for routes where multiple forms of travel are used. Moving forward, collaborations are in the works with San Jose State University's Mineta Transportation Institute and the San Jose Environmental Innovation Center for research and joint innovation endeavors. On June 6, the VTA also plans to use the center for the National Day of Civic Hacking where it will launch Hack My Ride 2015, an annual hackathon to generate apps, data visualizations, prototypes and ideas to improve Santa Clara’s transit experience. The event will be coupled with a four-month-long app challenge to focus on accessibility and open data usage.