The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) brings innovation, sustainability, and equity.
COTA, a public transit agency serving the Columbus, Ohio, metropolitan area, is an innovator in public transportation that has made ongoing improvements throughout its networks and fleets since 1974.
Location: Columbus, Ohio
Size: 1100 employees
Columbus, Ohio, is the 14th largest city in the United States, and its population is expected to grow by 1 million within the next 20 years. "One of the reasons that Columbus is growing so much is that it's really easy to live here," says Sophia Mohr, chief innovation and technology officer at the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA). "And it's easy to live here because it's really easy to commute and move around. But with the rapid growth that's going to happen in this area, this is going to be more challenging."
COTA is a public transit agency serving the Columbus metropolitan area, operating fixed-route vehicles, microtransit, and paratransit services, with rapid transit bus lines in development. From the moment the agency began operating in 1974, it has been an innovator in public transportation, making gradual improvements throughout its networks and fleets.
As a publicly funded agency, COTA chooses strategically—and invests responsibly—in a future that enables growth in the Central Ohio Region. It chooses innovation and sees technology as something that cannot only improve mobility today, but also allow it to be more innovative in the future. "We believe that innovation in transit technology is a key factor in supporting the growth of the Central Ohio region," Mohr explains. COTA has been providing Wi-Fi to its customers since 2017, and it has recently worked with Cisco to upgrade its technology by installing new Cisco Catalyst IR1833 Rugged Routers on its fleet of 400 transit vehicles.
Upgrading helps the transit authority focus on its mission, "To Move Every Life Forward," not only by physically moving people from one place to another, but by expanding on what mobility can do for individuals while they are using public transportation.
"Equity has always been one of the prevailing values for COTA," Mohr says. "We center our strategic plan around diversity and inclusion." Free Wi-Fi on COTA vehicles might not immediately bring equity to mind—some may only think of people streaming entertainment or social media on their phones while waiting at a transit stop. But connectivity can also be a huge help to people who cannot afford data plans. Customers can use the COTA network to do their homework, search for a new home, look for and apply for jobs, and other online activities that many others may take for granted.
"We have to make sure that we have a customer experience that gives people what they need," Mohr says. "What we are trying to do as a team is really look at what the community needs and engage in forward thinking." This approach means that COTA can also use the innovation on its vehicles for collaboration in wider community projects.
A recent joint effort with the Columbus Metropolitan Library included COTA providing access for library members to download and read their books while aboard COTA vehicles. "At 5G speeds, passengers can download the book and start reading it without wondering where they'll get another connection," explained Jason Yanni, senior director of product management and innovation at COTA. "And we are able to promote this because we have the capabilities and the reach."
Another collaboration between the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), Columbus City Schools, and COTA was a great success: Students picking up free school lunches during the pandemic could use the COTA Wi-Fi network to download and access an app with educational materials and scientific experiments they could do at home.
COTA is committed to using its fleet and technology to provide a service for the community in addition to traditional transit functions. "COTA is responsive," explains Sarah Jacobs, senior brand manager of the marketing and customer experience team at COTA. "And we're constantly keeping a finger on the pulse of technology evolution and looking for ways we can make the overall customer experience seamless, safe and easy. We're about continuous improvement."
COTA maintains a strong focus on the community and sustainability. With the projected growth for the Columbus area, a strong public transit system will be very important to help lower emissions and prevent traffic congestion. COTA is on the move to zero emissions as it continually increases the use of alternative energy across its fleet.
COTA also invests in technologies that can be easily upgraded and therefore last longer. The Catalyst IR1833 Rugged Routers that COTA is installing on its buses are flexible and adopt the latest Wi-Fi 6 standards. They will bring 5G to customers, but they will also make updating to 6G easy since there will be no need to replace the whole system.
"It's a modular unit, so instead of swapping out the entire router, we just swap out the module. Instead of taking 30 minutes each, it takes five minutes," Yanni said. "We wouldn't have to hire a contractor to come in and swap out a router on 400 buses. It's a much more manageable process that is also 10 times less expensive."
Swapping a module is 85 percent cheaper than replacing a router, and COTA will see a significant return on investment on the initial router purchase. "Our community wants to make sure that we're spending tax dollars efficiently," Yanni says. "We're primarily sales tax-funded. The life cycle on that technology needs to be long because of the cost and the labor associated with such a large number of assets. And this technology decision allows us to continue to stay modern at a reduced cost."
Columbus received a well-deserved nomination as a Smart City, and Columbus agencies aim to work smarter. COTA is leading the way by looking into safety and security enhancements. "We will now have the ability to check in on the bus while it's on the road. If we have any type of issue, we're able to jump right in there and take a look," Jim Carson, network manager at COTA, says.
The new Cisco routers bring 5G to on-vehicle technologies, as well. And zero-touch deployment speeds up the process of new routers integrating into the network. The installation simplicity makes it much easier to get the technology up and running. The new setup with a common dashboard allows COTA staff to see content across various platforms, improving operations and providing a window into the functionality of each fixed-route vehicle.
"With the [Internet of Things] IoT Operations Dashboard, we can see that certain buses aren't checking in," Yanni explains. "Then we dig deeper to determine why. We may need to get one of our technical team on board or determine if it's something we can fix remotely. The dashboard comes with a lot of tools that allow us to look into the router remotely and determine how to resolve an issue."
COTA is currently piloting Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul (Cisco URWB) radios for a robust digital infrastructure. The agency is combining the onboard routers' redundant macro cellular 5G and LTE services from a provider and private wireless solutions based on unlicensed broadband radios using Cisco URWB technology. By supporting a multi-wireless access path, COTA is navigating digital solutions that enhance safety, customer experience, and operations.
The new system also enables other enhanced security features and allows for future security projects. Yanni names just a short list of subjects on the agenda: "We will want to learn how the connectivity is going to help us with things like enhanced travel, traffic, and signal prioritization. We envision the ability to communicate with emergency response vehicles that are around the city, ensuring that we know where they are." The scope of work and opportunities shows the dedication of COTA and the potential functionalities afforded by future-ready Cisco industrial routers.
The objective to deploy scalable, more secure, and future-ready 5G Wi-Fi on all COTA vehicles is now underway. COTA will have more accurate ridership numbers and clear visibility to internal vehicle environments for safety, security, and support. The agency will also have the ability to upgrade software remotely while enhancing speed and connectivity to customer devices.
With the new industrial routers and their ease of installation and upgrades, COTA will be able to save time and costs that can be spent on other projects. The future of technology can also allow for things we are only imagining right now.
"In the future, we see all of these vehicles and infrastructure talking to each other," concludes Mohr. "And that will allow for many things—including understanding traffic congestion, where accidents may occur, and how to improve safety for pedestrians. We're not there yet but moving to 5G and the lower latency that comes with it is the first step."