A licensed professional engineer with a history of implementing solutions to capitalize on Ohio’s rich legacy of transportation, manufacturing and technical resources, Joanna Pinkerton joined COTA as president/CEO in April 2018.
What experience do you bring from working on the private and public side of the industry to your current role?
My experience and background in highly technical and productive organizations —both public and private — has helped me develop the skills needed to convene these groups. Of the many demands placed on the president/CEO role — the ability to bring various entities and teams together to deliver is essential. The bold steps we are taking to improve the customer experience, increase ridership, serve the business community and expand mobility options in Central Ohio requires an understanding of the importance of partnership; not just public-private, but between public, private, academic, and non-profit as well.
A prime example of that is our new Downtown C-pass Program. We are focused on reducing downtown Columbus traffic congestion, preserving mobility capacity for future economic growth, and committed to pollution reduction by providing more efficient access to downtown jobs through this employer-funded transit pass program. COTA combined financial, intellectual and marketing resources with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District and local private business and government agencies to provide unlimited transit passes for downtown employees. Nearly 15,000 have signed up in just a seven-month span, taking advantage of this employer-sponsored benefit.
It is important to develop multi-faceted public-private and public-public relationships for mobility to advance for everyone in a community. Multiple parties need to buy into and become invested in that mission of prioritizing mobility access as a fundamental issue which supports economic growth and the social determinates of a healthy community. It takes a lot of work to serve as a convener, and I believe transit leaders are perfectly situated to identify needs of varying partners and bring them together to reach that common goal.
What agency initiatives do you feel helped contribute to winning the APTA award last year?
There are multiple initiatives that led to our receiving the award. Most certainly COTA’s system redesign in mid-2017 was one of them. We were one of the first in the nation to perform a complete overhaul of the entire system — our first redesign in 40 years. The focus on neighborhoods and employment centers placed our high frequency routes within walking distance to 89 percent more residents and 71 percent more jobs.
We made customer-focused decisions, putting free Wi-Fi on our entire fleet of 320-plus buses. Our customers can commute to work or access much-needed community services with the comfort and convenience of riding while surfing the internet. Our vehicles are also equipped with GPS and CAD-AVL systems, providing real-time trip planning for our customers through online resources and new displays embedded in our bus stops along our highest capacity corridors.
COTA also launched our first Bus Rapid Transit service — CMAX, which travels from downtown Columbus to Westerville, a heavily-populated suburban city. This was a strategic investment on our part, coordinated with public, private and academic entities. The service provides access to more than 200,000 jobs along the corridor, three post-secondary institutions, and two health care institutions and the investments are paying off — demonstrating a 17 percent increase in ridership in the first year alone. We are also seeing month-to-month increases on CMAX so far in 2019.
We are also focused on helping our community and our business model by contributing to the education and development of the next generation of skilled trade workers. Last year we launched the first year of COTA’s Vehicle Maintenance Internship Program. It is now in its second year. Our team works with high school educators and administrators to recruit high school seniors to work alongside skilled trades professionals during their senior year. This is a paid internship and students learn invaluable skills which they can utilize after graduation with job offers from COTA or other employers in our community.
COTA is also continuing our commitment to environmental sustainability. We will eliminate diesel buses within five years. More than 50 percent of our fleet is compressed natural gas (CNG) already, and as we continue to remove diesel from our fleet, we are committed to deploying electric vehicles in addition to our CNG fleet.
What is the agency’s current challenge that you’re focused on solving?
The entire mobility industry — transit, automotive, infrastructure alike — is experiencing an incredible period of disruption which I see as unlimited opportunity. Having worked in government and academic and non-profits for a while now, I know how challenging it can be to structure agencies which are accustomed to regulation. All of us in the industry must be nimble enough to adapt to customer needs — particularly us in the public mobility business — where we are uniquely situated to ensure equitable mobility services for all people.
How is COTA working to integrate itself with the new mobility paradigm?
COTA is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio the nation’s first U.S Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge grant recipient. During the development of the program, we have developed a strong partnership with the city and the private partners deploying pilot projects throughout the community to serve residents better through the application of technology.
COTA is currently working with the Smart Columbus Team on several projects including: a common payment system, multimodal trip planning applications, and centralized mobility hubs where multiple modes of personal transport can be accessed. Just last month, COTA’s Board of Trustees approved the implementation process for the first of nine mobility hubs in the region. These locations will put rideshare services, scooters, vehicle sharing and microtransit companies at COTA Park and Rides and terminals to ensure customers have first-last mile solutions as part of their mass transit trip.
What was one of your most memorable experiences riding public transportation?
Last Dec. 29, The Columbus Foundation, our community’s leading philanthropic organization hosted a city-wide celebration event called "The Big Explore." The date celebrated the 75th anniversary of the community choosing to invest in others through philanthropy. As part of “The Big Explore,” the Foundation covered costs to ensure free museum admission to six of our community’s cultural institutions such as the nationally number one ranked COSI (Center for Science and Industry), the new congressionally-designated National Veterans Memorial and Museum, the Columbus Museum of Art and many others.
I rode the bus with the CEO of The Columbus Foundation to some of the venues and met so many great people who were trying COTA service for the first time. We met a retired couple from one of the suburbs whom has traveled the world, and used transit in foreign countries, but they admitted they never used the bus system in their own hometown! They did not realize how easy it was with one of our main lines running through their neighborhood, nor how often the bus came by their home (every 10-15 minutes). I could see their eyes opening to another opportunity to explore Columbus in a different way from that day forward.
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