India Birdsong lived the first 12 years of her life in Chicago and, up until a couple a months ago, when she was hired as the COO of the Nashville MTA and RTA, the last 12 years. Reflecting on her previous life, Birdsong says she had planned to go to law school after receiving her degree in English with a minor in Spanish from Temple University in Philadelphia. Prior to her law school plan, Birdsong used her degree to land editorial work at publications in the Philadelphia area where she focused on technical writing, such as grants and training programs.
It was while she was living in north Philadelphia working as an editor in the city’s downtown area that she became concerned with the noticeable disparities of the metropolis’s urban design.
“Despite scores of different cultures and services at every turn, the placement of buildings and neighborhood amenities seemed awkward at times, and narrow traffic corridors could be challenging to maneuver, “ Birdsong says. “I thought there has got to be a better way to design a cityscape — and I wanted to learn how.”
This led her to switch from studying law to urban planning. She went back to Chicago for her master’s degree in urban planning and community development from the University of Illinois at Chicago. While she was in school, she studied under a Housing and Urban Development program, which opened her eyes to public transportation and its impact on the city. Upon graduation, she took a temporary service planning position with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) where she worked on a corridor study for the South Side.
From there, she became a permanent employee as an operations planner, and then, a senior planner. In this role, she planned routes out of one of CTA’s busiest bus garages, Chicago Avenue. There, she planned bus routes that traversed all economic areas of the city, she says, from the most-economically challenged to the highest income downtown.
“This really fascinated me, because I started to notice how transportation connected all walks of life and how important it was for transit advocates to have a seat at the table during the beginning of the city planning process and not the back end.”
Also during her tenure with CTA, Birdsong held positions leading operations for a CTA Operating Division, bus operator instruction and special events planning. Before departing for Nashville, she was senior manager, bus supervision and instruction, for the central region.
Some of her accomplishments at CTA include her work on major events, such as managing school service for approximately 65 public high schools throughout the city and making sure there was adequate service during dismissal times.
“That was during the height of increased youth-related violence in the city, and transportation was a huge asset to help transport students through conflicting neighborhoods, right before the evening rush hours,” Birdsong explains.
She is also gratified with her work coordinating service for Barack Obama’s Presidential Victory Rally in Grant Park in 2008. “That was something I was really enthusiastic about and continue to be proud of that experience.”
Other key projects include the rollout of CTA’s Ventra fare system in 2014 and the implementation of an online website with the school system to automate the reporting of school bell times in accordance with bus scheduling.
In her current position as COO for the Nashville MTA (bus services) and the RTA (regional rail and express bus routes), Birdsong is looking forward to pushing through projects already “on the starting block.” These include the launch of a fleet of nine electric buses and rollout of a new bus tracking app linked with the agency’s bus fleet, which was recently equipped with an AVL/real-time system.
When asked about skills that have helped her throughout her career, Birdsong says being a good listener is instrumental in her ability to serve as an effective communicator. She also says her determination to not give up on complicated ideas and her ability to negotiate has been key.
Birdsong says the move to Nashville has been a boon for one of her favorite pastimes, listening to music. “I love music, so Nashville works really well for me.”
She’s also a fan of rollerblading, travel, ceramics and hopes to get back into running once she gets used to the “hills and the heat” of her new hometown.