Queen Elizabeth II being driven in a state coach on the way to open Parliament in London in this 2015 photo. GettyImages-477344264/oversnap
Recently, media outlets in Boston were all atwitter when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker was spotted riding the T. People are mesmerized by celebrities doing things “just like us.” Taking photos of the famous riding the New York City subway is even a thing on social media. Even Queen Elizabeth II has been known to ride public transportation to travel to various public engagements and to her estates. For someone who seemingly has access to any number of transportation options, she knows what makes good optics and good sense.
'Out of touch'
Prior to his ride, Gov. Baker was chastised for not having used the system during his two terms in office. This first ride, touted in the Boston Herald as a “publicity stunt,” garnered eye rolls from everyday commuters who were quoted as saying, “He’s out of touch.”
It shouldn’t take shaming in the press or on social media to push leaders in the public transportation realm to ride their own systems. How can you make informed decisions without having firsthand experience?
“Riding our service helps us understand what our riders face, allows us to engage with them, and shows them that when we make decisions we understand that it impacts their riding experience,” said John C. Andoh, executive director/CEO of Columbia, S.C.-based The COMET. Andoh rides his bus system at least three times a week to and from work, as well as to run errands, such as shopping or going to events. “We also have a policy that all of our employees must ride the system at least four times a month and report on their ride," he explained.
'Their opinions and ideas matter'
When Robert Powers took over as GM of San Francisco’s BART in July, he launched a listening tour to introduce himself to riders and “meet them where they are at.” “I want them to know I am listening and their opinions and ideas matter,” he said. Powers, who rides BART to work and uses connecting bus services frequently, says transit leaders need to be the face of their system and accountable to the public. “The first step is to get outside of headquarters and into the community and on the train,” he explained.
Florida-based Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton Forbes agrees. “It’s critically important to actually ride the system you oversee,” he said. “Seeing things from a rider’s perspective helps me identify ways we can serve them better.”
Speaking to riders has led Palm Tran to make route adjustments and plans for bus stop improvements. Riding the system also helps Forbes focus on the details, such as the bus audio announcements, cleanliness of the vehicles, and passenger amenities. “We’ve enhanced the experience for the riders, by adding Wi-Fi, improving our app and kneeling the bus at every stop, among other improvements,” he explained. “These initiatives would probably not have come to fruition if my leadership team and I didn’t ride and ride often.”
Ben Capelle, CEO of Laketran in Painesville, Ohio, has also made system improvements based on his riding experiences. Seeing daily frustrations with the services' obsolete fareboxes led to the launch of an online prepayment option for paratransit riders and a mobile-ticketing app. This summer, Capelle took his riding experience one step further after a severely broken leg left him totally reliant on Laketrans' Dial-a-Ride service to get around. “It wasn’t quite 'Undercover Boss,' but I definitely learned a lot about our service when using it firsthand,” he said. When asked whether he feels riding public transit should be a requirement for transit leaders, Capelle said, "I would encourage all transit leaders, board members, and employees to take advantage of [their] services.”
Anyone with the capacity to make decisions that impact transit riders — whether you are the head of a public or private transportation system, a board member, an elected local or state official — must ride their respective systems regularly to stay in touch with the needs of their riders.