Q&A: New RTA CEO India Birdsong On Promoting Public Transit

India Birdsong, the newly chosen leader of Cleveland's transit agency, photographed on a bus
RTA's board voted earlier this month to enter contract negotiations with India Birdsong to lead the transit agency. [Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority]
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The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s newly chosen CEO and general manager will be taking the wheel of an organization in the midst of a lane change.

India Birdsong is joining RTA just as the transit agency reevaluates its bus system, fares, finances and more — all amid falling ridership.

Birdsong currently serves as the chief operating officer of Nashville’s Metro Transit Authority, which changed its name last year to WeGo Public Transit. Before that, she worked at the Chicago Transit Authority. A start date in Cleveland hasn't yet been set.

Birdsong spoke with ideastream recently about her experience in public transit and how she’ll apply it in Cleveland.

Voters in Nashville last year rejected a proposal to raise taxes to fund light rail. What lessons did you take away from that vote?

I think the lessons learned really were, find out what the community needs and make sure that their voice is heard. We definitely spent hours — hundreds of hours — going out and talking to the community and finding out what their needs were in advance of being on the ballot.

But I do think the communication of what the referendum means and what services it will bring to the community is imperative to be able to have them understand what their vote means for the future. Investment in transportation is a big pill to swallow. The numbers are not small. So when you get into conversations about millions and billions of dollars, it’s understandable to have the average consumer be a little concerned with where the money is going.

If it were to be on the ballot again, hopefully in future years, we can probably do a better job of ensuring the explanation is there for customers, to make sure that the bus customers understand as well as the rail customers, about what they’d be getting for their money. And then also explain how it would benefit them on a daily basis and what it would be doing to their paycheck.

This is a conversation that’s cropped up in Cleveland, too. How do you make the case to people that public transit is worth their investment?

That’s also a difficult conversation whereby you don’t always have the route going past everyone’s personal business, everyone’s personal home. There are connections that need to be made. I think looking at what the make-up of the city is, how well people are traversing through the city currently, and how well they could traverse through the city if they invest in public transit, is probably one of the main takeaways to investing in public transit.

You’ve got to be able to explain what do they get out of it. What does the average Joe, so to speak, get out of giving $2.50 every day in order to get to work, or $5 if there’s a round trip involved.

What is the comfort level, what’s the safety level and what’s juts the ease that it brings to their everyday commute? Do you not have to worry about driving, and road rage, and sitting in traffic or trying to multitask while you’ve got to think about how much you’re going to pay to park when you get downtown? Those are the things that I think people have to be reminded of in order to see the benefit of public transit.

Ridership is in decline in Cleveland, and we’re more reliant on local funding here. What have you gleaned in your years in public transit that will help you address RTA’s current issues?

Being transparent in your spending plan is really the main part. Being able to explain where the dollars are going. It’s taxpayer dollars for the majority. You’ve got grants and you’ve got matching and you’ve got your operational and capital budget — there’s a lot of different factors that go into it. But really getting down to the nuts and bolts of it all, where is my money going and what am I getting for it?

I think that the transparency is really essential to customer buy-in and also customer trust. So if we understand how we’re spending our dollars and what the short- and long-range plans for those dollars are, then we’re more likely to be able to have people on board when it comes time for voting on something, or voting on a transit plan, or even acclimating themselves to a change.  And that could be a route adjustment, that could be a detour that’s going on. Making sure people really understand what we’re doing. Because we are a public agency that serves the public, and in order to serve, you have to explain what you’re doing on a daily basis. It can’t be decision-making in a vacuum, that just does not work.

Are there strategies you’ve learned from Nashville or other cities that have helped to increase ridership and get more people on the bus?

You want to be able to provide the service as seamlessly as possible with minimal disruption. Having a 100 percent day with no accidents and no disruption and no detours is nearly impossible in public transportation because it’s just the law of averages… I’ve been a bus and train rider my entire life. Growing up in Chicago, that’s how you get around. And also moving to a town like Nashville, which is primarily a car culture, getting folks to understand the benefit of that reliability is key to success.

And I think if the operational and maintenance team understand that and also your administrative staff understands that and respects the commute of that average, every-day constituent and student and worker, grandmother, cousin, little sister, then I think we all can work toward a more consistent product with less deviation.

And by and large, I’d like to be able to run a system where you’re not worrying about what the delay will be, you’re thinking about where you need to go next. Catching your public transit option is second nature.

You mentioned Nashville having a car culture. Cleveland probably has something in common in that respect. Is part of your job to counteract that car culture, and try to get people to step away and try something different?

I actually think it’s to work with it. And that might sound odd or a little strange coming from someone who’s an advocate of public transit. But I think that for me to sit here and say that my goal is to take everyone out of their car and put them on a bus or a train would probably be false.

However, I think that’s probably a natural attrition when you get to the point of working with the cars that are on the road and road sharing. I’d love to be bale to have public transit be the bulk of what’s on the road, because it does cut down on a lot of your emissions. It does cut down on your traffic jams overall…

I know you guys had the All-Star event over the past week. I watched that probably every night, and I know what that can do to your bottlenecks downtown. So I think showing how Cleveland — or Nashville, or Chicago, or anywhere else — can be a city that supports those special events and those moments that make the city shine, that’s when people really see the value in public transit. And they think, “Hey, maybe I can ride this every day, and have a similar experience on my way to work.”

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