Podcast Transcript 299: Transit in the Pandemic

November 8, 2020

This episode, we’re chatting with David Huffaker, Chief Development Officer for the Port Authority of Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh region. David chats with us about transit operation’s during the pandemic emergency planning, the agency’s equity index and the future of streets.

First shared at Streetsblog USA, for a full transcript click below the fold.

JW (0s):
You’re listening to the Talking Headways Podcast Network. This is Talking Headways, a weekly podcast about sustainable transportation and urban design. I’m Jeff Wood. This week, we’re chatting with David Huffaker, Chief Development Officer for the Port Authority of Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh region. David chats with us about transit operation’s during the pandemic emergency planning, the agency’s equity index and the future of streets. Stay with us. Today’s podcast was produced in partnership with Rail-Volution and appeared first on the Rail-Volution Podcast. You can find the Rail-Volution podcast on your podcatcher of choice for a deeper dive on livability issues.

JW (40s):
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JW (2m 2s):
Before we get to this week’s show, I want to let folks know that they can get this podcast wherever you find your podcasts, including iHeartRadio, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, and of course, Apple Podcasts. Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. And subscribing means to get both this show, Talking Headways, and Mondays at The Overhead Wire, where this music I’m talking about comes from, on the same feed. Two fun podcasts, one great channel. Subscribe today. David Huffaker, welcome to the Talking Headways Podcast.

DH (2m 33s):
Thank you, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

JW (2m 36s):
Well, before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

DH (2m 38s):
Sure. So I am the chief development officer at the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which is the transit agency in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’ve actually been with the Authority for two years. And in my position I oversee our long range planning function, which also includes some of our transit-oriented communities programs our transit data analysis. Then I also have a department that works on service development and scheduling. And so they take care of all of our daily scheduling as well as some of the passenger amenities, the bus stops, the parking facilities, oversee our access program, which is our paratransit mode. And then the biggest piece in terms of number of employees is our engineering and technical services teams.

DH (3m 24s):
So the group that’s in charge of our capital projects as well as our State of Good Repair efforts. So prior to the Port Authority, I had been at Sound Transit in Seattle, Washington, for 15 years and my background is actually in finance, I have an MBA, and I started at Sound Transit in the finance function and got involved with our operations department there and really started enjoying some of that day to day contact with the customers. And so I moved over to operations while I was at Sound Transit and got some progressive responsibilities and had done that for a good number of years and had some family situations change.

DH (4m 5s):
So I was looking for some opportunities and had run across Pittsburgh as a city that had some of a similar vibe to Seattle and was a city that was on the rise. It was really taking a conscious effort in reshaping its transit and kind of how it views its function in the world and in the community. Obviously they had some down times with a decline of the steel industry and other manufacturing. And so what I found is that there’s actually quite a robust “eds and meds” type community here. There’s a number of institutions that are on the cutting edge of robotics and autonomous vehicles and other technologies.

DH (4m 46s):
So it’s a community that’s consciously working on reshaping its role and how it can be vibrant in the next number of decades.

JW (4m 54s):
So you didn’t go into Sound Transit as a transit planner. What was your introduction to cities and transportation before that? How did you see all that stuff before you started working in the industry?

DH (5m 3s):
So before that, as I had gotten my MBA at the University of Washington, I started working at the Port of Seattle, which in Seattle is actually a seaport and the airport, but it was quite a bit of large capital projects that I was working on the financial planning for those projects. And in many cases there was a nexus with the transit system that was being developed. So I think my entree was in terms of big capital projects and did a stint at Microsoft as well, but after I took some time and was a stay at home dad for a number of years, when I was looking at getting back into industry, I guess my bent was towards big capital projects and certainly Sound Transit had a number of big capital projects that caught my eye.

DH (5m 48s):
And so between both that and my finance background, I was able to get a foot in the door at Sound Transit just as they had made it through some difficult financial times. And so it was really a wonderful 15 years at ST.

JW (6m 0s):
That’s awesome. Well, this is the second episode in a series on health and equitable TOD, transit-oriented communities. The first one is with doctor Georges Benjamin, who provided an overview of the relationship between health and transportation and the built environment. And on this episode, we’re going to focus on transit’s role in fostering health. How has the Port Authority been affected by the pandemic thus far?

DH (6m 21s):
Well, it’s been a severe impact on our operation, both in terms of just the personnel. We’ve had a number of employees who have contracted the virus or are off work because of danger of contracting the virus. And so we’re working to take care of the employees and make sure that their safe on a daily basis and making sure that people feel safe coming to work on their regular shifts. And then certainly with the onset of the pandemic and the, the shutdown that was then subsequently ordered, we saw a very large reduction in our ridership. We have a large bus system, it actually carries about 85% of our ridership and then a, a small number of people who ride our inclined trains, the Inclines as well as our T, the light rail system.

DH (7m 9s):
So we saw generally about 85% reduction in ridership from the start of the shutdown, although that wasn’t across the board. Certainly the commuter service that we have in terms of our T is heavily commuter focused and some of our commuter bus routes saw very significant declines in ridership, more than 90% in many cases, whereas some of our local bus routes were down by maybe 50%, if that. So it was a really good indicator for us that there was a disparate impact depending on the community that you live in or some of the types of travel that you need to make.

JW (7m 45s):
What were the routes that had the most ridership?

DH (7m 48s):
So the routes that have the most ridership, probably our number one route is the P1, which is our commuter route that runs out our East busway.That ridership declined significantly, though there is a significant portion of, of that service that has a local aspect to it, people who are connecting between various points, but we also have some routes, our 61 series of routes and our 71 series of routes certainly saw large reductions. Those routes all serve the Oakland corridor which, for people who know Pittsburgh, is where Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh are located. And so once those schools went to remote learning, the ridership in those corridors declined significantly.

JW (8m 31s):
Yeah, Pittsburgh biggest employers tend to be public entities. There’s a universities, health care providers. Did you all coordinate with them on different services after the pandemic hit?

DH (8m 41s):
We certainly connected with them. We’ve been working hard to ensure that we understand what their needs are and what their schedules are. And, you know, as we look at the return to fall trying to understand if they’re going to be a, in a kind of hybrid model for learning, will they be remote? So we work with them constantly on updating our plans based on, on what we’re hearing from them, as far as the educational needs and the needs of the students and the families. And then as far as hospitals go we’ve, we have talked to the various hospitals in the corridor and throughout the county to ensure that we understand what some of their needs are, you know, obviously the employees need to be getting too and from work safely.

DH (9m 23s):
And so a big concern is making sure that while they are putting their lives on the line every day, that we make sure that we’re giving them an environment which they are not increasing their risk by riding the system. So we did implement some capacity limit on our bus service, where depending on the size of the bus, we would limit the number of people who would get on. So that hopefully made the people who were able to get on the service feel safer. However, that does create problems because then they are those who are left behind. So we have been working hard to ensure that where we can identify trips and loads and routes where there are people who are being left behind that we can provide some alternate service for them, whether it’s a, an extra board trip or something that we are able to run in between regular transit trips.

JW (10m 11s):
What’s been the toughest part of the pandemic from a service perspective? I mean, you just talked about having to leave some folks behind because you have load limits. And obviously there’s the fact that you need to keep the buses clean and have it be not just physically safe, but it seems like almost mentally safe to let people know that you’re actually a place where people can come.

DH (10m 30s):
Yeah. So I think there’s actually three points that I would bring up. Interestingly, we’ve been going through some branding work here in Pittsburgh and the Port Authority buses. Probably, I dunno if it was the number one complaint, but one of the bigger complaints was that people did not sense that the buses were clean. And of course that plays into people’s fears when they’re thinking about the pandemic and trying to figure out if its going to be OK for them to be on Port Authority service. And our maintenance teams have stepped up incredibly by doing extra over time, and we’ve been cleaning each bus every night in a very thorough way. And so I’m happy to say kind of an ironic side affect of this has been in our fleet has never been cleaner.

DH (11m 14s):
And so we definitely have increased the perception of cleanliness among riders. So that’s been a positive, I think probably the biggest frustration and difficulty has been the uncertainty that this all puts into play. And, you know, you’ve get guidance that might change over time and conditions that fluctuate and cases where, actually Allegheny County was hit relatively softly at first, we were blessed to be not impacted directly in a large way at the start while the eastern part of Pennsylvania was hit very hard. So that helped us. However, over time and certainly as the state went to a little bit more of a relaxed return to normal type operation, then we saw an increase in the number of cases here in Allegheny County to the point where I think Allegheny County was probably the hottest spot in the state of Pennsylvania.

DH (12m 11s):
So it’s difficult because you know, things are changing all the time. And if you do have a case of COVID-19 at a garage, you need to shut down and clean the area where the employee was working. Most of our cases were actually on the maintenance side rather than operators. So there wasn’t necessarily direct contact with customers, but still required cleaning in the garages themselves and making sure that employees were safe. And so each case puts into play a round of cleaning and temperature screening and that sorta thing. And so I think just the flexibility that was necessary and required of us to respond was certainly a challenge.

DH (12m 54s):
And then I think for us, the difficulty in particular is we’re not nimble enough to respond to some of that need for flexibility the way that we would like. And so, you know, we would love to be in a position where we see a hot spot and say, “Oh, there’s a lot of people riding from a particular location today, let’s get more buses there.” But the schedule is based on a pick with our union and making sure that we’ve got manpower and buses and maintenance people for what’s essentially our baseline service. And so we don’t necessarily have the flexibility to throw a huge amount of resources when we see a hotspot or when we see an area that needs a, a lot of immediate influx of service.

DH (13m 35s):
And so I wish we were more nimble and able to respond in more real time to situations that arise. There are times when we can do that, but if it’s at the peak, when we’ve got a lot of buses out and service, we may not be able to throw a lot more service and a particular area that might need it. So that’s been a real frustration and you know, the thought of looking at the future and how we can provide better service, you know, we’re looking at what, when the next pick is so that we can really restructure our service at that point. So there’s not a lot of flexibility that we can offer in the meantime up until the next pick.

JW (14m 12s):
Is that something that you would focus on in the future for, you know, changes?

DH (14m 16s):
We would like to be able to put it into play as much flexibility as possible and you know, we’re also hamstrung a bit because our service really was operating at its peak capacity. We did not have any more buses in the peak hours and we didn’t have more operators, as many transit agencies across the country were already feeling, there was a shortage of operators. And while we were not in dire straights, certainly as the number of staff have had to be quarantined or have the threat of contracting the virus, we have started to see some manpower shortages that really creates some of that inability to respond immediately. So I think in a perfect world, we would have perfectly full operator roles and registers and make sure that we’ve got all those positions filled and with trained operators, but just by virtue of retirements and illnesses, we have not been able to maintain that.

DH (15m 13s):
So I think looking at creative ways to staff and creative ways to schedule would certainly be something that I’d love to see if we could yield some benefits in the future.

JW (15m 22s):
I know the pandemic is something, it seems like out of a sci-fi movie almost, it’s kind of crazy. Did the agency have a plan for a massive disruption like this one? It seems like it’s really hard to plan for something this big.

DH (15m 36s):
Sure. And I was pleased to see that we did have an emergency plan and actually a pandemic plan if you will, based on the Ebola outbreak of a number of years ago. And so there actually were some protocols already in place. We did, you know, evaluating some of the risks from COVID-19, which might be different than what we saw in Ebola, we did have to tailor some of those protocols, but I was actually very impressed with the amount of planning that had already been put into place by our safety team and by our operations team, and engineering and legal and all to ensure that we actually had some pretty good protocols in place. We had to do some tweaking and we had to refresh a few elements, but we did have decent plans to start from.

DH (16m 20s):
So I was, I was actually very pleased with what was there that we could work with and create an updated COVID-19 plan.

JW (16m 29s):
Well, so outside the pandemic, what was the Port Authority’s approach to connecting transportation and health in what were some of us are calling the “before times” and even maybe after this is all over? (Laughs)

DH (16m 39s):
Yeah. Well, and actually this is still somewhat related to the pandemic, but you know, one of the things that we had already identified was making sure that our routes had connections to all of the major hospitals and medical centers and medical facilities in the county. And so we were going through and identifying, okay, which, which hospitals are served by which routes and really creating a conscious list of how that was set up so that we could at least be aware of how our service was connected to those major facilities. There were some that we’re still working on getting some service to, there’s a major hospital out east, in east of Pittsburgh in Monroeville, the Forbes Hospital.

DH (17m 20s):
So we’re working on adding some service there, and we expect to have that connection put in place in the November service change. So that’s an exciting thing for us. I think we also, in sort of a broader sense of health, continue to advocate for a customer experience and the pedestrian experience because all transit riders start out their trip on feet or on wheels. And so we’re trying to ensure that there’s a safe connection to our service. And so we had started on a bus stop optimization program that was taking a look at some of our bus stops. And there are a number of stops that were just too close together, but there are a number of stops that frankly did not feel safe.

DH (18m 4s):
They did not have good passenger amenities, they didn’t have a good place for people to wait or to connect between the neighborhood and the bus stop. And so we had taken a look at our bus stops and had just started a program where we were working on bus stop upgrades and maybe on the alternative, closing stops, if they were not places that we thought people should be waiting for a bus and especially if there was a stop relatively close by that they could get to and more safely access the system. So we were sort of thinking about passenger safety that way, and then always looking at ways to have better intermodal connectivity through our transit-oriented communities program.

DH (18m 46s):
And so looking at ways that we can get people closer to transit either for a living and or for intermodal connections with bikes and scooters and the other non-motorized vehicles so that people aren’t dependent on cars to get around the city. So we had a lot of those things in play. Some of them we’ve had to put on hold while the pandemic is going on, but I expect to continue working. In particular I feel very passionate about our bus stop optimization program because we have a very large number of bus stops, about 7,500 now, and we are working hard to upgrade all of them so that they provide a, a more safe and uniform customer experience.

JW (19m 25s):
How do you look at and organize and determine which of those 7,500 stops gets an upgrade or whether they get taken off the board, as it were?

DH (19m 37s):
Sure. We started looking at our, well, let me take a step back. We actually created some bus stop and street design guidelines that were our Bible, if you will, for looking at our system and would provide sort of the standard of “here’s what we think of bus stops should look like.” And it’s everything, there are some stops that really just need to have a sign in the ground and a safe place to wait. And then others that might justify having a bench and a trash receptacle and the others that might have a shelter and some real time signage, and perhaps even up to a full size station that might have a ticket vending machine and some other bells and whistles. So, so that kind of provided the roadmap for us.

DH (20m 18s):
And then as we were evaluating our system, we actually talked to a number of other agencies to see how they did their bus stop consolidation. And some of them did sort of a rip the bandaid off approach by doing all of their routes all at once and just drastically cutting the system. And maybe going from 8,000 to 5,000 stops as an example. And we wanted to do a little bit more of an iterative process. We had a number of guidelines in place, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to upgrade all of our stops all at once. And so we wanted to bite it off and we decided to go over it route by route, so we would choose a couple of routes each service change to study, take a look at the ridership, take a look at how close to the stops were to each other, what are the amenities that are already provided, and hopefully match those up so that stops that had a lot of people using them with also have amenities that is such as a bench or a shelter.

DH (21m 12s):
So we would identify where there were matches for that. And then other places where there might be some mismatches or other places where there were a number of stops in a row that had very low usage. And so we can look at, presuming that there’s connectivity, so if people could walk on a sidewalk to get from one stop to another one for a hundred feet away, that would give us an opportunity, the clothes that stop and funnel people to another one. And if we can get it so that there are enough people at that stop, and maybe we can provide a shelter and that sorta thing. So we were doing that. So we would take a couple of routes and then that gave us the opportunity to then afterward, take a look and see, okay, did we get any additional complaints or compliments?

DH (21m 53s):
Were we able to improve the on time performance of the routes? Were we able to do this consolidation without losing riders? Were there any increases or decreases in safety incidents that we can point to? And we were really just at the point of getting the data from the first couple of rounds when the pandemic hit. And so at some of the data around ontime performance may not be as reflective of, let’s call it the post-reality, that we would want, but we were seeing significant improvements in ontime performance, significant improvements in terms of the reliability of service, and we were not seeing declines in ridership. So I think we were feeling pretty good about what we were doing.

DH (22m 34s):
We were tweaking our engagement process to make sure that we were talking to people and so that people felt like they were part of the solution, but we’ve since had to put those plans on hold, as we’ve gotten into the pandemic, and as we’re evaluating what’s the right way to do outreach to customers now in this new future.

JW (22m 51s):
Do you have a stop in the city that brings you joy?

DH (22m 55s):
Oh boy, that’s a great question. I’m not sure I can name one in the city that necessarily brings me joy. I think it’s a work in process, and I think there are a number of places where we could see improved shelters and improved real time information. I guess maybe the stop that is the shiniest stop in the system is probably our 5th and Atwood station stop near University of Pittsburgh, a very beautiful station, lots of glass. It’s very ornate and probably over the top in terms of fanciness, it’s not something that we could do at a number of bus stops throughout the system, but it does have real time signage. It has a ticket vending machine and is a very beautiful place.

DH (23m 36s):
So I think in terms of beautiful stops that 5th and Atwood is a great start to point to, but it certainly is not something that we could replicate throughout the system.

JW (23m 44s):
Maybe one of the stops on top of one of the Inclines is maybe the most picturesque. (Laughs)

DH (23m 51s):
It’s true. They are very beautiful there. And really, I think there are some stops that have improved immensely over time and some of our T stations and some of the busway stops. We’ve done a very nice job of creating a facility that can bring joy to people and make your transit experience feel a little bit uplifting.

JW (24m 10s):
So your annual service report has an equity index with eight factors. I’m curious how the index guides how you prioritize changes in the short and long term and how the index came about.

DH (24m 21s):
So, the index predated my time at Port Authority, but our planning staff had been working on that for a number of years and we actually just added a few more criteria to broaden some of those things, but it would include some of your typical equity pieces in terms of income and residents with limited English, but also looking at single parent homes and households headed by women, households would large numbers of children and bringing in some of those elements. And so equity is one of our three E’s. We also have efficiency and effectiveness. So we could have one that carries a lot of people, but maybe it doesn’t have high equity. And so that might fall a little bit lower in the ranking vs. ne that has a very high equity impacts, carries a good amount of people and is quite efficient.

DH (25m 7s):
So they have a relatively equal balance as we look at service changes, but the equity is elevated and certainly is something we get asked about whenever we’re talking about a service change, there’s always a question about what are the equity impacts of how the, that change would impact the community.

JW (25m 22s):
If you had an unlimited amount of money, do you think that would change in terms of serving the whole region or parts of the region that need more service perhaps because of equity concerns?

DH (25m 35s):
Sure. For me, the biggest thing would be adding frequency and adding span of service so that we could provide better connections. One of the tragic things I think from the pandemic was in our response, you know, initially we were reducing service to meet some of the operational constraints that we had and there were declines in ridership. And so one of our constraints was we were going to cut maybe half of our regular service, but we could not cut anything that would cause us to have more than a one hour headway. Well, for some routes, that means that we couldn’t cut any service because it was already at a one hour headway. And so think about those people, you know, the bus comes only once every hour.

DH (26m 15s):
Now all of a sudden on top of that, you have these capacity constraints and so there might be 15 people on your bus and the bus is going to pass you up and you have to wait an hour to make your connection to your job or to your doctor or to your shopping or to your family. And that’s really unacceptable in my eyes. I would love to see increased frequencies and get it to the point where people don’t need to use a schedule. They can just know, “Oh, there’s a bus stop there, I’m going to walk out there and I know there’ll be a bus coming in the next 10 minutes and it’s going to get me somewhere a timely way.” And so the biggest thing for me would be adding frequencies and giving people a chance to have much more frequent access to the system.

DH (26m 59s):
We also looked at and have considered adding more late night service or early morning service so that we’re providing some flexibility that way. And frankly, for some of our routes, we’re adding weekend service that didn’t exist before. You know, interestingly, a lot of transit agencies across the country, when the pandemic hit they went to a Saturday schedule or a Sunday schedule. We didn’t do that. And that was consciously because of our need to serve essential workers and to serve hospital workers. Because if we went to a weekday or a weekend service, some of those hospital facilities would be cut off or some of the people would not be able to get to their essential jobs. And so we kept our weekday schedule, but we did have to eliminate a few trips.

DH (27m 43s):
We tried to focus on some of the commuter routes for reductions in service. So for me, we’re adding service on the weekends and that’s something we can do today in terms of our fleet constraints. We don’t have constraints on the weekends and so we can add service there. And that’s been a big piece of what we have actually implemented and continue to implement in November. But if money was no object, I would be able to add many more frequent trips on a lot of those local routes.

JW (28m 13s):
You talked previously about the robotics programs in the region, the self-driving vehicle, autonomous vehicle testing, et cetera. I’m curious how the transit system fits in to the mobility network of the future.

DH (28m 23s):
Well, I think transit is always going to be an essential part of the fabric of the community. The one thing that transit does do as it provides a high capacity service that connects points and particularly points in a straight line very, very well. And one of the things I’ve observed and it’s primarily with Uber and Lyft, but you know, you’ve got so many vehicles that are basically hovering around waiting to serve someone that it yields at least an increase, I don’t know if it increases congestion, I know there’s a lot of studies that show that it does, but for me it just is a drain on resources to have these vehicles kind of hovering just outside of the neighborhoods.

DH (29m 5s):
So I’m still viewing transit, regardless of how it’s operated, being an integral part of the community and an integral part of the system of getting people around. I could see a future somewhere where there might be an autonomous vehicle of some kind that’s providing the connection, but there’ll always be someone on the vehicle providing that customer service support and providing some of that safety aspect that having an operator on your bus makes you feel safe. And certainly someone who’s insuring that that still has in place is going to be essential now and in the future.

JW (29m 38s):
I was talking to Jason Henderson, who’s a professor here at SF State this last week, and he mentioned a paper that he wrote that talked about the inclusion of electrification technology and things like that and what it means for the streetscape. And I was frankly alarmed at his take. Though it could be a scenario that plays out where if we focus so much on electrification of vehicles that it takes away from our street space, especially on curbs and where bicycle infrastructure might go, where dedicated bus lanes might be. I’m curious what the street of the future looks like to you.

DH (30m 11s):
That’s an interesting question. So I mean, for me, the street of the future would have access for all different types of mobility. It would include high-capacity transit. It, it would include bikes, it would include enhanced pedestrian access, and I guess other types of mobility devices, whether it’s scooters or hoverboards or whatever there might be in the future. But I would see a lot of lanes for the different types of mobility, hopefully allowing for as much active mobility as possible. And I would love to see a decrease in emphasis in single occupancy vehicles and one where maybe the single occupancy vehicles park on the outskirts of the city, and they’re connected through downtown either through high-capacity transit or other mobility devices or just a very pleasant walking environment.

DH (31m 2s):
So in terms of maybe the electric infrastructure, was the paper talking about charging stations, that sort of thing?

JW (31m 8s):
Yeah. Charging stations, the infrastructure for creating, you know, electric cars and those types of things. Obviously we’re going to need, if that’s to come to pass, there’s going to have to be a replacement for gas stations. I’m guessing it’ll be at home. But if you live in a city where like I do, I’m looking at my front door or there aren’t a lot of, uh, the four houses in a row on my side at least don’t have garages in the front or back. So it’s, what do you do with that? (Laughs)

DH (31m 34s):
Yeah, and that’s an interesting point. And you know, certainly when I walk around Pittsburgh and as I walk around, particularly during the pandemic times, I am struck by how much infrastructure is unused most of the time. We have very large parking facilities that are now only partially full. We have a lot of street space and surface parking lots that are used very rarely during the day. And even the passage of a car really doesn’t take up that much space for that much time of the day. And it’s a shame that we don’t devote more space for people to be able to ride a bike or to walk or, and just stroll through the community. The Golden Triangle in Pittsburgh is very walkable.

DH (32m 16s):
I was actually out on a tour of our bus rapid transit corridor today, and just walking through downtown, you can see how close everything is. You don’t need a car to get from one end to the other. And so it could be a very pleasant place to be just out and in a place where you didn’t have to worry about watching out for single occupancy vehicles and perhaps where there’s a transit mall going through the community and you got bike corridors, but I would love to see some additional pedestrian access.

JW (32m 41s):
So I feel like we’re trapped inside a history book with what’s going on right now, and we don’t have the benefit of reading it from a future position. But if you’re reading the book in the future, how do you think the Port Authority has responded as an organization to the pandemic, to creating healthy communities, to dealing with inequity?

DH (32m 59s):
I think that this is actually a, that’s a great question. And this is really a pivotal time for the Port Authority. And I think history will view this as the time that we pivoted towards a recognition of the importance of all communities who use transit and the importance of equity and the importance of transit to insuring the health of the community. And so as you kno, we’re at the start of our long range planning effort, and, you know, nine months ago, if you’d asked me what we were going to be talking about with our long range plan, it probably would have been a train to the airport or some other shiny new toy. We may still do something like that, but I think the reality is what we’re seeing is a need to serve everyone on a daily basis.

DH (33m 46s):
And there are a lot of people who absolutely depend on Port Authority to get them where they need to go. And I think this is the time where we can devote some resources to insuring that those connections are enhanced. And I think we’re in a, actually an interestingly fortuitous point because our service, unlike a lot of legacy cities, really is bus focused as opposed to rail focused. And so we do have some flexibility to move our service around and adapt. And so I think this will be a time where we can pivot to providing some of that additional local connection that maybe we weren’t thinking about as clearly as we should have six or eight months ago.

DH (34m 29s):
Now, I think the recognition is that some of those local connections are incredibly important.

JW (34m 33s):
Do you think that the data collection and just the way that the pandemic has kind of cut ridership a certain way, it really helps to have those more frank discussions?

DH (34m 43s):
I think so. And I think it’s a, it’s a wonderful public policy debate as well. And, you know, there are obviously the people who are riding transit today need to ride transit and so we can do a better job of serving those customers as well as, still there will be, and I’m convinced at some point in the future of commuters will come back into downtown and if nothing else to shop or do some of their entertainment functions. So we still need to have some capabilities to serve commuters, but I think there’s a real opportunity here to use some of the data that we’ve learned, and we do have a very, very strong data analytics group here at the Port Authority, over the past year our function has grown immensely.

DH (35m 24s):
So we’re going to be able to use some of that data to reshape our service. And for me, it’s kind of creating a process more so than just the decisions we make today. It’s really, what’s the process we are going to create and use to take this data that we’re gathering and use that to become a more nimble and more flexible system. So, whereas before we were kinda doing the same stuff that we were doing 30 years ago, now this gives us an opportunity to take the data and look at things in a maybe a slightly different way or with a different filter, and be able to see that we can rearrange our service to provide some of those daily connections that really provide a fulfilling aspect for some of the communities that we have underserved in the past.

JW (36m 7s):
Awesome. Well, so what’s the next step for you all?

DH (36m 10s):
Well, we are still working on our long range plan and we’re just about to kick off with some of our outreach. And so we are testing some creative ways of engaging with the communities and while, you know, we’ll have online meetings and in fact, one of the reasons why we started working with our current team for the long range plan was they had already demonstrated creativity around some of the public outreach. And so we’re going to be trying to do things like it might be something that they called “meeting in a box” where you’re sending all the materials, then you send it to a group that otherwise you might’ve done a, you know, a stereotypical, a public meeting at night. So this gives them an opportunity to run the meeting for their people on their timeframe.

DH (36m 50s):
And we’ll do some pop-up outreach and ensuring that we can do that in a, in a safe way. So I think it’s particularly exciting for us to try out some of the new ways of engagement and really make sure that we’re dealing with and able to talk to all of the community, not just the people who are technically savvy. So we’re still kind of working through that and making sure that we’ve got our protocols in place, but I think it’s a really exciting time to be taking a look at this long range plan for us. And I think we’re really well positioned because we have a team already mobilized to do this outreach. We’ve got a data team ready to do the analysis. And so we are really well positioned to kinda take a look at what we’ve learned now over the past few months of the pandemic and apply that to our long range plan.

JW (37m 39s):
Awesome. Well, David, thank you for joining us. We really appreciate it.

DH (37m 43s):
Thank you very much. I appreciate your time, and it’s been an honor.

JW (37m 40s):
And thanks for joining us. The Talking Headways podcast is a project of the Overhead Wire, on the web at theoverheadwire.com. Sign up for a free trial of the Overhead Wire Daily, our fourteen-year-old daily cities newslist, by clicking the link at the top right of theoverheadwire.com, and please please please support the pod by going to patreon.com/theoverheadwire. Many thanks to our current patrons for their ongoing support. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Overcast, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. And you can always find its original home at USA.streetsblog.org. See you next time at Talking Headways.

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