King County Metro’s general manager, Kevin Desmond, is a pretty soft-spoken guy. Not one to toot his own horn, he deflected my best efforts to pick his brain for advice for other transit executives, claiming he was more interested in hearing what they had to say, especially those he admires for what they’ve done in their systems.
Desmond began his transit career in New York City as a policy and operations analyst before winding up in the city’s department of transportation (DOT). After bouncing around city government for a bit, he found himself at the NYC transit authority where he would eventually become head of operations planning.
Desmond says his master’s degree in public administration is how he got into government service in the first place, but he really gravitated toward transit once he had a taste of it.
“I think working in transit is very interesting,” Desmond says. “We really looked upon it as hey we’re a consumer product business. We’re not just a city service. A government service. We need to behave in large part just like a business. We’re trying to sell a product.”
After awhile, Desmond says the the Big Apple demand on lifestyle issues made him look for other opportunities, and he found it on the West Coast at Pierce Transit — a significant change from NYC Transit, or so he thought at the time.
“NYC Transit is the biggest transit system in the United States by far. It has no peer in the United States. Its only peers are London and Paris and Moscow and so forth — the very large transit systems. Hong Kong. Tokyo. The large transit systems in the world. 40,000 employees. Heavily balkanized organization. Just issues beyond issues,” Desmond says.
“Then I moved to an organization with about 700 employees with a little over 100-some-odd buses at the time. And what I learned in the transition that while many of the issues are obviously different, the level of intensity is different, it’s still the same business.”
Desmond says no matter the system size, the agencies were still putting buses or transit vehicles on the road every day. They were still dealing with passenger issues. Applying that knowledge to what he gained from working in a small organization with him, Desmond took the much smaller trip this time when he left Pierce Transit for the nearby King County Metro system in Seattle.
“The advantage of a place like Pierce Transit was when you wanted to make something happen, snap your fingers, things can happen. There are so few layers of bureaucracy that you have to go through, whereas New York City Transit had huge layers of bureaucracy. It took a lot longer to make things happen. So you had to work hard at that. You had to really work the bureaucracy in a very different way.
“[At Pierce you could] just make things happen because we were so small. And back to King County Metro, here it has both. It’s still smallish compared to New York, but 10 times bigger than Pierce Transit,” Desmond says.
Desmond says that the thing he has learned along the way is how to make an organization move. According to Desmond, agency directors need to, “move through or eliminate the silos within your different sections within the organization to get things done.”
Kevin Desmond is one of the first generation of transit directors who came up through the leadership programs at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). While he was at Pierce Transit, he was able to attend the very first International Transit Studies Mission, which opened a lot of doors for him.
“Ken Gregor, who had recently retired as the head of MARTA, was our trip leader. A lot of well-known people in the business — Mike Townes (APTA immediate past chair) was on that trip, for example — you know I made a lot of friends from that.