From both an agency and an individual perspective, membership in transit associations provides the crucial tools for innovation in a constantly changing industry with an expanding role in America’s future. From my vantage point at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which operates the seventh-largest transit agency in North
America (Muni), I see the best and brightest ideas come to us from our peer agencies — and go out from us to our peers.
The SFTMA and I are involved in a veritable alphabet soup of transit associations, including but not limited to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the California Transit Association (CTA), the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the Transportation Research Board (TRB).
What all of these capital letters have in common is a commitment to information sharing and professional development. When I started my career at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York City Transit, the first APTA conferences I attended opened my eyes to the possibility (subsequently confirmed) that New York City was not the center of the universe, and that each and every transit system was unique, with complicated operations, funding and governance environments.
Later in my career, I had the privilege of participating in an APTA working group looking into the possibilities of smart card technology, which has clearly become one of the greatest opportunities for innovation in the transit industry. My experience with this working group helped me guide the successful implementation of the Breeze Card in Atlanta, and the lessons learned have shaped the SFMTA’s approach to TransLink, the long-awaited regional smart card for the San Francisco Bay Area.
But working groups alone do not tell the full story. Transit association conferences confer the unmatched benefit of seeing new transit products up front at conferences like APTA. Whether it is a farebox or a simulator, to know if a product is worth the lengthy procurement process it helps to see it and touch it.
In the policy arena, membership in the CTA allows the SFMTA to join with its sister agencies in California to speak with one loud, strong voice on issues of concern in Sacramento. Most importantly, CTA has done an excellent job advocating for transit funding in the state budget.
But a huge state budget deficit has threatened transit funding, making the CTA’s expert knowledge of the state budget process (and this being California, the complicated history of voter initiatives on transit funding) invaluable as we work together to make sure that transit gets the resources it needs to serve our customers now and into the future. For me personally, the CTA helped make my transition from Georgia to California transit politics as smooth as possible.
NACTO and TRB also create an important arena of policy development on subjects like public/private partnerships and the upcoming dress rehearsal for reauthorization of the federal transportation bill.
When it comes to organizations like the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), the personal and the professional come together. Throughout my 25-year career, COMTO has helped me develop my personal skills to the point where I felt comfortable taking on progressively responsible roles in the industry. From a cultural standpoint, COMTO has provided me with a network of mentors to look to for guidance. Fundamentally, COMTO has helped me be a better leader, which can only benefit the agencies for which I have worked.
The collaboration and information-sharing that transit associations make possible will only be more important as our increasingly connected world tries to take on the enormous challenge of global warming. The additional demand for transit that we have seen in the last year as gasoline prices soared will only continue, and for us to rise to the occasion with new technologies and policy approaches we will have to rely on the knowledge and the relationships fostered when we sit down together at conferences around the country and ask: what’s new with you?