I’ve interviewed many transit officials, but before I met the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) general manager, John Catoe, I had never met anyone who got into transit “by accident.”
Growing up the Washington, D.C., area, Catoe sent out dozens of resumes as he set out to find his place in the world and actually accidentally happened upon his path in transit.
“I sent one to a blind ad in Orange County for a personnel job, it was a training position,” Catoe says. “And I got contacted for an interview and found out it was the [Orange County Transit District (OCTD)]. And that was my first job in public transportation, working in human resources.”
Catoe would spend nearly two decades with OCTD working in a number of positions, including human resources, marketing, finance and eventually he moved into operations. His operations experience would lead him to Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, where he would spend five and a half years before leaving to join L.A. Metro as its deputy chief operating officer.
As for how he came back to D.C. after all those years, it was a chance for Catoe to come back to his hometown and as he says, “it’s an opportunity for me to make a difference in a place that I grew up.”
East vs. West
Having seen my share of transit agencies all over the United States and Canada, I can say while there are similarities, there is definitely a difference in attitude when it comes to comparing East Coast versus West Coast agencies. And who better to speak on this than John Catoe, who has been both the deputy COO in L.A. and now the general manager in Washington, D.C.
Catoe says a major difference is in the ridership, with a focus on removing people from using the single-occupant vehicle, and the income level is middle class or lower, with a large percentage of people using the system as a lifeline.
“Generally you find it’s the service workers who are going to work in hotels and restaurants and others and some students as well as seniors.
“Also in L.A. and the West Coast, there’s a primarily bus focus. The majority of people who use transit in Los Angeles ride buses because they are still putting together the network of a light rail system connected to a very small subway system,” Catoe says.
He points out that change to the system is kind of locked in place due to economics and facing that uphill battle of getting people out of their cars. In comparison the Washington metropolitan area is much more focused, due to the geography, on the central downtown area of Washington, D.C., and the transit system is also focused on that.
“Without Metro this region would be gridlock,” Catoe says. “You cannot get that many vehicles back on the street and move them in this region. And it’s not an issue of its going to take longer. It’s an issue of absolute gridlock. The region would not be able to function.”
He also points to the economics of the region, “Not that any rider is any better than any other rider, but from an economic standpoint, Washington’s ridership is very well educated with income levels exceeding middle class, upper middle class or even higher income. And now what does that mean?
That means that you are going to have a ridership base that is far more involved in the operation of your system.”
Catoe says another major difference is the connectivity to and the investment in the transit system from the ridership. In L.A. there are a large number of people who can’t or don’t make the effort to contact the agency to complain about delays. On the flip side, Catoe and WMATA have to deal with a ridership that not only contacts them, but their congressman, their mayor and the major news media should a delay occur.
“There’s this huge customer involvement in what happens on a daily basis. Now there’s good to that, too. Because of the communications, some customers that again communicate to the elected officials the importance of Metro to this region, and how critical it is to getting people to work,” Catoe says.