Makinen: You will not find progress and innovation in your comfort zone

Dec. 28, 2018
An excerpt from the book "Full Throttle – Living Life and Your Career to the Max with No Regrets" where KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen describes losing his sight, but gaining vision.

Robbie Makinen is CEO of Kansas City Area Transit Authority (KCATA). He is the former Chairman of the Board  and is the only blind CEO of a major transit system in America, but is a true visionary for public mobility. He is a bold innovator and asserts that “change comes at the end of your comfort zone.” 

About seven years ago I lost my sight. They called it Ischemic Optic Neuropathy (ION) and told me it is when blood does not flow properly to your eye’s optic nerve causing lasting damage to this nerve and you suddenly lose your sight. I went to Mayo Clinic and saw all kinds of doctors, but there was nothing that could be done.

I thought my life was over. How was I going to take care of my family? I was terrified. I tried that old “curl up in a ball and cry” routine, but that didn’t work. Then one day I heard my son, who was 8 at the time, crying in the back of the truck and I asked him what was wrong. He said “Dad, I feel sorry for you.” And then about 15 seconds later he asked, “Is this going to happen to me?” And it was like a hammer over the head.

From that moment on I shook off my self-pity and decided my kids were going to know that there is nothing that they can’t do. I even coached my kid’s football team blind. I hate the word “disability.” I call it “diversability.” It does not define me. I define it.

I started my career in social services and at the county, and was appointed to the Board of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) as part of my job. It was while I was on that board that this “blessing” occurred, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time.

I was thrust into the paratransit system as a customer and was very unprepared for what I discovered. Very quickly I found that in our bi-state area of Kansas and Missouri we had a lot of areas with separate transit operations that were not connected. So it was difficult – and even impossible – to move about the region if you were using local paratransit systems or fixed-routes systems that did not connect. I thought there had to be a better way to build a service around people, and not the federal mandates, equipment requirements, etc.

Soon I was given the opportunity by the Board of Commissioners to lead our KCATA system as CEO and I channeled my energies toward focusing our whole transit system on people – both on fixed-route and paratransit.

We designed and launched a new service called RideKC Freedom – an app-based option that offers same-day service getting you where you need to go, when you need to get there. Now there is no need for 24-hour notice with 30-minute windows like normal ADA paratransit service. It’s on-demand and trips are subsidized for ADA certified passengers, but here’s the kicker – it’s available for anyone – ADA or not. The full fare you pay as a regular “retail” rider includes a small subsidy to “pay it forward” for our ADA passengers.

We began experimenting with other innovations too, such as free rides on our public transit system for veterans – who now have taken over 1.8 million trips. More recently, we announced free trips for high school students and are working on a pilot program for safety net providers. We are helping move our region forward and know that mobility is the key to connecting people to opportunities.

I believe that change comes at the end of your comfort zone, meaning that’s where progress and innovation come in – where your normal comfortable options and routines end. I believe in trying new things and not studying them to death. Normally, everyone is scared to try new things because they are afraid to fail. You can’t be afraid to fail if you are going to innovate.

Rather than hiring a bunch of consultants at the taxpayer expense to do studies for a year and a half and end up with a two inch thick book that we can all look at – we are putting ideas on the street and seeing if they work. What better way to find out how we can change, move and innovate a new service into something that is going to work for our customers?

I’m also focused on the role our transit system plays in the economic development of the region. We have a responsibility to the city to help it grow. We now have an economic development office at KCATA and just broke ground on the Prospect MAX Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. This will be the third Bus Rapid Transit line to serve the Kansas City region. The Prospect MAX BRT route will cover nearly 10 miles from Downtown Kansas City to 75th Street with stations every four to six blocks. The goal of Prospect MAX is to not only improve transit service, but to help address the economic challenges of the Prospect corridor. The new BRT line will feature all of the standard features our other BRT lines offer, but will also offer wayfinding for the visually impaired, level boarding, free public WiFi, ice-melting pavement and pass purchasing options. When Prospect MAX debuts in late 2019, it will provide an enhanced transit and pedestrian experience for all of Kansas City.

You may remember I called my blindness a blessing earlier. The reason I call it that now is that it has caused me to change how I view others. Now that I can’t see what someone else looks like or what they are wearing, I can only judge them by their heart, which I can feel and hear when interacting with them. This change of focus has made every relationship I develop now deeper and more meaningful.

It also has become the driving force for everything I do at KCATA. Our extraordinary employees do extraordinary things every day to help our customers and our community. I am very proud to be a member of the KCATA family.

My heart is to help those who need transit by offering choices that give them freedom. This is not just for those who may share a diversability like mine, but for everyone who needs more mobility. By coming to the end of my comfort zone and losing my sight – I gained new vision for improving the lives of all the millions of passengers who ride our service every year and will do so in the future.

Read more stories like this in the new book Full Throttle – Living Life and Your Career to the Max with No Regrets by Paul Comfort and nine other transit CEOs recounting stories from their lives and careers, what lessons they learned and how you can improve your career by learning from theirs. Available on Amazon in paperback or e-book.