Guest Op-Ed: Five Hidden Flaws in Most Transit Systems

May 21, 2018

Having spent over thirty years in transportation operations and leadership positions of government, I have seen that most public transportation systems have at least five hidden flaws that good leaders must address. These flaws often become part of the fabric of the institutions. For the foolhardy, brave souls who charge in on a mission to improve their organization, here is the roadmap to address these flaws.

  1. There is not enough individual accountability for performance

At the MTA in Baltimore, it was brought to my attention that the Treasury Department was consistently behind in counting the cash fares coming into the system. Money was supposed to be counted and deposited every day, and at one point they were seven days behind. When touring the operations, I noticed something that troubled me – the staff would sit around a large table stacking dollar bills, chatting amongst themselves while they did so. There was no individual employee accountability or measurement of the number of dollars bills stacked.

After some changes that I directed, the Treasury Department established a reasonable amount of money that each staff member should stack per shift and changed the money room setup to create individualized counting areas with two employees facing each other and dividers put up beside them instead of a dozen employees sitting around a large table together. This way the work area enabled employees to focus on getting the job done and they caught up on counting.

Similar lack of individual accountability occurs throughout many different job positions in transit systems. We measure and manage our key performance indicator (KPI) of on-time performance (OTP) system-wide and sometimes by garage or by route but rarely by operator. Aren’t operators responsible for driving the vehicle that is the basis for the measurement?

Measuring and managing individual driver OTP for the Washington DC metro area paratransit drivers got tremendous results. By holding individuals accountable, we could reward those who exceled and counsel those whose performance lagged behind the standards.  We also addressed the outliers whose performance severely lagged behind their cohorts and this often led to interesting discoveries. Road supervisors and dispatchers tracked their performance more carefully which revealed hiding places of drivers, substance abuse issues, and more by watching the van drivers who underperformed.

Individually measuring performance allows you to reward high achievers and find out who the underperformers are and, through retraining or removal, make dramatic improvements in OTP and customer service.

  1. Administrative departments gain too much influence over operations

Over time some administrative functions in a bureaucracy gain influence to the point that they dictate essential outcomes by limiting the number of options available to line management. This influence often creates an environment where flexibility for senior leadership to operate within ethical and legal boundaries is unnecessarily restricted. Too often – out of undue fear of risk – leaders and new ideas for success and achievement are neutered by bureaucratic responses.

Overly bureaucratic procedures with layers of approval are often put in place by human resources, procurement, finance or IT departments that unnecessarily slow down management decisions. Even public relations departments sometimes have strict guidelines and many layers of approval to get a press release issued.

Finally, corporate counsel often forgets who the client is and thinks that “legal” gets to make the final decisions. Line management should make the final business judgment after receiving appropriate legal counsel. While it is the job of attorneys to protect the client by limiting risk, business decisions often must be made with more than only legal risk management guiding the outcome.

Top leadership may need to reevaluate the organizational structure to determine if it is stifling line managers from truly managing their departments. Also, the administrative departments may need a reminder about their role and who they serve. These cultural norms need to be evaluated carefully before any action is taken to ensure the agency continues to function optimally during and after any personnel or structural changes.

  1. Focus is on the wrong key performance indicators

In 2017, transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. in 2017, which is the lowest year of overall transit ridership since 2005. And American Public Transportation Association (APTA) data shows that from 2014-2016 nearly every major transit system in America saw a decline in ridership.

If ridership is the only measurement of success for public transportation, then we are all failing. However, is ridership growth/decline the only way to measure success/failure for public transit? Is ridership really even within the control of transit management?

Agencies could build an awesome system that meets the needs of the current ridership for safety, efficiency, reliability, and customer service but other factors intervene – increased telecommuting, introductions of new mobility and private microtransit platforms, or gas prices drop 50%, and many commuters decide to drive. All of these things cause drops in ridership. Do these factors mean that the system and its employees have failed and are not operating a good public transit system? If we let that be the story, then maybe it will be considered as such.

It is important for public transit managers to determine the proper Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to highlight and measure. When I arrived at the MTA in Baltimore, our ridership numbers were in a downward spiral. I immediately told the staff, my up line, and the public the four KPIs we would be measured by:

  1. Safety
  2. Efficiency
  3. Reliability
  4. Customer Service

Notice what’s missing? Ridership – that’s because these KPIs were within our control.

After setting up measurements for each and establishing benchmarks, I wanted iterative improvements in each KPI, which we achieved. One example of us achieving our goal was winning the 2016 APTA Gold Award for Safety/Security for our Rail System. We focused on what we could control and did not only measure our success by passenger counts that don’t consider outside factors.

  1. There is expensive outsourcing of staff positions due to established position caps

Many political leaders like to talk about shrinking the size of government. They think reducing agency head counts or positions through caps shrinks government and saves tax-payers money. But do they? Position caps often lead agency managers to hire for the positions they need through contracts with staffing agencies or architectural and engineering (A&E) firms.

The problem with hiring contractual staff and assigning them to full-time positions embedded within an agency is that there is usually a large markup on the cost of that position because of the profit and administrative expenses of the staffing firm. It is not unheard of for there to be a 60-100% administrative charge on top of the salary for these contracted positions. A surcharge of this size isn’t really “shrinking” the size of the government.

Government leaders and transit agency CXOs should be transparent with their boards and stakeholders and show the full costs of hiring outside contractor help versus in-house employees. Transparency could encourage them not to unnecessarily ham-string operations management with unnecessary caps. Boards and stakeholders need to see the value of providing oversight for transit operations through budgets and KPIs. The result of a micromanaged position control approach is often more expensive government and benefits large, for-profit firms.

  1. Paratransit focuses on rules, not people

Why do so many transit agencies purchase all wheelchair lift equipped vans for their ADA paratransit service? Less than a third of their customers are non-ambulatory, and ADA rules do not require 100% wheelchair lift-equipped vehicles for paratransit. In Baltimore, we purchased 140 sedans which were cheaper than vans, less costly to operate, we could get them in 12 weeks instead of 12 months, and the passengers liked them better. It seemed like a no-brainer and was a big win.

In our devotion to create a gold-plated service, have we forgotten that our end goal is to serve people with disabilities? Local transit systems need to analyze the rules and regulations surrounding this important service and work to establish more reasonable, cost-effective, and customer-focused approaches. The ending result could allow for drivers to enter second doors past vestibules to notify passengers they have arrived or for TNC companies like Lyft to possibly provide service and for agencies to provide real fixed route travel training for regular users.

Paratransit ridership continues to grow, and its cost is growing at an unsustainable rate. New customer centered approaches to providing service to our most vulnerable passengers are needed for this important civil right to be provided in a cost effective and caring manner.


Most transit systems are working to improve ridership and overall OTP, adding more layers of bureaucracy, outsourcing technical and administrative staff, and establishing more rules for paratransit customers. Are these the best approaches toward overall system excellence? I think not and would urge a healthy organizational review for these five hidden flaws that can limit performance and reduce the efficiency of your transit system.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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