Episode 25: Unlike Some Boards, Riders Know Who We Are with Monica Tibbits-Nutt

TransLoc Marketing September 25, 2019 the movement, transit leaders, public transit, fare free, community, planning 0 Comments

 

The board that oversees the MBTA operates differently than most public transit boards. Board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt highlights how the board was constructed, who the members represent, and how the board makes decisions to better serve the Boston area.

Enjoyed this episode of The Movement? Hear more from Josh Cohen in The Moral Argument for Free Public Transit.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Monica Tibbits-Nutt, one of the five members of the board that oversees the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, is among my favorite transit leaders.  Today’s conversation will help you see why. Something as simple as riding the bus yourself, making sure the weekly board meetings are live-streamed, and Monica’s willingness to actively engage with the community on social media builds empathy with her fellow transit users.  This empathy made the decision recently to raise fares so difficult. We discussed that decision and more in this episode recorded in June, prior to that fare increase that took effect on July 1st.  Let’s go.  

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future.  To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real.  Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: Welcome to The Movement, Monica.  

Tibbits: Thank you for having me.  

Cohen: Well, let’s start with your experience joining the MassDOT board and the FMCB, the fiscal management and control board to oversee the MBTA.  What was kind of the origin behind the FMCB and kind of how that came to be and then your role in that?

Tibbits: So in early 2015, late 2014 we got hit with a series of snowstorms kind of back to back to back.  It dumped a record amount of snow onto the entire region, but the inner-core communities were especially hit hard.  We received enough snow that it actually started to block the tracks. We weren’t able to clear the snow quickly enough, and not only did the T come to a stop, but also the rest of the city.  The MBTA had to close operations, which was the first time that it closed in any time in any history that any of us were alive in. And it crippled; it crippled the commonwealth.  

And even if the system had been running, the roads weren’t able to be cleared, and many of us were stuck in our homes for a week or two.  Grocery stores weren’t able to get all the deliveries of food. It was actually a really, really rough time here in the commonwealth. At that time Bev Scott was the general manager during these storms, and she ended up resigning in the storms.  The Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack and the Governor Charlie Baker stepped in and basically took control of the agency. And at that point the governor had announced that the FMCB was going to be formed, the five-member board was going to be formed, and that we would be given control of the agency for three years was a two-year renewal option.

So it really was quite catastrophic, and it took us a while to recovery from it.  It really highlighted not only the deficiencies in our snow planning but also the deficiencies in the organization as a whole, especially looking at management and financial.  The agency had been running really, really bad deficits for a really, really long time, and that really led to the underinvestment in the system, especially the state of good repair.  And so the five of us were brought in to try and stabilize the agency after the storm and then to move through and try and reinstitute better financial processes and really start to focus on the state of good repair and put us on a path to where we are going to be able to make up the decades of deferred maintenance.  

Cohen: Wow.  So I guess the storm—and I remember that storm, and I remember the stories coming out of Massachusetts.  I wasn’t living there, but I remember seeing some of these stories and knowing that it was a huge, huge impact on the T.  Was it one of these things where having that storm, which obviously was not a great situation for any involved, but did it kind of force this conversation to basically force the T and the commonwealth to deal with these questions, like you said, that had been maybe not swept under the rug—maybe that sounds a little bit more kind of sinister—but just not some of these issues that hadn’t been addressed?  Did it just kind of force that conversation upon everybody?

Tibbits: Absolutely, because I think had we not had the storms and it was—I think the biggest issue there is we got hit with one major storm that dumped feet, and then by the time we were getting close to clearing we got hit with another storm that started dumping feet of snow.  And I think had those storms not happened I don’t think that the issues and the gaps would have been exposed as quickly because, honestly, even the people within the agency didn’t have a clear understanding of the magnitude of the issues that led to us having an inability to continue running the system under those conditions.  It might have been something else that would have led to it because we have not had that level of storm since, but had it been a nor’easter that dumped water, something at some point would have happened. And it most likely would have been some sort of weather event that would have exposed this.

Cohen: And certainly the MBTA is a critical piece there for Boston and the suburbs and so forth.  Obviously, there are things that you could have done better, I’m sure; the T could have done better in response.  But the flipside is, you know, when you get hit with that much there’s only so much you can do. Right? I mean, I’m sure it’s like if you make a mistake or—you know, I’ve got kids.  I know you have kids. Like, the crime is in the cover-up not—you know? Like, if you make a mistake, just admit you made a mistake; don’t try to cover it up.  

I mean, was that kind of the issue there where it’s like, “Look.  There’s only so much we can do, but maybe we didn’t set ourselves up for success with some of the decisions we made in the past.  And maybe we reacted to it poorly”? Like, because there’s only so much you can really do with that much snow in a short amount of time.  Right?

Tibbits: Yeah.  I mean, exactly.  Do I think had a lot of these processes been in place prior to that?  We still would have had trouble. We just would have. It was very, very unusual.  But I will say this; if we were to be hit with a storm of that magnitude again, I think that the system would actually be able to respond.  And whether we had to reduce service, which is possible, we would not have had to close the system. That’s just the plain truth, because now at this point we’ve planned for these things.  

We’ve planned for these snow events.  And now from an environmental standpoint, now we’re planning for water because we are obviously right next to the ocean and we run services under the harbor.  And so I think that’s kind of the next environmental step we’re taking. But we should have been able to respond better than we did, had we been keeping up with the state of good repair.  It would not have been as bad as it was had we had the better processes but also had we made the investments we knew needed to be made decades ago.  

Cohen: You brought up the water.  That’s a great example. With climate change and Boston’s location, this is obviously kind of an existential question here.  You’ve got challenges you need to address today. Right? There was recent derailment. Like, you have to address those things today, and yet you also have to consider these long-term issues, which climate change and the impact it could have on you is not going to happen tomorrow, but it’ll happen soon.  So how do you balance these decisions like the short term versus these much, much longer-term things? How do you balance those investments of your time as an administrator and board member?

Tibbits: I mean, it’s really tough.  I think it’s tough for any agency, and I think it’s kind of twofold.  You know, looking at your financial investment and figuring out kind of how to prioritize it, because at the end of the day we can’t fix everything at the same time.  We’re not a 24-hour system, but we do get very, very tight windows to actually get out there. And, at the same time, we have to be focused on the things we know need to be repaired, but how do you do that at the same time that you’re planning for the future?  And I think that’s a very, very tough balance for us.  

And I think just kind of the nature of our structure in Massachusetts, that the Department of Transportation and the MBTA are intrinsically linked not just because they have to work with each other but because we have shared services across those agencies.  So the MBTA does not have a planning department. It is a shared planning department with MassDOT, and so it sometimes is competing. How do you focus on the environmental planning standpoint, which is housed within MassDOT, while at the same time making sure that you understand the operational environment that you’re working in and the fact that we can only move so quickly?  

I think it is a tough balance.  I don’t think many agencies have been able to do it well, and I think for us we are still trying to figure out what that balance is, but I do not think that we have an answer at this point.  It is definitely a concern of ours because the natural weather events are happening more and more and more, and I think the models that we traditionally use within the United States did not account for these storms.  The models just could not have predicted the impact that climate change has had on us. And so I do think it’s something we’re actually struggling with, doing the near term while trying to plan for the long term.  

Cohen: Yeah, it’s tough.  And I think that’s—you know, obviously you hire good people, and I guess one of your colleagues from the FMCB is now the general manager, Steve Poftak.  And I think that you hire good people and then you hope you give them the tools and the guidance to help ensure that they kind of balance those priorities as best as you can.  

Tibbits: Exactly.  And, I mean, I think there aren’t enough people that work in our industry to fill all the agencies within the United States.  And I think attracting that talent has been difficult for us, and I think it’s been difficult for many of our peer agencies. And I think the people we have are ridiculously talented.  But the other thing is how do we continue to recruit other people to come in because at the end of the day there aren’t enough of us to do all of the work that we need to do right now?  

And I think with the more recent derailments on our Green Line light rail and our Red Line heavy rail, it’s also pointed out that a lot of the system is so old and is built in a way that we would never build it now.  So how do we deal with fixing those systems while also having to operate those systems? And I think from a political and a public standpoint that is very, very difficult.  

Cohen: Yeah, I know in Michigan there’s a nonprofit that was started, the Michigan Mobility Institute, which I think is not specifically trying to address that direct need but is certainly thinking about from the perspective of if you think about our long-term needs as it relates to mobility, we don’t have enough training set up for the future of mobility.  And I think they’re a little bit more what I call technology-centric with some of the future mobility going on. You’re talking a little bit more like what’s on the ground today that’s serving millions of people. But I think the point is still that there’s a lot of need from a practical standpoint to have training and to have people working in those roles to ensure that we move everybody safely and quickly and cost-effectively as well.  

Tibbits: No, and I think you kind of hit it on the head there.  The training has not changed really in decades. You know, the majority of us in this field are either engineers, architects, or planners.  And none of the way that we were trained has really changed in probably the last 50, 60, 70 years. We’re all trained the exact same way that we have been, and I think the technology is advancing much quicker than the way we are trained is advancing.  

And so for us we’ve been targeting a lot of younger people especially around software development, software architecture, and things like that.  So then the question is, “How do you bridge that gap?” Because the way we build policy has not changed, but the technology has. And so then how do we harness that technology and start making alterations to the way we train our employees to be able to respond quicker?  And so I think that’s actually a lot of the more cutting-edge research, is really looking at that. How do we integrate what we know into what we now have available?

Cohen: I think that’s going to be the next 10 to 15 years.  I think it’s going to be a lot of that, really navigating that.  So I want to maybe transition a little bit. So the FMCB was created in 2015, and you’re appointed there.  And I believe you and I actually even talked about this at that time or shortly thereafter, which is the role that you are filling on that team, because I think I recall from the conversation that you and I had about that time that it was a very mindfully put-together board where you had different folks on that board that had different strengths.  And so I’m curious, especially now that you’ve been on the board for four years now, what role that you were originally brought on to fill or what your strengths where that you were lending to that board and then kind of how that’s evolved over the course of that time.  

Tibbits: Yeah, I mean, I feel like it was a very unusual construction of a board because, you know, traditionally here in Massachusetts and many other places they are political appointments.  You know, you get a lot of elected officials, and it’s very much so about who those people are representing as opposed to what their subject matter area of expertise is. And so mine in particular is transportation planning, so I deal with operations; I deal with kind of long-range planning as far as what are we going to be doing with the future of our rail system; how do we adjust and better operate our bus system?  

I’m kind of the all-transit all the time, and then I work with my colleagues for the other areas.  And I think that’s—the reason we’ve been so successful is that we stay in our lanes but we collaborate with each other so that we are more holistically tackling the issues that we have.  And so for me, I mean, I work in decades. You know, Brian Shortsleeve really deals with our financials, so he is really, really nimble, whereas I have to figure out how do we improve the operations and services we have now and then what is this going to look like 10, 20, 30 years into the future, because even looking at fleet, facilities, all of that falls under me.  

And so trying to balance that with what my colleagues are trying to do, it’s very difficult, but I will say we have been much more successful than most boards because we have that expertise.  We’re not having to rely just on staff, and staff isn’t having to waste time basically training the board to understand what they do. It’s a much more seamless transaction because we come from these worlds.  

Cohen: Well, I think that’s a really good point.  And I think about that a lot when you think about either elected officials who are on a lot of different boards or boards that have a lot of what you said appointment officials by the elected officials that are kind of meant to quote-unquote “represent” folks as opposed to providing that expertise themselves.  

You know, I think about that all the time because it’s like, “Wow.  How much time does the mayor or the city councilperson really have to dig in on these local MPO board?”  You know, theoretically they should be able to kind of make all these pieces work together, but it’s a lot to ask that they’re on the transit board and the MPO board and also running a city as well.  So I like the model the governor and secretary put together for this FMCB, and I’m glad to hear that it’s working out well.  

Tibbits: It is.  It’s a big lift for elected officials.  And at the end of the day—I always tell people when I speak at these different events—my job is actually really easy because I don’t have to worry about being voted out.  So it allows me to be, quite honestly, agnostic in a lot of ways about a lot of the decisions we make because we’re making the best decisions based on the data we have and balancing serving 182 municipalities, but I’m not focusing on just my municipality or just on the people who voted me it.  It really has to be a holistic view, but we have the luxury to do that, where an elected official just doesn’t.

Cohen: No, that’s a really good point.  And I think that really is a key benefit there.  You mentioned decisions there. I want to dig in on that a little bit.  From your time at the 128 Business Council or the MassDOT board or even FMCB, what has been the most challenging decision that you have had to make, and how did you go about making that decision?

Tibbits: That’s a tough question.  I would say probably some of the hardest decisions have been around the fare increase.  I think that’s always really, really difficult because we do have many, many people who are suffering here in the commonwealth.  We have a major gap between our low-income population and our higher-income population. We’re also dealing with a housing crisis where we’re pricing people out.  So every time we make a decision to raise fares, etcetera, it really does impact people.  

And we hear from thousands of people.  They write letters; they send emails; they come and testify before us.  And it can be very emotional and can really get to you on a personal level, but we have to balance that with our responsibility to make sure that the agency can stay afloat from a financial standpoint.  So I actually think that has been really, really hard. I think the other thing is looking at how we prioritize different services and how we take into consideration the public’s input and what the different communities need, but then make a decision that serves the largest number of people.  

And I think that can be really, really tough; and I think for the five of us, unlike some boards, the riders know who we are.  They know our names. They see us every single Monday. I just feel like we have become—in addition obviously to the general manager and the secretary of transportation, we have become the faces of the agency beyond those other two roles.  And so I think it’s been very helpful for the customers. Customer experience is also my area. It’s a department I actually created when I first joined the board. And so it gives our riders an outlet, but I think at the same time a lot of that anger can be misdirected, because I think a lot of the time the public doesn’t understand what a municipality controls and what we control.  

But I would say the fare increase is the hardest thing.  We have a fare increase coming up on July 1st, and that is after having two derailments three days apart.  That’s tough because not only are the riders asking for relief from that fare increase but so are the elected officials.  But then from our standpoint, A, we couldn’t stop it if we wanted to from a technological place. We just couldn’t. It would take us weeks and weeks and weeks, but also if we were to roll that back we’re giving up about $43 million, and that’s $43 million that we absolutely need to not only continue the operation of the system but to make the improvements to ensure that derailments do not happen because of equipment and to ensure that we have backup systems for our signal system because that was the other thing.  

When that Red Line train came off, it slammed into a signal house, which basically took that whole system and made it go dark.  And now we’re coming back from it, but that is going to take time to replace that. And I think that’s something that is very hard for the public to understand, especially when you bring in the emotional aspect of fare increases.  

Cohen: Yeah.  I mean, there’s a lot there.  I mean, I think it’s a complex organization.  Right? You’re running rail; you’re running busses, light rail, ferries too.  You know, so you’ve got a lot that you’re managing there. When you have something that big, there’s going to be costs; and you kind of have to account for that, and you have to pay for it.  You know, this quote I saw the other day by Brian Lang I thought was really interesting.  

I think it was in CommonWealth Magazine, and it was saying that elected officials needed to, quote, “grow a little courage,” unquote, and basically wanting to increase fees on the other things that weren’t the T riders; they were Uber and Lyft and the gas tax and so forth.  And so I think his point and I think is a fair one was, you know, why are we taxing the riders more when we should be taxing those that are making the riding experience worse? And so I guess my question for you is, like, why is that kind of tradeoff so challenging for elected officials?  And how do we navigate that going forward?

Tibbits: I mean, it’s tough, and I completely agree with Brian Lang.  He was right, and it’s something we’ve been saying for years now.  The gas tax last time it was on the ballot, it failed miserably and for many, many reason.  But I think the biggest reason is the public just did not understand what it meant. And I don’t think the advocates did a very good job of explaining it.  We can’t lobby on behalf of the agency. We can’t do it, and so we can provide information; we can make public comments, but it’s not like we can go to the elected officials and try and get them to make better decisions.  

But at the end of the day we have TNCs that are causing a significant amount of congestion on our roadways; they’re parking in our bus stops; they’re making operating public transit very, very difficult, and they pay so very little to use our public right-of-ways.  The gas tax has not been raised. I don’t even remember the last time it was raised. It’s ridiculously low. It has never been adjusted for inflation. And with the level that we’re at from traffic congestion, the worst in the country, the fact that we continue to prioritize single-occupancy vehicles over every other mode that carries significantly more people, it’s just not fair at the end of the day.  And I think the riders are correct. They are the ones that keep paying for this, even though they have made a better decision to use public transit.

Cohen: Yeah.

Tibbits: And I think the other thing is parking.  Parking for some reason is viewed as this human right here in the metro region.  And the amount of time that elected officials spend trying to protect this parking, if we could just remove the parking in these key corridors—and we’re not talking about a lot of parking spaces; we’re talking about key corridors where you can move the busses through in priority lanes—we would not only improve the runtime of our busses; we also improve the tariff congestion.  The cars move through there quicker; pedestrians and bikes are better protected, and it’s just for some reason we cannot get the elected officials to just commit.  

We’ve had a few very brave communities that have just have gone for it and done it, and it has worked.  But even the pilots we’ve run within the City of Boston, they’ve been successful, and yet the mayor has continuously refused to make any of these corridors open to the busses and reducing the amount of travel lanes.  And it just continues to come back to parking. And I think we’re fighting against some very archaic notions about how people want to move. And I think trying to get past that has been very, very difficult.  

Massachusetts is very old-school about a lot of things.  And if we can’t get past not raising the TNCs, not really taking on the gas tax—people have even thrown out congestion pricing—but even just being able to take the parking and give it back to transit and to the rights-of-way to actually move large numbers of people, the congestion is not going to get worse.  We’re going to start to see this impact where companies are locating, where people are able to locate. And you combine that with the housing crisis; we have the perfect storm, and I think the thing that we have continuously publicly said, “If elected officials don’t start trying something new, this will continue to get worse.”  

And that has been very frustrating for the board, because the other thing is we need diversity of revenue streams.  We can’t keep doing this over and over again. You can’t keep raising fares. I mean, legislatively we can only do so much there.  And without having any other revenue stream we can only keep doing this for so long. And at some point you reach kind of the cliff where it’s like we actually cannot operate the system because we don’t have enough money to do so.  Because a lot of the money we’ve had has really been focused on capital improvements, which state of good repair and all these things we really need to do, but the operating budget is the spot that always gets cut. And so we’re supposed to be increasing performance.  We’re supposed to be getting more people out of their cars, while continuing to drive down the budget. And it doesn’t make sense, and it will not work.  

Cohen: So the way forward is new elected officials?  I guess I’m struggling to—and I’m not expecting you to have the silver bullet here.  I guess, I’m just—I’m trying to identify like what is necessary. I know you’ve got a big advocacy support in Boston, at least compared to many areas as it relates to transit.  And you’ve got a lot of smart people. You’ve got a lot of smart people that use transit on a regular basis. I guess I’m just trying to identify what tactical things can we do to overcome these dated notions of how we need to move around and how we need to combat these congestion issues especially through the eyes of elected officials.  

Tibbits: I think the elected officials who are coming up, the newer elected officials, have been pushing for this.  You know, the person I’m thinking of specifically is within the City of Boston, Councilor Michelle Wu. She has taken on transportation.  She has been much more progressive about transportation. And she has been fighting this notion that parking should supersede everything else.  I do think it’s new elected officials or current elected officials just changing the way they do things.

You know, the mayor of Everett just took the lane, through out cones one night, and was like, “You know what?  This is now a bus lane,” and it worked. But the amount of courage that that took for him to do that is huge here.  And so, for me, either our elected officials need to change or they need to be replaced by elected officials who are going to put the people first as opposed to focusing on parking or for some reason insisting on keeping the status quo.  So, no, I mean, I think it’s something we’re seeing nationally. We need new people, period, because otherwise nothing is every going to change.  

Cohen: You mentioned the mayor of Everett kind of throwing out the cones, and obviously that was a pilot and it is since getting more formalized, which is great.  This is a bus lane to basically give basically busses the right of way and not have to sit in traffic. And also Arlington also did something similar. I guess, from a standpoint of that’s something tactical that leaders can do, is they can do these pilots.  They can try these things.  

Another one I wanted to just get your sense on is this idea of empathy for riders.  And so what I mean by that is I know you take the T on a regular basis, and I’m sure that informs your view on how it’s doing and how important the customer experience is.  Do you have a sense on what percent of those who obviously have a role in funding the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which is basically all the legislators and the governor and so forth, how much they actually use the T and to really understand what kind of challenges can be from a rider experience?  Do you have a sense on that?

Tibbits: I mean, not enough of our elected officials use the system.  I would say anecdotally the majority of them drive, and they always have.  The five of us, we all ride the system. We all ride different modes, so we know every single day what it feels like to be on a system that’s either overcrowded, running behind, not comfortable, too old, all of these things.  And I feel like not enough of our elected officials actually take the time to ride. And I think those who do are saying it and saying that these are real, real problems; we need to be representing these riders. And I think, for me especially, I am an avid bus user.  It’s one-third of our ridership, and it is probably the most ignored mode we have.  

And for a lot of those people they don’t have any other choice, and I think for our elected officials they have millions of other choices.  And I think they’ve always considered it—what is the term—captive rider, which I hate. I think that’s an awful, awful term, but that’s how they view it.  And they’re like, “Well, they have no other choice, so this is just what they’re going to do.” I actually think our elected officials should be forced to ride the system.  Have your office hours on the system; really experience what people are going through because then your focus isn’t going to be on protecting parking, protecting travel lanes for the cars because then you would actually have some empathy for what people are going through.  And I think it’s really that diversity of experiences.  

And I think especially for me, you know, coming from a very low-income background, being a person of color, having just a very different lived experience and many of the board members are also in that category, I just think we bring so much more understanding and empathy to the situation that I don’t think you have seen traditionally with our elected officials in the commonwealth.  That is starting to change with different elected coming in, especially—not even really younger. And when I say younger I mean kind of that 45-and-under who didn’t come up in this kind of parochial system. They came to this because they wanted to make a difference, and a lot of them came from the advocacy background. And I think they just bring a completely different skill set.  

But, no, there are not enough of our elected officials that ride the system, and I think you see this nationally.  There are a lot of boards of transit agencies where they are very open about the fact that they never use their system.  And it just makes no sense. I have no idea how you make the level of decisions that we are forced to make if you’ve never actually experienced the product that you’re trying to sell to people.  And I think the riders are very aware. They know who rides the system and who doesn’t because it’s very clear by the decisions that are being made.  

Cohen: Yeah, that’s a great point.  And I wonder how much that impacts how the riders react to some of the decisions that you have to make.  Because you mentioned the fare increase coming shortly. Obviously not an ideal outcome from your standpoint and certainly from many riders’ standpoints as well, but I wonder how much of that criticism is blunted a little, maybe not enough, but blunted a little because of the fact that they know that you ride the system on a regular basis, and that that experience colors the approach that you’re taking.  And I think that makes a huge difference.  

Tibbits: No, I would agree.  And I think the transparency of it.  People know the thought process behind why each of us vote the way we do.  And I was very honest. I was like, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t think it’s fair to do this.  And I know that while some people want to characterize it as a moderate increase, for a lot of people this is now going to be a decision between how much you spend on your groceries, whether you can send your kid to an afterschool event.”  And being able to say that publically, I think it at least shows the riders, A, we care, B, this decision is never going to be made lightly by us, and, C, that we are actual people and approachable people.  

By meeting every Monday and by livestreaming it, which was one of my first projects was making sure that we could livestream our board meetings, and being available in more social-media-like atmospheres—I am very active on Twitter.  Riders tweet at me all the time, and I respond because it’s important to me. Whenever I get an email, I respond. Phone calls, letters, and we respond. They know that every single time they communicate with us they are being heard, and we’re being held accountable.  It’s not just some random person behind a closed door making this decision. We serve them.  

We may have been appointed by the governor; we work with the secretary, but we serve the ridership.  And I think they understand that. And while they’re very mad that we made the fare increase, I think they had a clear understanding of why we did it, and they know that it was not a decision made lightly.  And we’re accountable to what we do with those funds, and we make it very clear what we’re going to do with those funds. And I think for me, especially, investing in the bus system and pushing our elected officials so hard on helping us to improve the bus system at least shows the riders that we’re not just raising the fares and then moving on with our lives.  We’re not just passing a budget and being like, “Okay, great. See you next year.” It is a constant process, and it is a constant dialogue for us.  

Cohen: Yeah, that’s good.  I’m grateful that y’all are doing that.  Well, let’s maybe wrap up with this, which is you mentioned diversity of perspectives earlier when you talked about the elected officials taking transit and experiencing what it’s like to not drive and to use the system.  And I know you posted on Twitter recently about the lack of women on corporate boards and specifically the lack of women of color and the need for change there. And I know you also recently participated in a women’s transportation summit.  

I guess I want to just talk a little bit about that, which is what else can we do to ensure that the leadership of our communities reflects our communities and reflects that diversity of experience and background that make up the Massachusetts, Boston, where we live in North Carolina, and so forth?  What more can we do, and what else do you recommend from your experience as a leader that can be helpful there?

Tibbits: I mean, I think the biggest thing is when we talk about diversity it isn’t about, “Oh.  Well, we need to interview so many candidates of color, so many candidates that are women.”  It has to be engaging with our communities and meeting new people that might be the type of people that we want to be putting on these boards.  Because traditionally—and especially in Boston we’re a very segregated city and a very segregated region—it’s always been, “Oh. Well, this person worked for this campaign, so they should get this appointment.”  And it has happened over and over and over again, so you’re basically just getting the exact same people who went to school together, who know each other just moving around these boards.  

And I think starting to recognize and require subject-matter experts in these different fields—we should have someone who is focused on advocacy, someone who is focused on housing.  Having people who work in these fields and then making those appointments, those are the things that I think need to be focused on because otherwise it’s just going to continue to be this nepotism.  And you see it everywhere, not just here, not just in New York. You’re seeing it everywhere, and I think until we move beyond that, it is virtually impossible to actually increase the diversity of it.  

And so I think it’s actually recognizing the skillset needed to address our diverse communities as opposed to, “Okay.  Well, we have this person of color who knows this person on a political campaign. Let’s just throw them in there.” And I think just having the conversation.  I think a lot of people don’t want to talk about our racial issues. They don’t want to talk about our issues of sexism and underrepresentation. And I think if we refuse to talk about it we’re never going to be able to fix it.  

And so I feel like we have a lot of organizations that are pulling in this direction.  We have not made up the ground that we need to, but I do. I think when appointments are made to these boards it has to be people who actually have the experience to do it.  And I think it’s the same thing when you’re looking at the hiring of senior level people at these agencies, because for us we have about 7,000 employees at the MBTA. The operators are probably the most diverse workforce you’ll ever see with 60% of them being women, and then as you move up just less women, less people of color, and it really is because people are hiring within their own network as opposed to finding the people who best meet the need of the agency.  And I think until we have that accountability and are more open and transparent about the hiring processes, especially to the public, we will never be able to fix it because there’s no impetus to do so.

Cohen: Yeah.  Well, I think that transparency that you talked about before with your meetings and so forth, I think, is a great way to move towards that.  So I’m grateful that you are serving in these roles. I just think that the commonwealth is so lucky to have you, and I think they know that too.  But I’m grateful that you’re doing this work, and I’m grateful that you’re raising these topics and continuing to talk about them, and I want to keep supporting you in that as well.  You mentioned you’re active on Twitter. Where can folks find you so that they can engage with you if they like what they hear?

Tibbits: So I’m at @MonicaTibbitsN on Twitter.  You can also find me on the MBTA website.  I’m a little bit of everywhere, but I would say as far as just generally reaching out my Twitter is probably the best way to do so.  And, like I said, I respond to everything. I don’t ignore anyone, unless you’re going to use foul language or otherwise be genuinely unpleasant.  It’s the best way to really reach out to me. And usually if people want to have a longer conversation, if they send me a message I will give them my email address and kind of keep that dialogue going on.  And you can see me at most transportation conferences. I have a lot to say on the topic.  

Cohen: That’s right.  And I believe that’s where we first met, at one of the transportation conferences in Massachusetts.  Well, Monica, thank you so much. This was a great conversation, and I really pulled a lot out of this, and I hope our audience will as well.  And thank you for all you’re doing.

Tibbits: Thank you.  I appreciate you having me.  

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.  

[END RECORDING]

Enjoyed this episode of The Movement? Hear more from Josh Cohen in The Moral Argument for Free Public Transit.

Tags: the movement, transit leaders, public transit, fare free, community, planning

Leave a Reply