With Southern California boasting both extraordinary congestion and strong political support for transit, Nadine Lee of LA Metro explains how to invest in not only innovation, but also the fundamentals of better transit service, all in an effort to create a transit system that riders love.
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Cohen: Josh Cohen
Lee: Nadine Lee
Cohen: My guest today on The Movement is Nadine Lee, Chief of Staff at LA Metro. What I love about this conversation is how she and her team at LA Metro are listening to the public, acknowledging where they need to improve, creating a plan to address those areas, and asking the public to hold them accountable. That’s leadership 101 coming at you right now. 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: My guest today is Nadine Lee, the Chief of Staff for LA Metro. Prior to working at LA Metro, Nadine was the Deputy Chief Innovation Officer at LA Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation for three years and a project manager at Denver’s Regional Transit District for 10 years. So welcome to The Movement, Nadine.
Lee: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Cohen: We met several years ago. You were a part of the Leadership APTA program, and I believe at that time you were a project manager at RTD. Is that correct? Am I remembering that?
Lee: Yes, that’s correct.
Cohen: And then shortly after that you came to LA Metro to help start the Office of Extraordinary Innovation; and now you are Chief of Staff at LA Metro, and you’re working very closely with Phil Washington who I guess you also worked with at RTD. So I guess I’d love to maybe start out with kind of how have you kind of progressed through your career. What kind of rubric have you used to make these decisions on your career and what to tackle next?
Lee: Well, that’s a really funny questions because, you know, I’m an engineer by education. And a lot of people would not associate engineers with innovation necessarily, at least not in practice, I think. Engineers actually do a lot of innovation, but sometimes engineers get rooted in their processes and how they like to do things. And so it is a little bit strange to go to an innovation office; but I think, you know, I was really fortunate when I was in Denver to work on a bus rapid transit project.
Lee: And I helped deliver what’s now called the Flatiron Flyer. And that project, I think, really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be done with buses in all of our cities because busses are probably, you know, the—they’re probably the least appreciated form of transportation that we have in the public realm. And I think it’s just something that I think we should leverage to its highest and best use. And so, you know, having had that as my sort of foundation, when the opportunity came up to work in the Office of Extraordinary Innovation, even though buses have been around a long time I saw this huge opportunity to go and work on the strategic direction for LA Metro and to incorporate buses into that strategic direction and to use that as part of the platform for really advancing transportation in LA County, which as you probably know LA County is 10 million people. And LA has the worse traffic in the whole country, if not the world, and it’s known for its traffic. And so the idea of trying to change mobility for 10 million people was really exciting.
So I wouldn’t say that I necessarily had a rubric necessarily, but I think what I’ve tried to do is always do things that I love and get excited about and try to do things that make a difference. That’s certainly the way I evaluated this opportunity in LA, because, you know, again, the idea of trying to change the lives of 10 million people is pretty remarkable. But then the other thing is, you know, when I was considering moving to LA I was really thinking about, you know, “What’s the environment like in LA right now?” And what was really exciting about LA at the time that I made the move was there was a really strong political support for transit in LA even though, you know, LA is a car city, a car-centric city I should say.
Cohen: Yeah, that’s fascinating.
Lee: And I think it was really—it was exciting because they had just hired Phil Washington, and there was all this energy around trying to make LA a better place to live, even though people live there despite all the challenges.
Lee: People live here, I should say, despite all the challenges that we have. But they still love LA, and I think that’s one of the great things about Los Angeles, is that people just love it and they will live here no matter what happens. But I think in that context there’s a huge opportunity to make things even better for people here.
Cohen: So, you know, when you came there and helping to start this Office of Extraordinary Innovation with Dr. Joshua Schank who I believe still leads that—correct?
Lee: Yes, he does.
Cohen: Okay. So, I guess, where did the genesis of that office come from? Was that something that Phil had in mind when he came to LA Metro from RTD, that he was thinking that if we’re going to try and accomplish what we need to accomplish here, we need to try some different things? Or was that something that Joshua came up with or you came up with? Where did that come from?
Lee: Yeah, so it came from Phil. I know when he was hired at LA Metro by the Metro Board he had told them, you know, “I’m going to start this office of extraordinary innovation because we need to inject some innovation into the whole transit industry.” And if you look at what he did in Denver, he started a lot of different things. He started the Multi-Agency Exchange Program, which is a program to basically send a cohort of people from four different agencies to share stories and lessons learned and best practices with their peers at the other four agencies. And so, you know, it’s like an exchange program, and that’s part of a career development thing.
Phil is really great because he has been working at the root of the problem, which takes a long time. But a lot of things he’s been doing in the area of career development and giving opportunities to his staff are really designed to empower the workforce and create the next generation of leaders in the transit industry. You know, he’s been very creative based on his background, you know, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, you know, figuring out that he had opportunities through his military experience and then coming to the public sector to do public transportation and using that background to try to figure out how he can improve communities. And so he’s done that through, you know, trying to open the doors to small businesses, creating a WIN-LA program where he’s actually tried to get people in from the communities into transportation careers and getting them trained up and ready to go either as journeymen or people in the construction industry, sometimes even in design.
Lee: So he’s really—he decided he needed to do this Office of Extraordinary Innovation because there was a lot of opportunity. Given all the advances in technology and how quickly everything’s been moving, he felt like it was a really important contribution to open up the way that agencies do business and to try to change things, bring new ideas because, as you said before, we can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results.
Cohen: Yeah, for sure. So you mentioned kind of career progression and Phil’s desire to help people grow within their careers. And so I guess as you think back on your career, is there a piece of advice that really resonates with you that you’ve learned or that someone shared with you that you would want to share with someone that was earlier in their career?
Lee: Only one? [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Well, pick a couple. I don’t know.
Lee: Well, I have to say that I really benefitted from a lot of advice that people have given me over the years. And it really is true; you can’t really just choose only one piece of advice because everything, you know, kind of culminates. Everything contributes to one being successful in their career. So, if you would indulge me, I’ll take a couple of opportunities here to share things. Because I do think that particularly for women—because I talk a lot to women, I mentor a lot of women—I really think that it’s important for women to understand their own goal in their success.
And this goes for everyone, not just women, but I think sometimes people in general, I think we sometimes think, “Oh, we’re relegated to this situation that we’re in, and we don’t have any power.” And the reality is that we don’t really generally have to stay in the situation that we’re in; most people don’t have to stay in the situation that they’re in. And I think it’s really important for people to understand that, you know, you have the power to change jobs. And a lot of it has to do with the level of confidence that you have in your own abilities and your skill sets. And the moment you can recognize all of your strengths and all of your contributions, I think, as soon as you recognize that, you can take the opportunity to sell those strengths and try to find a new place to work if you’re experiencing something that’s not very helpful. And I think that that’s something that, you know, certainly when I was early on in my career I didn’t necessarily have that confidence, and I didn’t think that changing jobs was going to be an option for me.
Lee: But I’ll tell you the first time I changed jobs I was really, really nervous because I didn’t think I was making the right decision. And now that I have changed jobs a few times I look back and I don’t regret a single thing. And the other thing that I would say too to people is, you know, don’t take no for an answer because sometimes the persistence is what gets you the job in the end because, you know, you kind of show some perseverance and some spunk, and that’s not always a bad thing.
You know, I think some people don’t value it, but I think when you come to the right people they will value that, and they’ll appreciate the energy that you bing to the table. And so I think being really willing to show who you are, I think, is hugely important. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not. Don’t try to be like the other person. It’s so important to just be who you are because who you are is what’s valuable.
Cohen: Yeah. That recalls a little bit of something one of the dads on the soccer team that my son is on says to his son before the game, which I’ve kind of latched onto a little bit, which is he says, “Don’t let them outwork you.” You know? And I love that, when you think about not taking no for an answer, and certainly I think about that, just making sure that you’re, you know, not letting anybody else outwork you. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t, you know, be mindful of your other commitments and your family and so forth, but I think it’s also kind of being thoughtful around, “All right. If I want something, I’m going to go work for it.” I think there’s something to that.
Lee: Yeah, and I think there’s—maybe I should, you know, modify it slightly, that you shouldn’t take no for an answer unless you’re satisfied with the why. You know?
Cohen: Ah, good. Good context.
Lee: It’s like sometimes no is the right answer, but, you know, if you need to be satisfied, you should pursue that why and find out what the why is, because at some point you have to accept whatever the answer is, and sometimes it’s not—sometimes things don’t go your way, and that’s okay too.
Cohen: One of my favorite books I like to read is by a gentleman named Ari Weinzweig who is the CEO of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And one of his mantras is, “Don’t get furious; get curios.”
Lee: Oh, that’s great.
Cohen: And so in some of those challenging situations, you know, obviously if you don’t get that job you wanted or something doesn’t work out, you know, it’s easy to get frustrated. Or if you’re managing someone who is not going the way you want, it’s easy to get mad. It’s a little bit harder to maybe take that next step and try to, like, really try to understand that situation and maybe get to that why that you kind of just illustrated there.
Lee: Yeah, absolutely.
Cohen: So I’d like to maybe circle back to this Office of Extraordinary Innovation. And I actually think that example you gave earlier with RTD and the Flatiron Flyer, that, your experience there, and then the transition to the Office of Extraordinary Innovation, I think, is really interesting because I think—you know, when I look at some of the projects that you’ve worked on with OEI, which I guess I’ll abbreviate here to make it a little bit easier, but, you know, you guys are looking in or have looked into all kinds of interesting things, public-private partnerships, microtransit, and Mobility on Demand Sandbox grant that you’re working on, and mobile tolling, and I think there’s even a look at an aerial tram to Dodger Stadium.
So, I mean, there’s lots of really, really interesting technology driven stuff. And I’m really curious how you balanced that with, you know, some of what I’d call maybe less sexy stuff but that can also be quite impactful. So you gave the BRT example before with the Flatiron Flyer and bus-only lanes, which I know there’s been some work on recently, and increased fixed-route bus service; I know there’s some look at congestion pricing. These are not nearly as sexy as some of that other stuff but also has a big impact, so how do you balance that, especially in an organization as big as LA Metro?
Lee: That is a great question. [LAUGHS] So I would start with what our problem actually is here in LA County, which actually is a problem in a lot of cities around the country. I think the problem that we have is a capacity problem. It’s that we don’t have enough space to carry all the people with all the trips that they want to make. And we can’t build ourselves out of the problem because, you know, as we sort of alluded earlier we’ve been trying to do that for 50 or 60 years now, and it really hasn’t solved the problem, because what’s happening is people as they become more prosperous they’re starting to travel more. Sometimes they have more access to a car or whatever form of transportation they need. You know, they’re taking more trips. And there are more people also, so it’s more trips total.
So we have to find a way to accommodate all the trips that people want to take, because in LA we’re not asking people to travel less; we’re saying, “If you’re going to have to travel, travel more judiciously; travel more efficiently,” and so in order to do that you have to improve things like bus service and rail service because those are the things that can carry the most people in the least amount of space. So that’s sort of the foundational piece. Yeah, it’s not very sexy, but I think what is sexy is what you can actually provide in terms of access if you improve that kind of transportation, that form of transportation, that mode. I think if we can really improve bus speeds, bus speed reliability, and really get people better access to the buses so that transfers are a little bit easier or maybe a lot easier in our case, I think we can really transform the way people move in the county, and we can give people more access to more jobs.
I mean, I think there is some statistic that says that if you have a car you have—I don’t know. I don’t know how many times more access or access to more jobs than you do if you have to take a bus. And so what we want to do is, you know, make that delta much smaller by improving our bus service. Now, the advent of technology in the form of, you know, apps, smartphones, and all that stuff, that stuff enables us to do more. It helps us provide more reliability, because we can tell people how far off schedule we are, for example.
Lee: We can tell people what time they’re going to get to their destination when they’re taking a bus because we have algorithms that do that, you know, based on the speed of the bus and that sort of thing. So if we bring together technology and sort of the infrastructure and service improvements on the actual operational side, somehow in the middle I think we’re going to really change the way people move. It’s going to be a huge improvement to just movement all around LA County, and that’s the benefit of the technology; but we also have to do that foundational work with the bus system and what’s happening out on the street as well.
Cohen: Does the general public find that continuum that you have to walk there, you know, with technology on one end and foundational service on the other, do they find that challenging to have to, like, navigate where LA Metro’s focus is? Like, does that make—maybe that’s not a great way to frame it. But I guess I’m trying to think about it from Joe Q. Public. And they’re thinking, “All right. I’m just trying to get to work today. Like, that’s my only interest.” Right?
Cohen: “And you can talk about this future stuff all you want, but I’m just trying to get to work.” Right?
Lee: That’s so true.
Cohen: And I’m just—I’m trying to figure out, like, how that message gets out to the general public about the need to kind of think more creatively about some of this technology going forward.
Lee: Yeah, so there are several different ways that we need to communicate this information. And have we communicated this in the most comprehensive way? I would say probably not yet. We haven’t quite gotten there. We started out communicating this concept with our Vision 2028 strategic plan that was adopted in June of 2018. And now a year and a half later, you know, we’re talking about things like, you know, managing demand on the street system, you know, which is more of a—I mean, the demand management side of things is really helpful because, you know, it helps us kind of keep the capacity open on the street system.
Lee: We’re also getting ready to talk really broadly about our world-class bus system that I keep alluding to. That will probably launch sometime early next year in 2020. And that will be a long-term investment plan, but it’s kind of, like, we have to get out and tell people what it is first. Right? Because I think it’s really important for us as a public agency to not be afraid to share with people what we’re hoping to do and how we’re going to do it and then let them hold us accountable for it.
I think that’s a really important aspect of the innovative approaches that Metro is taking these days, because, you know, innovation isn’t just in technology. It’s really a lot about how we’re doing business and how we’re changing up the way we do business. And so I think it’s really important for us to be able to get out and talk about what we’re trying to do knowing that we’re not always going to be perfect. And one of the things that I’m trying to emphasize here at Metro is, you know, we’re going to get out and we’re going to tell people what we’re going to do. And sometimes we’re going to fall on our face.
Cohen: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Lee: And then but the important thing is the trajectory and the progression over a long period of time, not the day-to-day stuff. Because the day-to-day stuff we, you know, we have good days and we have bad days, and that curve goes up and down. But if from day one to day 30 it overall rises then we’re in good shape, and that’s really what we’re trying to do.
Cohen: Yeah, I think you’re 100% right. And I think that is a challenge. And I think about that all the time, because there are so many dedicated public servants that are doing great work and are serving millions and millions of people a day and so forth. And, you know, sometimes that gets hidden behind, A, how well you can communicate that and, B, how receptive the public is to maybe even listen to that communication. Because, again, depending on where that person is they may be in no place to want to communicate about all the creative investments you’re making in the bus service or even foundational investments in the bus service, as much as, like I said, “I’m just trying to get to work right now, and I’m going to be late in about 42 minutes, and I’ve got 39-minute bus ride ahead of me.” You know?
Cohen: So I think that’s a really challenging thing. So I think, you know, what you and your colleagues have to do on a regular basis—I give you a lot of credit, because I think it’s challenging, but at the same time it’s really important to kind of tell that compelling narrative about what you’re trying to build and why it’s important, and just like in any other situation, having to repeat it over and over and over again. And I’m sure that’s part of what Phil’s job is and maybe yours to a degree as well, which is having to just repeat that story over and over and over again to all of your various stakeholders.
Lee: That’s really true, because, you know, we have done a number of customer satisfaction surveys for as long as I can remember. And we most recently did one in 2017—I think it was—as part of our strategic plan effort. And, you know, it’s very consistent, the feedback that we get from our customers from year to year. I mean, it’s, you know, “My trip isn’t very reliable. It’s definitely not fast,” you know, “There are some security issues,” you know, “We would like for the buses to be cleaner,” you know, and all kinds of stuff.
And it’s not just the buses. It’s also our rail service. I think it’s really important for us—we’re also doing a people-first plan, a customer experience plan that we’re working on that will acknowledge the things that the customers have been telling us are important to them. And, you know, one of the things that I think is difficult for public agencies to do is to acknowledge what we’ve heard and then tell people how we’re fixing it.
Lee: Which I think we think we’re doing it, but I’m not sure we always do it. And so we really want to get out there and say, “Look; this is what you all told us you care about, and here is how we’re planning to fix it. This is how we’re going to fix it over the next two to five years,” or however long it’s going to be, because everything takes a different amount of time. Certainly we’ll try to do the easy things first and then definitely the things that are most impactful. Things like getting bus-only lanes and things like that are—I mean, that’s a big, heavy lift because there are a lot of politics involved with that, but I think, you know, using the beacon of improving reliability on the bus system is a pretty good reason to be doing it. And so we’re going to try to keep people focused on the endgame.
Cohen: Totally. I think that makes a huge difference. And, again, I think you just have to keep telling that story over and over and over again. From the perspective of thinking about our audience and something that they can bring home to their communities all over the country and even all over the world, is there something replicable from LA’s perspective or LA Metro’s perspective that you think other communities could try or could benefit from or something to that effect? Because, you know, I’m specifically not thinking about the nice weather that reduces your need for maybe some of the snow maintenance that Boston has to deal with. So that’s obviously not replicable, but I’m curious if there’s anything that comes to mind that you think other communities—that LA or LA Metro has learned that you think other communities could benefit from.
Lee: I think that one of the most easily replicable things that people could do would be, you know, doing kind of performance management around their operations.
Cohen: Hmm. Tell me more.
Lee: And that’s really something that I think the best systems around the world do, and they do it really, really well. So for example in London, Transport for London has their performance management system down so tight that they know that the capacity of their underground system is limited by their ability to move people off the platform after a train arrives. It has nothing to do with the capacity of the rail itself; it’s really just whether they can move people through elevators and escalators and stairs fast enough off the platform before the next load of people arrives.
Lee: And that’s—you know, when you have a really tight performance management system and you measure the things that matter and have really aggressive targets, then you can figure out, like, “Okay. If my average mean distance between failures on my buses is X,” you know, I mean, that could be all of your buses breaking down at the same time, or it could be one lemon. You know? It just depends on how you measure it and how you figure out how to pinpoint that sort of weak link in your system. And so developing the performance measures that start to focus in and target where your problem really is, that will help you understand if you need to make more investments financially to solve the problem or if it’s a human resource issue.
There’s so many different ways that you can use performance management and continuous improvement to improve the work that you do. And, I mean, every single organization, every single government entity can do that right now. They just need to figure out what things to measure and start somewhere. Like, most of the time you’re not going to get it right the first time, and so you’ll just have to keep working on the different performance measures. You know, if you find that you’re measuring one thing and that it’s not giving you the results that you want, then you start measuring other things, but it’s like an iterative process. That’s the whole idea of continuous improvement, is to keep looking at different things that might actually solve your problem. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Cohen: No. Totally. Totally. And one of the things that I feel like is baked into that, the way you framed that and then also with some of the communication stuff you mentioned before about being honest about kind of what your plan is and then giving them feedback and so forth is this. It’s seems like it’s this fundamental relationship of trust with your audience or with your riders or your other stakeholders, that to do the things that you want to do requires that trust. And I guess I’m curious; do you agree with that assertion, and if so how do you go about building that trust? Because I think that seems like that’s something that is missing in some environments, that relationship, that trust between the agency and their stakeholders and the agency and the riders.
Lee: I 100% agree with that statement, because I do think that trust is first of all very easily lost.
Lee: And it doesn’t take much for a customer, especially a customer to lose confidence in the government entity that they’re getting service from. And I think that, you know, building trust back up, I mean, it’s like that whole glass-of-water example that people give for credibility. It’s like, you know, you have to build credibility or trust drop by drop, but when the cup tips over you lose it all, and you have to build it drop by drop from the very beginning again. And that is true with our relationship with our customers. And I think that’s true with—you know, I think it’s true of government in general. And I think that building that back up, it takes a lot of soul-searching and some willingness to be vulnerable and say, “You know what? We’re not always the best partner in this relationship.” And that’s a really hard thing for anybody to do. Right? But I think if you acknowledge that, I think people are a little bit more forgiving and they’re a little bit more open the door to having a dialogue and a conversation about how to improve. But I do think that on our part, from Metro’s side we absolutely need to acknowledge what customers are telling us right now.
I mean, again, we’re doing—we’re getting ready to launch something that will talk about that. I’m hoping we’ll launch that here in the next—probably in the first quarter of next year. And I think when we do that we’re really opening the door to say, you know, “We want to be a better partner.” I think of it often as a courtship. I talk a lot about how when we deal with our customers we should be courting them, because we want to create this relationship, a long-term love relationship really with our customers, because we want them to love us. We want them to use us, and we want to continue this relationship as long as possible, and we want it to be a forever relationship.
Cohen: I went to Rail-Volution a couple of months ago in Vancouver, and I’d been there once before. While at Rail-Volution they had a store that TransLink, the agency there, was selling some of their branded merchandise. And it just kind of occurred to me as I was kind of looking through—they had umbrellas that had the map on the underside of the umbrella. It was really cute. And they had socks, and they had ties, and they had all of the kind of tchotchkes and so forth. But I kind of was thinking about it, because TransLink is a fairly young brand. You know, it’s only been around, I think, 30-or-some-odd years in Vancouver. And yet there is enough love for that brand that people are willing to go around with TransLink umbrellas and TransLink socks and TransLink ties and so forth.
And it just kind of occurred to me, like, there’s only a handful of agencies that I feel like have that kind of a relationship with their customers where they will actually wear branded transit agency gear. That kind of speaks to that love, I feel, like that you’re kind of relating to there. And it just struck me that there’s just not that many transit agencies, I feel like, that have that kind of relationship with their customers. And certainly in some of the bigger cities obviously they do, but—
Lee: Yeah. I mean, it’s definitely—you know, I mean, I think transit systems in general are a tourist attraction.
Lee: You know, when people come to a big city, they want to take the transit system because generally they don’t want to drive. And people get excited about it.
Lee: You know, you see people wearing the various colored dots from the New York subway system.
Lee: You know, you see TfL stuff all the time.
Lee: And it’s not just transportation geeks that do that. People get really excited because it’s part of their memory of a city that they visited. And, yeah, we want to create and instill the sense of pride that people have in their public transportation system, but we have to be really good at our service first.
Lee: Right? We have to be a great partner.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, and you have to build that trust to build that love, so I think—
Cohen: —I think that’s all connected. Nadine, where can folks learn more about some of the work going on at LA Metro and following some of the really fun things that y’all are working on? What’s the best place for folks to pay attention to that?
Lee: So they can go to our website, Metro.net. And specifically if they want to look at the Vision 2028 plan, which we’re super proud of, it would just be Metro.net/Vision2028. And then if I could put in a plug for another podcast. I don’t remember if you got a chance to listen to our podcast, but a couple of years ago we produced Off Peak, which is a six-episode podcast about transportation in LA, and that is Metro.net/offpeak all one word. And that’s a really fun podcast where you can hear about the stories of bus drivers and you can hear about the bus rodeo that we have every year.
Lee: And then the other place that they can go to is The Source, which is our blog that we have on our website and our app.
Cohen: Well, Nadine, I really appreciate you taking the time to chat today. This was great to learn a little bit more about your career and then also how LA Metro is looking at innovation as well as those more prosaic things but similarly important things like better bus service and also listening to your customers and trusting and building that trust one drop at a time. So thank you so much.
Lee: Yeah. Thanks, Josh. I really appreciate it.
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.
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