Episode 1: A Talk With Allen Hunter from Texas Transit Association
Dive into the inaugural episode of Modecast in which our host Maxwell Mickey talks to Allen Hunter, executive director at Texas Transit Association, about the lure of the transit industry (the unsung hero of the community), the challenges of COVID-19, and more!
Maxwell Mickey: Hello, everyone. And welcome to the Modecast Podcast, a podcast powered by your smart mobility provider Modeshift. Thanks for joining us today. I’m your host, Max. Mickey, and in this podcast we talk about all things transit. Before we dive into today’s episode, please subscribe and follow us on your preferred streaming platform. Now, let’s get started.
All right. Well, hello, everybody. Welcome to our inaugural episode of the Modecast Podcast. And in this podcast, we’re gonna sit down with Alan Hunter, who is the director of the Texas Transit Association. We’re talking about transit.
Allen, thanks so much for being with us today.
Allen Hunter: I appreciate you having me.
MM: How is how is everything over there in Texas? You’re still dealing with heat waves and crazy weather?
AH: Yeah, I tell you, it’s been a crazy year between the arctic blast and the heat. And of course, now we’ve been hit with a lot of rain. It’s been unseasonably wet for a lot of the state of Texas. You know, it’s a little different. We’ve had parts of the state that are flooding and you know, much, much more. So we’re dealing with a lot more rain this year than we typically do. Typically, this is the time of year where everything turns brown and it’s 100 plus. But I gotta tell you, the heat’s coming. It’s just a little bit late. Getting easier.
MM: for our listeners, where are you based in Texas?
AH: I’m actually in Waco, Texas, which is kind of just south of Austin. But it’s right about Central Texas. So I’m writing this right in the heart attacks.
MM: You see and hear everything. He’s got veins across the state. Yeah, well, we’re very cool. Well, again, for our listeners and folks dialing in here, if you don’t mind, we’d love to hear a little bit about kind of your role with the TTA. You know, especially kind of how long you’ve been there. And even I think that everyone’s always usually curious kind of how you got into transit. So if you don’t mind kind of telling our readers or listeners that I’m sure they’d love to hear.
AH: Sure. Well, like you said, my name is Alan Hunter, the executive director here with the Texas Transit Association. We were founded in 1986. Our members consist of everything from the large metropolitan, the small urban, the rural transit agencies, as well as private and public entities all across the United States and as far north as Canada. Now, I’ve been the executive director. This is my second year, and, you know, it’s, I’m not totally new to transit. Prior to taking this role, I came from Waco Transit system, where I was the GM, and we were both a small urban system and a rural transit district. So we ran with Clinton County, will transit district, and I did the small urban here in Waco. So I was pretty familiar with transit for about 15 years before I got into this.
But like a lot of people, you know, transit wasn’t my first career. You know, I started off as a director of safety and construction. I actually worked on the transit facility in Waco. And that’s when I even realized Waco had a transit system because, you know, like so many people, you know, I didn’t depend on the system. Didn’t rely on the system and quite frankly, it wasn’t a very robust system. And so it was really intended for transit dependent. And so until we worked on the facility, I didn’t even know we had a transit facility. And so after working on the facility and building it, I had the opportunity to come work in transit, and it’s like everything else. You know, once, once this transit stuff gets in your blood, man, it’s hard to get it out. So I’ve been involved in transit now for when I was with Waco for about 15 years and now two years with the TTA
MM: As you say transit and kind of working in this space and kind of get some fishhooks in. Yeah. And it’s hard to get them off.
AH: Oh, yeah. Very nice.
MM: Now that you see, obviously a broad spectrum of all the different agencies and the TTA. I’d be curious to, what are some of, like, the similarities that a small rural system sees compared to you know, a large urban system, even though obviously very different. You know, day to day demands, but are there any kind of similarities that you’ve seen kind of a cross that are usually sitting on the front burners of both of those types of agencies
AH: You know, usually on something like that, you know, the smaller the system, you know, and at least here in Texas, you know, our rural providers have got to cover such a larger area. And a lot of times we’re having to do that with the same resources are or fewer resources that some of the larger agencies. And so I gotta tell you, you know, as large as Texas is, you know, some of our rural systems are covered in multiple counties, several 100 square miles, and they’re doing that with limited resources, limited vehicles, and limited staff. And, I’ll tell you, they do a tremendous job. So I think the biggest challenge you know is just when you look at gravity scale, the larger the system, the more resources they’ve got. The smaller the system, you know, the fewer the resources. But again, just because you’re a small rural system doesn’t mean that geographically you don’t have a huge area to cover.
MM: Yeah, I feel like transit systems are, you know, kind of akin to, an offensive line in football where you know, when they’re doing their jobs and kicking butt no one really seems to notice all the hard work that goes into making those, pun intended here, but buses run on time.
AH: Well, the one thing I can tell you and this has been such a challenging year for all of us, not just here in Texas, but across the entire U S. And in the world, for that matter, with the pandemic. But the one thing I’ve seen is, at any time something significant happens in the community, whether it’s the pandemic or the Arctic blast that we’ve had any time something significant hits a community, public transportation is there. I don’t care if it’s the, you know, the large metro is the smaller ones or the rurals. I mean, these agencies support their communities in so many different ways, and I’ve just been so impressed with all the different ways that they have been called upon to jump in and support these communities. And again, all of them have done that through this entire pandemic. All of our agencies throughout the state of Texas have continued to provide that service day in and day out with limited resources and limited staff in some cases
MM: I think, you know, Texas strong or Texas stuff kind of took on some new meaning last year. With everything that was happening again, as you mentioned between the Arctic freeze and, you know, obviously dealing with Covid and the pandemic. But what were these agencies doing to keep their heads above water? I feel like especially Texas was kind of just like a boxer in the corner of the ring. Yes, just kind of getting hit on. How did how they keep standing up?
AH: Well, you know, and again, we’ve got so much, you know, like we got the hurricanes, we got you to know, of course, this year we had the Arctic blast and of course, Covid. You know, a lot of what our agencies did this year was they had to get creative. And when I talk about supporting the communities, they said they got creative. They did. Someone got creative in terms of creating new systems and new services, for example, a lot of schools. We’re, you know, we’re doing school at home. So kids had to have WiFi hotspots.
So a lot of our agencies would actually create WiFi hotspots in neighborhoods by since they had extra vehicles since they were running reduced service, they would park buses in certain lower-income neighborhoods, revive these WiFi hotspots so students could get their lessons done. You know, there were shopper services created, trips to vaccine centers. Back when the Arctic blast hit you know, a lot of agencies were taking people to and from shelters when the roads were nearly impassable. And so so, again, our agencies have just been you talk about resiliency and just some of the creative things that our agencies have done. This has certainly been a testimony, you know, that this year has been a testimony to how creative some of our agencies can get.
MM: Wow. So some of the agencies were kind of parking their buses in just certain spots. So kids could use the WiFi to log on and, you know, do their work. How did that work? Was it just “Hey, we’re gonna be parked in this lot”, or how did that kind of coordinate to let folks know? Because that’s a pretty cool initiative to think outside the box.
AH: Well, you know, of course. Yeah, of course. They work with the media. They let people know they promote that and get the word out, and then, you know, again with the schools, the schools kind of help promote those services to in different communities. But yeah, those were very popular services. And again, this is certainly to say this has been an interesting year is an understatement. But yes, so many of our students have been, you know, like many across the country have been, you know, doing their classes at home with the Zoom and the different virtual means campaign. So the WiFi has become very, very important this year.
MM: Oh, yeah.
AH: More so than in years.
MM: Yeah. It’s pretty crazy. Even if you think about you know, 10 years ago to today and the ability to even do things like this, you have to have a video conversation and, you know, share it with, you know, our industry. It’s pretty cool seeing kind of how much tech has come into the fold to be helpful. But you know, on that note, what kind of tech is Texas been looking at lately? This year, what are agencies talking about?
AH: You know, I’d say anything that makes their systems more efficient. You know, as far as new tech and things like that, the big things that I’m seeing are things that will minimize or eliminate any kind of passenger contact with the operators. Things like automatic fare collection systems, mobile, fair ticketing systems. Those have been the hot items. And of course, all your bigger systems have already had systems like that. But some of our smaller bins and rurals, you know, this is new technology for a lot of them. So the challenge is, you know, finding systems like that that they can incorporate with their current system, but at the same time not, you know, create any barriers for any passengers. And we just assume that every passenger has a cell phone or has a credit card. And that’s not quite the case for all of our passengers, especially once you get into these rural areas. So you know, a lot of our agencies are looking at these types of systems. But, you know, the concern is, you know, we don’t want to create any barriers for these passengers that are gonna be using the system.
MM: Oh, yeah, I think that’s probably been the forefront of the conversations. You know, we at Modeshift have been having obviously a little shameless plug. You know, we work on the, you know, mobility side and contacless mobile ticketing. But we often are partnering with, like these smaller urban areas bringing in, you know, smart cards and cash options and things like that. But it seems like those are the types of conversations that most agencies want to have right now is not just okay. We don’t want to just add an app, but we need to add, you know, some almost systematic processes and technology just to make things easier for the riders, but also the drivers – keep them safe. You know, more tools in the back end, but that’s kind of what we’ve been seeing as well.
AH: Well, and then the other thing, too, is anytime you have a new system to the mix is making sure that system talks to the other systems. You know, it’s I think that’s one of the things that I found very frustrating back when I was managing the system is that you have a system that does this or a system that does that. But then the two systems, you know, they’re just apples and oranges. I just don’t talk to one another. And so any time you add another system to the mix is just, you know, you’re hopeful that it doesn’t create any problems and that they will have some synergy where they can work together.
MM: Yeah, absolutely. So on that, what is the number one, or it could be 1A and 1B, things that you do not miss about running a day-to-day agency? Which might be fun for some listeners, maybe a poke, some sore spots, brothers that have to do that every day. But what was something that you don’t miss? Or it could just be something that you love about the new role or newer, excuse me.
AH: Well, you know, the thing is, it’s kind of just because I’m not dealing with it on a day-to-day basis I know my peers are and, you know what’s the old saying? Misery loves company. You know, when I see somebody, it’s hard for me to sit back and relax when I know somebody else is struggling. And so, in my role as the executive director, my goal is, is to support the agencies the best I can and understanding what some of their challenges are. That’s where, whether it’s if you’ve got staffing issues ‘Well, hey, I’m gonna do what I can to help support you’, ‘If you got RFPs and you’re looking at trying to get good coverage for that, I’m trying to support you’.
And so the big challenge for me is I try to be an extension or resource available to our different agencies, especially the smaller agencies. And so, you know, I try to be the resource that maybe I didn’t have when I was out there, and so, you know, that’s what I try to be. So yeah, there’s obviously some, I think the biggest thing I miss is just being involved in that day-to-day operation. You know, like I said, once you get into transit, you either love it or hate it, and if you love it, you’ll be in it forever. And if you hate it is a short career. But it’s funny how many people I’ve spoken to, transit wasn’t their first career. And once they’ve done it for a couple of years, that’s all they want to do. And so you know, if you enjoy supporting your community and you enjoy working with people, I just can’t think of a better career. So anytime I see a bus zip down the road, you know, I just I kind of miss it sometimes, I’ve got that empty void where I was involved in day-to-day stuff, and, so I miss it a little bit.
MM: Transit’s definitely one of the very important kind of unsung heroes you know, in the community. That a lot of folks, you know don’t even seem to notice or understand the importance of those buses.
AH: But I think it would be our job, right. I think that was one of the things that I used to frustrate some of my staff. As they say, well, you know, you know, we do all these things we never get credit for, and I said, well, that means we’re doing a good job, you know? You know, when we make the headline because something didn’t work right, that’s when there’s a problem. So if the buses show up every day, like they’re supposed to and we’re taking people what they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, that’s not news. That’s just what we do. So it’s when something doesn’t work that it becomes.
MM: Yeah. So I’m sure everyone is quick to let you know when something’s not happening when they wanted to.
Very nice. Well, how’s ridership been bouncing back this year in Texas?
AH: Well, you know, obviously ridership this year, like, you know with so many things took a huge hit with the social distancing on the bus, a lot of our agencies actually went to free fare just so that we can eliminate that interaction between the driver and the passenger. You know, a lot of agencies put together barriers, but the big thing in terms of ridership, a lot of agencies reduced service or they put together social distancing which dramatically reduced the capacity of that vehicle. So gradually that capacity has been creeping back. But obviously, we’re still, you know, we’re not where we were pre-pandemic. We still got a way to go, but ridership is creeping back. And so, you know, we still have agencies that are still working from home.
А lot of our smaller agencies are back in the office, and each month, more and more are returning to work. Some are working modified schedules where they’re maybe one or two days in the in the office this week and then a few days home. But I think ultimately here in the next few months. If the trends continue the way we hope I think here in the next few months at least people will be working in the office like normal. Hopefully, ridership will continue to improve. Yeah, we’ve got a few places in Texas where ridership has made a full recovery and then others it’s just still kind of getting in. We still got a ways to go.
MM: Texas is quite a, you know, a tech hub, right? There’s a lot of different kind of mobility and tech centers in the state. And quite often I think a lot of those come with, you know, it might be tech jobs where, you know, folks aren’t, back in the office five days a week or may never be, and kind of adapting to new, more hybrid models and schedules. But do you think that will play a role in some of the ridership, come back or, you know, do you think people rely less on personal vehicles because they don’t need them as frequently? I’m kind of curious on your thoughts on kind of some of the new trends in working and how that affects ridership.
AH: I mean, I think in the in the bigger cities, I think obviously it’s certainly gonna be a big impact, in the smaller cities and more rural areas I think it’ll be less of an impact. But in terms of transit, аnd I think initially, when this thing first hit a lot of people, you know, kind of so we’re just, you know, we can do this from home and we can do all that. But I think more and more people are realizing that there is something to that personal interaction. And there is some value for having these folks come to work and actually report into a place. So I think at least in transit, there may be some positions, and obviously it will still be a work from home type for position. But I think a lot of our transit agencies well, probably at some point return back to maybe a pre-pandemic like life song.
MM: Yeah, that makes sense.
AH: On our job board, I posted a number of positions for, like, you know, engineering firms and things like that. And they are working from home. You know, that’s one of the big push is that they do work from home.
MM: Yeah, that makes sense. And, you know, obviously this kind of split between more rural and urban and these differences between not just workforces, but you know how the agencies operate. I’m kind of curious what do the new conversations look like regarding, like, mobility as a service or integrating different, like modes of service in a bigger city. That’s going to be, you know, ride shares and scooters and bikes and things like that. In a more excuse me and urban and setting it will be that in a more rural setting, it’s probably gonna be more demand response, with fixed and and maybe some other things getting folded into the into there, but what do those conversations look like for the agencies that you work with. Is that still kind of a big focus? Is getting these different pieces in place?
AH: Oh, absolutely, I think the largest systems obviously are doing a really good job of integrating all of those different level services, you know the bigger cities, of course, have been they’ve been doing that. They’ve been trying to do that for some time. Again, it’s a little more challenging when you look at these smaller systems just because, you know well, for example, the smaller the city, the Ubers and Lyfts of the world’s just, you know, they don’t have the you know, you don’t have the sheer quantity of those vehicles in a small rural setting that you do like the large, you know, the large city. And so I think, you know, like you said, the demand response is more of a you know, it’s more prevalent in those rural areas, obviously.
MM: Yeah, absolutely. Well, what’s kind of on the docket for TTA for the rest of this year? Obviously you have a platform here first folks out there that might be considering joining or learning about it. What’s the rest of this year and going into next look like for the TTA?
AH: Well, you know, the big thing is we’re working with to do. We’re hosting a joint conference this year. We’re excited to get back to in person meeting, so this is gonna be February 23rd through the 26th. And this isn’t just a conference. This is gonna be a conference and expo in our state, and so we’ll have a state rodeo. And so, for the first time, we’re going to allow other participants from outside the state of Texas to participate in our state rodeo. So it’s gonna be a state rodeo for our Texas participants, but it’s also going to be kind of a larger rodeo. Since APTA is not having their big rodeo this year, we’re gonna allow other state agencies from across the US to participate if they choose. And we’ve already been approached by a number of people. And the one thing that we’ve done a little bit differently historically the rodeo would take place before the conference. And now what we’re doing is we’re doing the conference on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and the rodeo will kind of overlap with the expo. So the expo is gonna have a lot of attendance and a lot of exposure between rodeo participants and conference attendance. So that’s so that’s the big thing on the forefront. We’re really excited, but we’ve gotten a lot of it’s gonna be in Austin, Texas. So it’s right here in our state’s capital, capital that throws the host agency, and we’re really looking forward to a good show. So that and then just in terms of membership, you know, like I said, one of the things, for me is when we bring in a new member, you know, I’m not just an executive director that collects your dues, I work for you. So when we bring in a new member, whether that’s a transit system or an associate member, you know, the big goal for me is I I work with you to support any way we can.
MM: Yeah, very nice. And I’d say, that’s something that you know we can take to heart as new members and getting involved. This year, it’s been it’s been wonderful, to kind of be welcomed into the TTA and and get involved. So we we’ve been excited to be here and excited about this you know, larger conference that we have coming up. Alan, I’ll let you get back to the rest of your day. It’s been wonderful to chat. Appreciate heaving you on. So for everyone out there, we hope you enjoyed the episode today. So again, thanks so much for listening. Hope you’re having a great day. Hopefully, you learned some cool things about the TTA. Alan, again – thank you so much for the time. Thanks, everybody.
AH: Thank you. Bye.
MM: If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to subscribe so you’re notified when a new episode is posted. We would love it if you rate and review this podcast and share it with colleagues and friends in the industry. Thanks so much for listening and I hope you’re leaving with some great takeaways. I am your host, Maxwell Mickey and until next time!