Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Metro's Art Leahy holds court with the Transit Coalition

The Metro's CEO, Art Leahy, joined the Transit Coalition for its monthly get-together at Philippe's the Original, sharing double-dips and beers with a capacity crowd made up of transit staff, advocates, politicos, consultants, and press. Most importantly, he shared some insight into his plans for the Metro and his desire to becoming an agent of change at the helm of LA County's transportation system.

Leahy has a folksy charm that disarms his audience, concealing the fact that he is a sharp strategist, a firm negotiator, and a demanding leader who sets standards and expects results. In his fifteen months at the helm of the Metro, staff have discovered quickly that he is results driven and there is a trail of ex-staffers to demonstrate the penalty for failing to respond to the call for change.

One of Leahy's first acts as CEO was to take his management staff to the ticket window at Union Station to allow them to see how hard it was to buy a monthly pass. Packed into the atrium near the One Gateway Metro HQ was a line that wrapped around itself, offering evidence of a Metro administrative disconnect from the Metro passenger experience. That line is no longer found, a small situation that occurred at Union Station, but a solution that resonated throughout the 1400 square mile service area. It also serves as the incident that allows Leahy to state "In word and deed, the Metro cares about our passengers."

Leahy continued the attack on the Metro's status quo, removing all of the artwork at Metro HQ because it all celebrated One Gateway and served as a reflection of the things that the Metro management valued. Themselves! He replaced it with pictures of bus stops, train stations, passengers, and transportation, all as a reminder to the corporate staff that they are "overhead" and that the passenger is the purpose of a transportation system.

As for the "rubber on the road" experience of the passenger, the Metro's Agent of Change acknowledges that driving a bus is simple but points out it's dealing with all of the transactions that is the hard part. Nevertheless, Leahy says he is committed to understanding the operators in order to get them to understand the passengers. To that end he has an advantage, having worked his way through college by driving a bus.

Leahy is not shy about his heritage as a bus operator and, in spite of his UCLA and USC degrees, it is his ability to insist that communication be framed in "language that a bus driver can understand" that is the essence of his call for good simple standards. In fact, as he points out, Metro's strict adherence to a management hiring standard that included college degrees that resulted in a Metro leadership that didn't know how to implement a bus bridge or conduct a relay. All that is due to change as he reinvigorates the Metro leadership with real world experience, not simply college pedigrees.

For all the talk of customer service, behavior that drives results, promoting from within, and service standards that resonate, the news that drew the loudest response from the audience was simple and yet revolutionary. Leahy revealed his plan to actually require Metro Execs to ride the bus and rail. If ever there was a "One of Us!" moment, that was it.

Art Leahy is definitely an agent of change. He moves strategically and his simple actions are designed for maximum impact. The results already demonstrate that the status quo is under attack and the future of the Metro is based on a commitment to customer service and to a transportation system. It's all Leahy talks about, that and his conflicted UCLA/USC lineage.

Art Leahy's commitment to operations is commendable and he details his commitment to connecting the Metrolink, Amtrak, Metro Bus, Metro Rail, and the Municipal operators into a regional transportation system that operates consistently and in sync. From the little details, such as the fact that the Metro polishes bus wheels but leaves trash on the bus, to larger opportunities and commitments such as the Metro Board's 30/10 plan, Leahy is focused and driven. He's also punctual, a behavioral trait that comes naturally to those who ride the train.

He also has room to grow as he embraces the Metro opportunities that lie ahead. As he addresses the Metro's commitment, he repeatedly speaks of the passenger which is only part of the Metro's contract with the public. There are two unaddressed elements that must be addressed if the Metro is to take its place as a comprehensive transportation system.

  • The first is the simple fact that the Metro's customers include everybody who contributes financially to the Metro, regardless of whether they ride the bus or the rail. Measure R will raise an estimated $40 Billion from an increase in sales tax which means that anyone who spends money in LA County has a vested interest in the performance of the Metro. Purportedly, the impact of the Metro benefits everybody, whether they are passengers or not. This distinction is an important foundation for a comprehensive transportation system.
  • Second, the Metro is one of LA County's largest developers and has 50 Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) on paper with 32 of them in play. This enormous impact on residential and commercial behavior has a tremendous impact on our communities and on the quality of life in those neighborhoods. The Metro's ability to reduce the need to travel within LA County is an opportunity that is missing from the typical transportation discussion. Yet, it is a significant impact that doesn't need its wheels polished or an operator at the wheel.
  • Third, while the Metro is busy implementing customer service standards that impact the purchase of monthly passes or a bus operator's greetings, the huge opportunity lies in the need to implement standards for the integration of Transit Oriented Development into a community. While the Metro talks of a complete transportation system, it will not be complete until it includes those who simply live in the area or operate a shop or walk the street or ride a bike. Great public space is part of a commitment to the community and a comprehensive transportation system must address the complete community.

The Transit Coalition meets monthly on the last Tuesday of each month at Philippe's the Original. In addition to Art Leahy, recent guests include John Fenton of the Metrolink and Bruce Shelborne of Metro.

1 comment:

JRider said...

FYI: He attended Cal State LA, not UCLA.

He has no ties to UCLA, which becomes fairly apparent after hearing him talk for a little bit.

Fight On!