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Dallas Public Transit to Hire a Chief Innovation Officer

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency is in the search for its first chief innovation officer, following a trend by other transit agencies to include innovation as a core mission and to reverse recent declines in ridership.

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) agency is joining the ranks of a number of other public transit organizations looking to give innovation a boost. In a climate of declining ridership, DART plans to hire a chief innovation officer to explore unique and creative approaches to improving its transit experience.

“There are a number reasons why you’re seeing an increase in the focus on innovation in the transportation and public transit space,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for Los Angeles Metro, the agency that operates the city's public transportation systems.

“One of them is, for sure there are a lot more competitors out there than there ever have been before,” Schank added, calling attention to private-sector mobility providers such as ride-hailing.
With ridership across a number of both large and small systems trending down in 2018, a drop first seen in 2015, transit agencies have been exploring opportunities to reverse these trends. Many of these discussions begin in the innovation office.

“I think another thing that you’re seeing is that transit ridership nationally is down, and transit agencies are trying to figure out how to deal with that,” Schank explained. “One way to deal with that is to think, what is it that you’re trying to accomplish, and how can you do it better? And that’s a big part of what our office has done with the development of the Metro Strategic Plan.”

Officials at DART did not immediately return a request to comment on the creation of the new position. However, Lisa Thompson, a recruiter with Pearson Partners International, an executive search firm, told Dallas Innovates magazine the top candidates should have about 14 years of experience in areas like marketing or product development and have a proven history of taking innovative ideas and analyzing them for feasibility and implementation.

“This is a new role in transit agencies,” said Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for the Metropolitan Transit Authority for Harris County in Texas, serving the Houston metro region. Houston established its chief innovation officer position in late 2016, making it one of the first in the nation. Williams came into the role about a year later. The transit agency also holds the unique distinction of being one of the few transit providers that saw a ridership increase — admittedly, it was modest — in 2018.

The last roughly seven years has been disruptive for public transit, said Williams, noting the decreases in ridership along with new mobility options coming onto the market, largely in the form of ride-hailing.

“Houston had made a significant investment into responding to what the ridership is asking for,” said Williams, adding the revamp in the transit system, particularly with the overhaul of a number of bus routes, has yielded results. 

Departments dedicated to innovation can be, at-times, difficult to define, said Williams. “It didn’t quite fit in IT. It didn’t quite fit in planning. It didn’t quite fit in operations, while really covering all of those things,” she explained. “And it needed to be nimble enough to function with all of those groups, but at a faster pace. Because innovation happens very quickly.”

The department operates largely as the research and development arm of the agency, something most transit agencies did not — and do not — have. Schank also cautioned against the idea that the chief innovation officer was another euphemism for chief information officer.

“I view them as entirely different positions,” he said. “The chief information officer — at least here — is primarily responsible for making sure that all of our IT works, and potentially, expanding to new areas of IT, and new technology areas.

“We work with them, all the time, on technology ideas. But the innovation office is a portal through which all new ideas can come in, and that’s our primary function,” said Schank.

In many instances, private-sector vendors and others interested in partnering with L.A. Metro will first approach the Office of Extraordinary Innovation as the department is officially known. Some of those ideas are related to introducing new technology into the transit system, but still many are not, said Schank.

What the Office of Innovation aims to do is, "public policy innovation,” he added. “Doing things that are challenging, from a public policy standpoint, and creating across departmental and across government coalitions necessary to implement those things, and that’s most of what we do.”

The innovation department is also part of the project delivery phase — ensuring the complete rollout of various programs and initiatives — ensuring that the project doen’t run out of money or fall way behind schedule and other mishaps.

“I think innovation and project delivery, which is something we do here, is critical for trying to combat that and trying to bring project delivery into a little bit more the realm of the private-sector innovation, private-sector financing, so that we can have better outcomes,” said Schank. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.