Interview: Curtis Stitt on his Tenure at COTA and the State of Public Transit in Columbus
Curtis Stitt’s last day at the helm of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) was September 29. His five years as president and CEO capped nearly 19 in all at the agency. Columbus Underground sat down with Stitt for a wide-ranging interview just before he left, touching on everything from Smart Columbus, to the recent redesign of the bus network, to the planned Downtown transit pass. He also offered up a general assessment of his tenure at COTA and some surprisingly candid thoughts about what he thinks has held Columbus back on the transportation front. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
CU: What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Curtis Stitt: In the last five years, we’ve had a major impact on the perception of public transit. I think we’ve gotten a lot of people to look at COTA differently, to look at public transit differently, to see that public transit is not just for “those people,” and whoever reads this will understand what some people mean when they say those people. I think they mean a lot of things, but generally, those people who are less than desirable, those people who don’t make enough money to be able to afford their own car, and that public transit is just a social welfare safety net program to help people get from place to place, and we don’t care that much about it.
And I also know that, when I took this job, I was hearing that COTA’s the place you go in order to hear the answer ‘No’ — that we can’t do this, we can’t give you that service, we can’t provide transit because you’ve made it too difficult in the way you’ve planned your development. We have, I think, escaped that reputation. We are figuring out how to get things done, how to get to yes. We want to be not just a community partner, but a leader.
We’ve changed how people view public transit not just as this safety net transportation system for people who don’t have any other means, but a transportation mode of choice. And I think that’s because we’ve worked hard to make the system work very well for the people who need us, and equally well for the people who choose us…the people who have other options. Things like the CBUS have helped to changed the perception.
And I think we’ve done things that have given people who are policy makers and decision-makers in our community an opportunity to see for themselves what COTA actually does rather than getting some sense of it from a distance — we did 100 rides with business and community leaders in 2013, and those people who experienced it, and shared their experience with others, we created a little multiplier effect in that effort.
All of these little things that contribute to making a difference in how public transit and COTA is perceived, as a contributing partner in moving the needle in the right direction to achieve not just COTA’s goals but our community’s goals.
CU: That’s interesting, there is a lot of talk in the transit world about choice riders, and the terms used to describe different types of riders.
CS: There are lots of different terms, and people will probably argue with me about how I say it, but I say we have transit-dependent people, people who really depend on us because their choices are limited, and then we have transit-reliant people, like me. I’ve got a car sitting in my driveway, my wife’s got a car. But, I rely on public transit as much as I can, because it does meet my needs. I work downtown, we’ve got pretty good service coming Downtown, from almost every part of our community. And over the time that I’ve worked at COTA, and especially in the last five years, I would plan my day so that I could ride all day.
You might call me a choice rider, a rider who has choices, but I rely on public transit to get me where I want to go. And people have to be able to rely on us, if they choose to use us. If we’re not reliable, people aren’t going to rely on us.
CU: What would you say to your successor — how do think he or she could work to continue that progress in changing the perception of public transit? And what do you think COTA should do next to draw more riders into the system?
CS: Next? I think it’s what COTA should always be doing and what our employees should always be doing, whether that’s last time, this time, or the next time — have a keen and clear focus on who we serve. If we are focused on who we serve, then I think whatever we do next, if it has that focus, is going to be successful. And what I’m really getting at here is that we serve this entire community. Not just the transit-dependent people, the totality of the passengers that we serve.
The way I’ve approached leadership here is, we’ve got to look at how COTA helps the community achieve its goals, and if we’re doing that, then we are keeping the focus on who we serve. We serve everybody in this community — the ones who ride, the tax-payers, and even the folks who work at COTA, because if we’ve got a good working environment, we’re going to be more productive and do a good job.
What are our collective goals as a community, and what role does public transit have to play in achieving those goals? Economic development, for example. People say that transit-oriented development doesn’t happen with buses, but you should’ve seen the corner of 11th and Cleveland Avenue before we built our transit center there. That transit center was a catalyst for a lot of other development at that intersection.
And when you look at public transit in general, when you build a BRT line, when you build a rail line, people want to invest around the stations, so, we’re getting people to understand that — we do have a role in economic development, we do have a role in workforce development. Columbus 2020 can attract as many jobs as they can possibly attract, new businesses to Columbus, but if we’re not working with them to help site those new jobs, where we can effectively and efficiently provide public transportation, the question’s going to be, well how do my workers get to these new jobs, how do these people that this new employer wants to hire get there?
I think we have gotten people to understand that aspect of what we do — it’s not just running buses back and forth, but it’s helping to connect people to those jobs, helping to make Central Ohio more attractive for businesses that want to site here because they know they’ve got a transit agency that’s willing to work with them. We’ve built relationships with Columbus 2020, and they are talking about what COTA provides when they are trying to attract people with new businesses to Columbus.
Public transit contributes in so many ways. The Downtown pass program, for example, the real impetus of that is to address two problems in Downtown — parking, and office vacancy rate, so that’s a goal that COTA has a direct role in helping this community achieve. And give Cleve Ricksecker and his team the credit for coming up with this idea.