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Interview: COTA CEO Joanna Pinkerton

Brent Warren Brent Warren Interview: COTA CEO Joanna Pinkerton
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Joanna Pinkerton was named the new President and CEO of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) in March of this year. Since that time, Smart Columbus has rolled out a series of electric vehicle and tech-centric initiatives, a driverless shuttle has started running in a loop Downtown, and hundreds of rentable scooters (as well as dockless bikes and e-bikes) have been placed on sidewalks around the city.

It’s precisely that rapid pace of change in the world of transportation that made Pinkerton an attractive candidate for the job. Many COTA Trustees cited her background in technology and innovation as a key qualification.

She was trained as an engineer, working in Union County and at the Ohio Department of Transportation on infrastructure projects, including the Route 33 Smart Mobility Corridor. She also served as the co-director of the Honda-Ohio State Partnership and as a leader of the Transportation Research Center, a large test track and automotive proving ground in East Liberty.

Some people look at that resume, though, and see a whole lot of highway building and car testing — where’s the transit experience?

Pinkerton recently sat down with Columbus Underground for an in-depth talk about her time so far at COTA and her vision for the future of the organization. The conversation was recorded and is now available for download as a Confluence Cast episode.

Pinkerton did not shy away from questions about her background and the needs of everyday COTA users. Specifically, she was asked about the people who depend on the bus to get to work and just want good, reliable service. Should they be worried about all this talk of apps, disruptive technology and driverless vehicles?

“That’s not going to change. Our fixed route is there and it’s going to stay there, our reliability is increasing, and our on-time performance is improving,” she said. “I’m a real big believer in, you develop technology and you develop solutions for people. You don’t develop it because it’s cool…you have to ensure a wide variety of access.”

“You see screens now with digital displays telling you when the bus will arrive, and if you use the Transit app, you can see real-time availability based on new systems we’ve just put in place in the last year,” Pinkerton added. “So those things are not going away; as a matter of fact I would expect people to have more reliable service as things are connected…and for the unbanked or someone who does not have a smart phone, or maybe smart phone costs or data plans are a challenge, we still have systems we are developing with smart cards, and with IDs, so that you can still access these systems.”

Pinkerton cited improving ridership numbers, a recent award from a national transit organization and the success of the C-Pass program (which offers free bus passes to some Downtown workers), as proof of the organization’s commitment to its core service.

She also talked excitedly about taking the C-Pass model and expanding it, saying that a wide variety of workers, employers and property owners have reached out to express interest in the program.

For much more from our interview with Pinkerton — including her thoughts on the business community’s support for transit, the challenge of funding large-scale transit investments, and how we should be planning for the end of car ownership — listen to the whole conversation here.

Additional Reading:

City and COTA Looking into Pop-Up Bus Lane, Other Ideas from Pitch Event

The State of Alternative Transportation in Columbus

Participants Offer Lessons Learned from the Ditch Your Car Challenge

The article is sponsored by The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) featuring stories about local and regional partners that envision and embrace innovative directions in economic prosperity, transportation, sustainability and an inclusive Central Ohio. MORPC’s transformative programming, innovative services and public policy initiatives are designed to promote and support the vitality and growth in the region. For more information, please visit www.morpc.org.
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