2016 in Retrospect: A Year of Learning

For Routematch and Laura Lee Huttenbach, People Who Move People has been a labor of love. Love of stories. Love of transit, and the people who make it go. For the past seven months, we’ve brought you a collection of people’s stories and of their lives that led them to transit.

What we see through these 15 stories are recurring themes of passion for helping people, of overcoming challenges, and of men and women who found their calling in an industry that’s about more than just getting someone from Point A to Point B – it’s about providing equal opportunities for all. From story to story, you consistently see these people’s immense love of what they do, and how it fits into the bigger picture of who we are as people, and as individual communities. You can see through their eyes a vision of a world where everyone – regardless of the personal challenges they have to overcome – can get to their job, or to their doctor’s appointment, or just to meet a friend for lunch. A world of many options, inclusivity, and mobility without limits.

It’s seemingly impossible to read the stories of these amazing people who work in the transit industry and not be inspired to be a part of it yourself, or at least do what you can to help bring their vision to life. They believe in not only what transit means to them in particular, but what it can do for us all, helping to make our communities better places to live and work, and making sure everyone can share in making that improved world a reality.

Laura Lee saw that attitude consistently during the time she spent with the people she profiled. She says she was struck by the real sense that these people weren’t just doing a job, but were actively trying to make their communities better. And not just their communities either, but any they had the opportunity to touch. “Within the transit world, cities aren’t competing with one another for business,” said Laura Lee, who was paraphrasing Jeff Meilbeck. “If an approach works for one city, transit folks want to share the successful idea with their colleagues near and far. People genuinely seem to want to help each other – like, we’re all in this together.” That sharing and collaborative approach is part of what makes transit special.

Memorable Moments Recalled, and Lessons Learned

Some of Laura Lee’s favorite moments from her visits with these leaders of transit included when Felix Vitandi, a bus operator in Coleman, Texas, and former ROADEO champion, gave her a 23-page handwritten book he wrote for her. The book was “the culmination of 30 years of philosophy” on transit, leadership, and life lessons.

Laura Lee also smiled when she recalled finding former Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta’s aerosol can of “B.S. Repellent” on his office shelf. When Laura Lee mentioned this story to FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers during their interview, Carolyn pulled out her “Dammit Doll,” which is a doll designed to be whacked against a desk or wall, helping to release frustration. “These are people acting in high-power positions who have funny coping mechanisms,” said Laura Lee. “All of us deal with annoying things in life and at our jobs, and this was a reminder to have a sense of humor about it and to find a release that works for you. What makes humanity interesting to me isn’t how we’re all different, but it’s what we have in common.”

In that spirit, we wanted to share a few highlights from 2016. Read on to see some of the best quotes and advice from the first 15 People Who Move People stories.

Chris Pangilinan on Working in Transit:

“You can be that person and make a change. You can find out how it works and make it better. I think that’s a lot better than just living through it and not doing anything.”

Chris Pangilinan on Challenges of Living with a Disability:

“I don’t like to hear that I can’t do something. The best way to get me to do something is tell me I can’t do it, and I’ll prove you wrong.”

Jeff Meilbeck on Teamwork:

“If we’re trying to climb a mountain together or canoe across the river—everybody is focused on that goal. One person is maybe the strongest physically, and they can carry the most weight. Another person maybe has a great sense of humor, and they keep the mood light. Maybe another person is great at starting fires. But the point is, we all have to work together to make it happen. If we focus on each other’s strengths and our shared vision — and we’re out there enjoying ourselves, working toward something — we understand the purpose. I like doing that in organizations, too.”

Jeff Meilbeck on Compromise:

“Sometimes you go into situations lose-lose. I could say, ‘I’m a transit guy. I’m not a road guy. Therefore, I want all money going into transit.’ A person focused on roads could say, ‘No, I’m fighting with you. I want more money for roads.’ Well, the win-win is, ‘Why do you want roads? Why do I want transit? What do we have in common? How can we both get our needs met?”

Donna Smith on The Way Transit Agencies Should see Disabled People:

“Whatever you do to make it accessible to people with disabilities makes it more accessible for other people. The primary message is that this is the public who needs your transportation. I should look like nothing but good business to you. You should smile when you see me.”

Phil Washington on Persistent Leadership:

“You lead by example, and you follow through. Leadership is 95 percent follow-through. The question is, ‘Can we as leaders get people to think outside of their current issues?’”

Carolyn Flowers on Jobs in the Transit Industry:

“Basically, the image of transit is the frontline worker. What people usually see is the bus driver, the train operator, or the station agents. That’s what they think all of transit is. They don’t know there’s a plethora of jobs and opportunities in planning, construction, civil rights, engineering, public affairs, or marketing . . . You can do almost anything.”

Norm Mineta on Working Together:

“Everyone has two arms. So use your right arm to help yourself go up your ladder of success as you pursue your career and your professional goals. But with your left arm, reach down and pick someone else and pull them up behind you on your ladder of success.”

Felix Vitandi on How He Treats Passengers:

“What makes me feel best is if I’m nice to the first person and the second person — then next thing you know, those people are just as nice as pie to each other back there. That’s the kind of atmosphere I try to keep on my bus.”

Leah Harnack on The Impact Voices Outside Transit Bring:

“I think when our readers hear about the value that transit brings to a community, not just by providing mobility but the economic development, and when it’s coming from total outsiders who are just looking at it from a financial standpoint — or improving their community standpoint — it has more weight in a way.”

Simon Berrebi on The Impact of a Grassroots Movement:

“If a bunch of crazy young transit nerds are ready to spend their weekend afternoons and a little bit of money—whatever it takes to improve the system—that sends a pretty strong message to people who view transit as just a subsidized way to move poor people.”

Nikki Russell on Keeping Perspective While Dealing with Cancer:

“They’d tell me, ‘But you’re so young! You’re not supposed to be in a wheelchair!’ And I would shrug and say, ‘I don’t know. Life happens.’ They were just so excited that I wasn’t down and upset about it. They’d say, ‘Well, now I know that I can be happy. Because you’re young, and you’re disabled, and I’m 90, and I’m disabled, so I have nothing to complain about.’ I was just going about my life, and I apparently made people happy, and that made me happy. Another guy who had cerebral palsy faced tremendous challenges that I can’t even imagine, and he always had a great attitude and was complimenting me on my attitude. I’ve got nothing compared to that guy. He’s just awesome and friendly and heartwarming, and I would’ve never met these people had I not taken public transit. I’m so glad I didn’t have a ride to physical therapy.”

Phil Washington on Evaluating a Situation:

“If I have between 40 and 70 percent of the information on any issue, then I should be able to make a decision,” continues Phil, attributing the concept again to General Powell. “If I have less than 40 percent, then I don’t have enough information. If I’m waiting to get more than 70 percent, then I’m usually what we call OBE, or ‘Overcome by Events.’” In other words, by postponing action for too long, the situation changes, and the decision becomes irrelevant.

Phil Washington on Situation Reports (sit-reps):

“You have everyone in the room — young people, seasoned people — and you lay out what you know about the situation and then you ask for input.” He cautions not to begin with the most senior person in the room, “because then everybody follows that individual,” he says. Instead, start with the junior people of lower rank and ask them for everything they know about the situation. “Some of the biggest decisions that I have made in both the military and transportation are through sit reps.”

Sharon Doyle on Sharing Success:

“They asked me, ‘How are you getting away with that?’ But it’s not about getting away with anything. It’s about providing transit in a way that makes sense. It’s about communication and having the continued support from the elected officials at the Region.” Now she welcomes teams from other agencies to do site visits at YRT and learn from her success, so they can implement similar programs. She is also Vice Chair of the Accessibility Committee for the Canadian Urban Transit Association — CUTA, APTA’s Canadian counterpart. “My advice to other transit agencies is always, ‘Do it gradually,’” she says, adding a reminder that “everyone is different. You have to look at each case individually. Though it’d be easier, you can’t paint everyone with the same brush.”

Chris Tomlinson on Leadership:

“I don’t see my job as telling people how to do their jobs. Rather, set a vision. Make some key high-level decisions. And figure out how to give them the resources or remove the obstacles that are in their way of delivering.” To help make his point, he quotes Steve Jobs. “We don’t hire smart people to tell them what to do. We hire smart people for them to tell us what to do.”

Chris Tomlinson on Employee Training:

“Try to do what you can to make people’s jobs interesting and entertaining,” suggests Chris. “They’re spending literally their best waking hours with you. So at least make it interesting for them.” He extends the philosophy to encouraging employees to acquire more education and job training. “Some people worry that if you invest in people like this, they’re going to leave and go someplace else and make more money,” he says, smiling. “But the best saying I ever heard in response to, “What if we train them up and they leave,’ was: ‘What if we don’t and they stay?’” Chris chuckles. “Now I’m out of clichés.”

Norm Mineta on Diversity of Transit Modes:

“There’s no single silver bullet in transportation. It really requires a little highways, a little transit, airports — you have to keep working on the various transportation modes in order to have each of them be maximized in their capabilities at the local, state, and federal level.”

Yolanda Brown on How to Stay Positive Through Tough Times:

“If you stay positive, you’ll have a good journey.” But how? “Have positive people around you. And think of something that makes you happy. Like I had a dog and on the nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d go and play and with my dog. And if I felt bad, I’d call a friend and let them get me through the day.” Her daughter, who is now 17, and her son, now ten, were an enormous source of motivation. “Nobody’s gonna take care of your kids like you. I didn’t want them to know how scared I was. I wanted them to see that just because you’re sick doesn’t mean you have to look sick.”

Jack Leary on Management:

“Hire good people,” he says, without hesitation. “And make the message very clear on what the goal is. If they know the end result, don’t worry about how they get there. Just let them do their job.”

Kevin Coggin on Learning to Trust Your Colleagues:

“At first I wanted to be the most important person at that place,” he says, laughing at his own hubris. His objective to be necessary, powerful, and irreplaceable interfered with his personal life. “Because nobody in maintenance could make a decision without me, they were calling me 24/7. It was awful.” He learned that to run a successful business, he had to trust the staff he hired and give them the authority and the tools to reach their common goals.

Thanks for tuning in as we recapped these amazing stories captured in 2016. We hope you find them just as inspiring as we do. And, we can’t wait to share what’s next 2017!

- Jeff Haws, Routematch

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