Transit: Change Leadership for Short- and Long-term Challenges

Last week, folks in the San Francisco Bay Area woke to the news—or worse, left home without knowing—that a large construction fire had forced closure of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) lines across San Francisco Bay.  Not only is this a critical commuter link between “the City” and the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and many growing suburbs, but also on that day was likely to be used by people heading to round one of the US Open Golf Championship and a day baseball game between the Giants and Houston Astros.

The ensuing traffic tie-up was predictably awful, sparked angry reactions, and caused big delays for many people.  (An accident on the Bay Bridge, an apparent invocation of Murphy’s Law, added to the headaches).  But, on the other hand, it could easily have been much worse without some smart and effective action, such as:

  • A big jump in Ferry ridership, aided by staff called into help direct novice passengers to the right place to buy tickets, board, etc.
  • A bus-bridge supported by other transit agencies that took otherwise stranded BART riders over the Bay (the largest agency made 117 more transbay trips than normal)
  • Rapid response from BART management and repair crews, who were able to replace damaged tracks and get service restored by late afternoon.

Complaints notwithstanding, what’s most impressive about the response is the level of cooperation from so many different organizations, and their ability to put contingency plans into action so quickly.  We hear so many stories of inter-agency squabbles and competition (think CIA vs FBI, for starters) that end up hurting service to the public, that these organizations deserve some real credit.  And it would be smart to use this as an example for other groups—both within companies and among public agencies—that their jobs are to work together and that it is possible to see the benefits. On another level, the impact of a BART service outage highlights a trend that we’re getting special insight into, working with a client in the transportation field.  As the economy has hit people’s incomes and gas prices have climbed, more and more people are turning to public transit to get around: five percent across the US in the first quarter of 2012 over 2011.

It’s too soon to be sure, but this may be one of those trends that has a long-term impact on how people organize their lives, and how both private and public organizations need to respond to the needs of employees and communities.

Our client has set a vision to be much more effective in integrating the traditional highway-focused planning with a more effective, multi-modal approach where various pieces of the transportation system are better connected, and where funds are not automatically directed to roads.  This kind of shift can take a while for people to come to grips with—and it may be a test of our ability to apply smart change leadership to a key societal opportunity.

About Pete Pande

Pete Pande, President of Pivotal Resources Inc., is a seasoned consultant in process improvement, organization change and Lean Six Sigma initiatives (he is one of the recognized "experts" in the field). He has provided senior executive training and deployment consulting services in business improvement and Six Sigma efforts for such companies as GE Capital, Sun Microsystems, Cendant, Cisco Systems, Starwood Hotels, Honeywell, Carlson Wagonlit Travel and many others. For more information, please visit
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