Episode 4: A Talk with Greg Downing from SCTA
In this episode we talk to Greg Downing, the Executive Director at SCTA (PA). Greg describes his unusual journey in the industry, his work ethics and more!
Suggested reading: SCTA Case Study >>
Maxwell Mickey: All right. Hello and welcome. So, this is our fourth episode of The Modecast Podcast which is a podcast powered by smart mobility provider Modeshift who I’m with. Thanks for joining us today, I’m your host Maxwell Mickey. In today’s podcast we’re going to focus again on transit as we always do – if you like today’s episode, please make sure you subscribe so that you can hear the new stuff that’s coming out, but we’ll dive in today. We have Greg Downing. We are a bit biased because he is with the South Central Transit Authority (SCTA), Executive Director, who was a client of ours – but we’re gonna talk about some some transit and his community and his riders and kind of what they faced in the new technology side. Greg, welcome welcome to the podcast.
Greg Downing: Thanks for having me.
MM: Yeah, we appreciate the time out and kind for joining us. You know the question that we always love to start off with that I think is usually pretty interesting is kind of how you got into transit side. I feel like there’s always kind of different winding path so we’d love to hear kind of how you got into this space.
GD: Oh wow. It’s been a long time, it’s been over 25 years. Yeah, actually started in transit by mistake. Always been in transportation…
MM: Just showed up to the wrong job one day?
GD: There you go. There you go and they started paying me and I was already hooked. But I started out while I was in college. Okay, I started and needed a job to support myself. So I went and I got a CDL license. So I started at one of the transit agencies as a bus driver and the shifts were such where I could go to school in college during the middle part of the day, which is usually the lag time and I could go to work in the morning and then when I finished school I would come back to work and still be able to get off at a decent hour. So it actually fit what I was doing from a college standpoint and hence my introduction into transit.
MM: And what were you studying when you were in college?
GD: Oh, that’s even worse. I actually was studying sports management. You could tell me I wasn’t going to be the next Jerry Maguire.
MM: So funny story. That was, that was mine as well. So, as you can tell, I’m clearly not using it either.
GD: Yes, I have a BA in sports management. I also went back like a dummy and got a, not a dummy, but I should say I went back and got a master’s degree in organizational leadership, but originally I was thinking that I would drive the bus until I got my degree, then I would be off and running as an agent for all of the basketball stars that I knew and that I talked to and you know, I was just off and running and when I went on my first interview and they told me that I would be making half of what I was making as a bus driver, reality sat in real quick, I was like, what?! That is what, that is, what guided me right on down to transit.
MM: Very cool. And so where, where were you driving? Where was that first role?
GD: In Delaware, I started off, well, I started in Philadelphia at SEPTA, which is one of the five largest and keystone type of systems. I was there for less than two months because during the introduction and training period they told us that it would take five years to have weekends off, to have a shift.
Yeah, and that just at that point in my life I was a single guy, I was out and about and it wasn’t adding up to me to be a very exciting career at that point. But a guy who I was in training with who had left earlier, he went and found out that they were offering the same type of job, just, I think it was 70 something cents less to start, but you could be a bus driver in Delaware, they had everybody walked in, they had weekends off at that time. They didn’t run Sunday service. So I was able to go and and grab a shift and start there and I immediately was given weekends off which again helped my nightlife and and my single life at that point.
MM: Yeah I’m sure that’s pretty cool to kind of early on the career see you know these different sized agencies and how they operate. I’m sure that’s kind of rolled up to your you’ve been the executive director since I think it’s in July last year. Right?
GD: Yes that’s correct. I was named, my predecessor was my executive director. I came and worked under him for five years and he actually in July when he was named the executive manager and he was here in the building from July till the end of December. And since December it’s basically been, you know, you’re by yourself buddy so it’s kind of like kick off the training wheels and put your helmet on and get the ride.
MM: Yeah, it’s exciting. Well so you’ve been a leader before you know another capacity but as a new leader for SCTA and any potential kind of newer leaders in the transit space out there. Have you run into any like interesting or surprising challenges or kind of any you know thoughts or advice or even how to kind of structure when you’re first coming to that type of role, I mean, any, any insights from, you know, taking on a new, very large role for an organization
GD: For me, it was very difficult to realize that your time, you know, when I was in charge of operations previous to that. So I knew everything operationally, maintenance wise, I knew all of those types of things, but stepping out of your comfort zone, especially if you’re leading up to that. would be one of the definite pieces of advice I would give. Finance, procurement is so many other facets of the business. It speaks to what my model has been, especially during this time now where we’re having, where transit in general is struggling with employment and getting people to want to work. We’ve basically gone and started a grassroots program where we’re telling everybody if you want to be in marketing, you can be in marketing in transit, if you want to be a in banking, you could do banking and being accounting in transit. So we’re promoting the industry as a whole. But I would, like I said, I would say that from a leadership standpoint understanding and trying to put pieces together kind of like legos, putting pieces together and realizing what the build up is to get it. So my time is not my time anymore. That’s, that’s, yeah.
MM: I was gonna say, I mean it’s obviously a service oriented industry and then, you know, once you’re in that leadership role, I would assume, even more so, not only all the people and riders, but you know, your staff and it’s probably a lot of fires each day that dictate the day to day.
GD: I walk around with a fire extinguisher on my back. It is one of those jobs, and in my, in my life and in my attitude, I was brought up – my mom brought us all up – her term was have an attitude of gratitude and I have that is all that permeates through my mind when I started this business, when I got in the transportation, it was always about service and as I get up and move throughout leadership, I really, it always comes back to that, it always comes back to. Although I might be the head of everything I probably do and I should be the one who is serving everyone. It’s because my arms should be wide enough to serve everyone to be able to be a support and to be able to help wherever I can. So that’s where I say I take the most solace now, it’s very difficult, but I will say that that’s what my mindset is at.
MM: Yeah, I’m sure, yeah, it’s you know, probably there’s days that test that, I’m sure.
GD: We can really talk about that, but I don’t think you want to hear.
MM: We’ll do that off podcast. Let’s talk about some of those stories. But you know, speaking of kind of the service in the community, obviously in the last year has a lot of new tech, we’re biased because it came from us at you know, a few different pieces and you know, validators and electronic fare payments and smart cards, mobile ticketing. A lot kind of I think happened, you know, how did the, what kind of challenges did you face with like the community and getting information out there with their hesitancies?
I think that’s, you know, the program itself has been wildly successful, but I think that’s a testament to like getting that to the riders. So I think listeners would love to hear that process because it’s always difficult to introduce new, you know, processes and payments and things like that. Especially when people have been riding the same way for many years.
GD: It’s funny because that was my first project of leadership under our executive director as I was being groomed for the position. That was my first project was our relationship with Modeshift, our relationship with introducing mobile ticketing, mobile electronic payment, all of those things. As you said, introducing that and how we went and thought about how would it be received and all of those things, those were things that we started out as far as just looking at where the industry might be headed. This was pre-Covid, might I add also.
So, we actually started the conversations pre-Covid and we actually got and start to see the instruments and things of that nature that would be used. That was during Covid, but we had conversations pre-Covid. So in that as Covid came it totally changed the landscape of how we were going to introduce things in the beginning. We actually started when we first were thinking we were like, okay this is going to be an alternative plan. This is more for the younger crowd to kind of you know stay, I don’t want to say stay hip, but kind of stay and engage with the younger generation and then when Covid hit it totally shifted our thought process as to how we could use Modeshift to not only be better at being safer being more efficient being able to allow us to collect fares but keep our operators safe, keep the public safe as well as to be able to talk about. We talk a lot about being green, being recyclable.
We were using magnetic strip cards that, when you were finished we found them all. We found them all on floors, were sweeping up constantly, cleaning. The object and the idea of electronic fare collection and mobile ticketing and all of those things – it was exciting, but again it came at the exact time that we needed it to be introduced. And it just was a lifesaver in the aspect of where we needed to go and where we were going regarding Covid, regarding some of the some of the things that we did for safety reasons and it just transitioned and allowed us to transition everything and that be part of that transition also.
MM: Yeah. How do you think? You know I know that’s been one of the – if not the hottest topics and, you know, points of conversation the last year is getting ridership back and getting people to feel comfortable and traveling. How do you think that has impacted the kind of the ridership numbers for SCTA in the last year?
GD: What I’ll say as far as you know influencing ridership and building in or taking away or adding value to. I think that what we did, and and I’ll speak to this at great length, was one of the things that we did and we decided to do was we let it, well, as they would call it, we let it all hang out, we said that you know what, we are not going to go back and and offer tickets. We are going to, from this day forth, we are going to we’re only going to say you have this option, we moved it whereas we took it from being a you have options as to what you want to do.
And Modeshift being an option to us saying, you know what, this system will allow us to move our whole fare collecting system into the new millennium. And we decided to as an agency to move forward and so to, I guess to add value, we no longer gave customers the option of Hey, if you want to buy a day pass, we have, we have cards, we have cards that are similar to the credit card. We can load value up on that and you can buy your card and it can do this.
You could put it on your phone and you can scan your phone and you can do this if, if you have, if you needed or wanted a day pass. We printed out the small day pass sheets that you could just go and that was through Modeshift. We took everything and it took us a little more time to go through that. But we did. We made a conscious effort to say this is how we are moving This is the business model will move, use moving forward.
MM: Yeah. Was there any kind of hesitation from the community or riders like in that shift to kind of get them comfortable with it or were they just thinking – all right, sounds good. New way to pay. Okay.
GD: That’s why I said, Covid really helped us because we ushered it along with our safety campaign. So as part of our safety campaign, we said, okay, we are spraying busses down with hospital grade disinfectant. We are putting shields up for our drivers to keep them safe because at that point we didn’t know how Covid was being transmitted. We talked about the filtering system that we had in the bus to make customers feel safe and during that time remember the country was kind of shut down and all that was coming through was the essential workers.
So, all that were coming through and we were saying, okay, we understand you are essential, we are here to protect you. And even in that we offered no fares for I think it was at least five months. So we did know fares for five months until we got all these things in place. And as part of that whole picture of being responsible safety, responsible Modeshift was a huge part in us being able to bring back fares and to be able to have collect fares and farebox revenue and things of that nature. We were able to be at the forefront of that and show that hey, this is how you can do that and you can do it from the front or the back of the bus because we have validators on both on both sides. So it allowed us to usher in a new way of how we do business. Customers embraced all of it because it was grouped as a whole as to this is how we’re moving things forward. And it continues to embrace.
MM: It sounds like that kind of secret sauce is, you know, tying together, all these different elements of kind of safety and value for the riders within the fare collection being part of it to really get people comfortable and and happy, you know, riding again.
Well it jump started, it really jump started us in regards to allowing the customers to not only hear what we were doing and, and we put out videos and all of this type of stuff, but we actually through the help of Modeshift we went and had a week’s worth of, I guess you could say marketing and we had our people down there, we had some Modeshift people down there showing people loading cards, getting accounts doing. So we, we had a big shebang throughout it. We wanted it wasn’t an option to not be successful. And if I had to tell anybody or give my advice to anyone, I would say if you view it as not being an option where it’s not an option, it’s what we’re doing. If you do that, it will, I, from my experience, I can attest that it will definitely be successful and adopted.
MM: Those are wonderful insights. And so last question I have that comes up I know just all the time and kind of key importance for all transit, you know leaders and organizations, that’s kind of the question around data and information and being able to really see kind of what’s happening. You know with the system so that you can kind of understand riders’ needs, operators’ needs, if any changes need to happen. But can you kind of speak to that and you know, obviously a part of our system is kind of the data and information but has that been what can you talk about kind of the change from like before digital payments to after and the information that you have.
GD: Wow. I’ll say it has totally changed our accounting department. We have in certain cases made things so much easier with being able to tell where riders are getting on, where they’re getting off, to be able to tell who needs what and whether, what the patterns are, what the things are that people are doing what times they are doing. All of this data helps us to be able to be a more efficient system. But probably in being, I’ll say making that part easier, it has also given our accounting department more work because you have more data, you have more information and you’re able to be more intentional with how you do things and what you do things.
And an example of that would be some of the data we collected for our waste when we had the magnetic strip cards, we would have cards where they wouldn’t work and we would have customers reporting that the card didn’t work. It’s not doing this, it’s not doing that. And all we would be able to do would be to go back to the serial number, see it and then you know, get the customer to come in, bring it in and we would switch out cards and things of that nature. With the way we have the Modeshift system, we’re able to have a customer calls us and says that their their cash payment system didn’t work and the driver asked them for cash in or another form of payment. They were able to, we’re able to immediately, by their name, go in and look at the data and every time we hit the validator, it shows or they try and hit it, it shows.
So, we’re able to look at that system and say, okay, yes, you’re right. We’re able to fix that immediately. Put a ride back on your card at that instant and then have another positive customer interaction. It has helped with our customer service. It has helped us to be more present. And that’s what my, I spoke a little bit about being able to be a service to people, that I believe is it has to permeate down from my perspective, if I am that way I want to hire and have people around me that think of customers think of their employees the same way it has allowed us to do that and to that we are more than satisfied and happy with all of that. The ability to be able to be responsive, the ability to be able to be efficient and again, to add that customer piece is all the worth, all the while worth.
MM: Yeah, I mean that’s that’s wonderful. That’s you know, the goal of every agency. It should be the goal of all of the technology providers, hardware providers at the end of the day, it’s a service oriented industry, right? Our goal should be, is and kind of the mantra we always take on is someone just wants to get from Point A to point B. So let’s try and make it as simple and easy for them, you know, as we can so that we can provide the service that you know, we’re here to do. So it’s it’s wonderful to hear and I think that’s probably about it for today. I don’t want to eat up too much of Greg’s time.
GD: But I got another meeting on the way.
MM: So yeah, I know, I have to say I don’t have too much more time, but to our listeners, hopefully you enjoyed this episode and again, please subscribe. And if you would like to hear more of these when they come out, you know, rate and review it, share it around with colleagues and friends and industry. Hopefully it’s helpful to them. So, we thank you everyone for listening. Please let us know if there’s anything you want us to cover in our podcasts. I am Maxwell mickey until next time. We’ll chat and Greg, thanks so much for coming on and chatting with us and telling us about your organization. It’s been it’s been great.
GD: Thanks again, Max. And you have a great day.
MM: Yeah, Thank you. Alright.