Episode 6: A Talk with John C. Andoh from HILO
In this episode, we talk to John C. Andoh, Mass Transit Administrator and General Manager at HILO (County of Hawaii). John shares how his journey in transit began, talks about HILO’s fare-free system, what the agency has achieved so far, and whether fare-free is in their future.
Maxwell Mickey: Hello and welcome everybody to the Modecast Podcast. It’s a podcast powered by your friends here at Modeshift and we chat about all things mobility. Thanks for joining us today! As always, I’m your host, Max. But before we dive into today’s episode, please make sure to subscribe and follow us on the preferred streaming platform. So let’s get started!
John C. Andoh: Thanks for having me. I’m doing great and you?
MM: Not too bad! Probably not as good of a time as your after-work living in Hawaii. John, you originally lived in Hawaii for many years, and then you came back not too long ago, isn’t that right?
JA: Yeah, about 2 years ago.
MM: Is it good to feel at home? Have things changed a lot? I think Hawaii sounds like paradise for everyone else. I’m sure you still have your day-to-day things that are just as frustrating or unfun to deal with as the rest of the transit folks. But how do you like being out there?
JA: It’s been pleasurable. The weather is great, the activities are fun, people are very friendly.
MM: One of the things we always love to ask about is how you got into transit. I know you’ve been with a few agencies, you’ve covered a lot inside the country but would love to hear how you got into transit and where you’ve been. It’s always great to have a veteran on the show with us.
JA: Yes, I’ve been managing transit for the past 23 years. I actually started doing internships while I was in high school and I started managing transit at about 20. I’ve lived in various states – rural, smaller, mid, and larger urban transit systems across the country. I’ve been here in Hawaii County for about 2 years. In addition to my role at Hawaii County, I work part-time in Escalon, California, and in Burlington, North Carolina where I provide managerial support to their transit systems as well.
MM: How often do you have to go between them or are you able to do it all remotely from Hawaii?
JA: I do most of the work remotely but I do go to them at least once a month.
MM: So, you’re a frequent flyer. Which is the best airline for anyone who wants to get out to Hawaii?
JA: You know, they’re all good. It just really depends on the price point.
MM: One of the big things I want to chat about today is the fair-free side of Hawaii’s system which we’ll get to. But before that share with us, what were other big changes or shifts that you brought your experience with and adjusted when you got to HILO?
JA: Well, we’ve made some significant process through the implementation of the transit and multimodal transportation Master Plan which guides the future of the agency. We’ve added various routes, extended types, a vanpool program, and a rural door-to-door bus. And we’re about to launch a micro-transit service in our largest subdivisions in the Ka’u and Puna districts. We are also about to restructure the shared ride taxi program, expanded paratransit, and also launched a vanpool program and a bike share program.
MM: A lot of things! For the micro-transit side did you ask riders for surveys or collect data about where to deploy this, and how frequently? Is it testing and seeing what works? How did that process go?
JA: When the Master Plan was in place that’s when a lot of feedback was gathered to determine the best modes for the various areas of the island. And when that mass supply was developed, the Ka’u and Puna districts were the most underserved areas with large population centers that needed some form of transit. Microtransit was a way to introduce transit to determinative fixed routes. That makes sense in the future.
MM: Being in Hawaii you probably have some unique challenges. I think there’s probably a handful of areas of the country that may have to deal with similar challenges. Being a vacation destination and one of the most beautiful places in the world where people want to go, how does that affect planning? We were chatting earlier and you said that spring break is here – so, how does that affect planning for service? It’s something that I would assume is very unique to Hawaii.
JA: We planned for service normally like any other community. Where we have a peak to ban on some of our routes we add additional buses to ensure that we’re moving people and not leaving folks behind. But beyond that, there’s nothing really different that we do. Our period is more year-round versus a summer peak and a winter peak like some agencies may have to face that are visitor-centric like us.
MM: When you made the decision to go fair-free this was, I believe during the pandemic, right? Was it the pandemic that drove that decision? Was it something you were already interested in? Can you talk to us a little bit about how you and your staff and team came to that decision?
JA: It was something that we were already interested in doing. Our ridership has ticked over the last 10 years. That’s just due to the reliability of the transit system. So, we were looking for ways to rebuild the ridership and reintroduce public transit to the island. And with the implementation of the Master Plan, we felt that launching a fare-free pilot as part of that is a great way to get people to consider transit as an alternative again. And also allow low-income residents to reinvest that money that would have gone to the transit system back into the economy so that they can still be able to live in a comfortable manner while using our bus system.
MM: That’s a really interesting point. I’ve spoken to a few folks before about the fair-free concept аnd actually, I haven’t seen much around that point in particular – the essential stimulus into the local economy by not having to spend money on public transit. Do you have any data around that or is there any way to evaluate the economic impact? I know it would probably take a lot of time.
JA: There’s definitely a way to do it but we don’t have any data at this point. We’re just shy of 1 year of doing this fair-free pilot and so far we’ve seen a 43% increase in ridership over the previous year alone. And as you know the previous fiscal year was the pandemic so it’s trending in the right direction.
MM: Well, that’s a big jump. How did you communicate all of that to riders? Like “We’re turning the fares off”? Was it communicated as something permanent or semi-permanent? Was it done internally by the marketing team or by getting the news out in the press, sharing things at bus stops and online? How did you really get that message across?
JA: We focused on press releases and traditional media. Also, sides out all the fair boxes, saying: “We’re going fare-free effective February 27th of 2022, thanks to grants from the federal government. So just hop out and ride” and that basically was a word of mouth that spread around. We also took advantage of social media which also helped with the visitor community. It was very helpful when people came off planes or off boats to realize: “Hey, I don’t have to worry about spending money on the bus”.
One thing to note is that we get a large portion of our revenue from the general excise tax, which is a sales tax on retail. So, that’s when I go back to respending the money into the economy, we’re going to see that money come back to the transit system anyway when they’re spending at retail stores or at restaurants, and grocery stores.
MM: I think that a question a lot of folks ask is: “This works for now with different subsidies and grants”. But preparing for the future 5 or 10 years from now to keep the system fair-free – is that part of that plan? We will see this coming back through the economy.
MM: Are there any other sources on this long-term plan that maybe other agencies can think about trying to be fair-free?
JA: We’re fair-free through December 31st of 2025. This is an opportunity to see how it helps the transit system and how it helps the isle. If the county sees good returns from being fair-free, this pilot would become permanent. If not, then we are also building a contingency plan for reinstituting fares. You see, the electronic fare collection which would take effect in January of 2026.
MM: So, do you have any advice for other agencies that are thinking about it? What is there to consider? I know there are a lot of folks trying to get to where you are but aren’t certain about the path.
JA: I would say, look at how much you’re spending on fair collection. Look at the complexity of your fare structure and look at your overall ridership and see if ridership is declined as a result. And when you’ve done that analysis of the areas that I’ve mentioned think of ways you can rebuild ridership. Is fair-free a consideration? Are you willing to give up X amount of dollars, whether covered through grants, private donations, or your original, existing budget to allow people to ride the transit system for free? In our case, it was $580,000 a year – that’s less than 5% of the overall revenues copied to support the agency. So it was so small to where we were able to absorb that through the stimulus grants that FTAs provided. And perhaps in the future general excise tax could cover that. Sub-transit systems may have higher fair box recovery return ratios. It might be a little more difficult to implement a program like this.
MM: That makes sense! When folks come to town and they haven’t ridden the system before, how do they get information about the system – here’s where the bus is at, here’s the schedule. Especially for visitors who are maybe in town for a week or two.
JA: We have a new website that is actually centric on the residents and the visitors so they can learn how to use the transit system. We are on the Transit app and the Move it app. We have GTFS or General Transit Feed Specifications with Google Bing and Apple Maps. So, when people are looking for alternatives, they can simply select Transit and all of our routes will show up and it will show up as fare-free as a way for people to be able to take advantage of our services.
MM: One of the hot-button topics that I think comes up a lot inside of the fair-free world is how do we still collect as much data and information, so we can show our ridership, receive the same grants – those different mechanisms that fares typically help with from a secondary perspective. So, what’s the focus to make sure you’re still collecting and retaining all the information that you need for planning and growth purposes?
JA: Well, right now we’re collecting the data manually. However, we’re transitioning to using automatic passenger counters which will help tremendously in getting stop-by-stop data and understanding where people are actually using the transit system. Also, the fare boxes that are already on the buses too – the drivers can count those types of passengers, whether they’re general or senior, or have a disability. Through the fare box, we can get reports until we transition fully to automatic passenger counters.
MM: How long does that transition take?
JA: About 3 years. When you buy new replacement buses, they will come with the APC technology.
MM: It sounds like you’ve got a big piece of what’s happening this year and in the years following but what else is on the docket this year for the system that you have plans to grow or implement?
JA: You know, now we’re about 2 years in and we want to see how the system has been maturing. So, it’s more about evaluating its performance, making tweaks to make it perform better, and eliminating services that don’t make sense, or reducing those services.
MM: Well, this is wonderful. It’s always great to hear and learn how other agencies are tackling fair-free, providing the same service or better service, and seeing amazing results – almost 50% up a year, which is quite incredible. Especially with a lot of agencies struggling across North America. So, our hats off – great work there!
JA: One thing to note too is that eventually we’re going to plateau. We are going to continue to get new riders but the increase is not going to be as great. So what generally has happened with fair-free systems that I have managed is you have the existing ridership making more passenger trips and then you’re also increasing ridership from a newer demographic group as well. But once it plateaus it’s really just people making more trips on the system which ultimately still reduces the carbon from the air and improves air quality.
MM: Yeah, absolutely. Is there any way to kind of differentiate between those types of ridership?
JA: Not unless you do a demographic survey to extrapolate that data.
MM: It’s very interesting to dive into the data and see how all these different types of people are moving and why and trying to fit that together as a puzzle piece.
JA: Yeah, it definitely can also just tell a story on how people are utilizing the system.
MM: Wonderful John, thanks so much for having you on. This a quick and random question in case your name ever comes up at a show. If John Andoh wasn’t in public transit, what would he be doing?
JA: You know, my other passion is amusement park management.
MM: Ok. That’s quite a bit different.
JA: You know, when I was in high school I did various supervisory roles at Paramount Great America, Santa Clara, California, Six Flags, and Marine World in Vallejo, California because I am from the bay area. I also did transportation-related work like riding the trade around the park or the trolley at the Entrance Plaza.
MM: Yeah, very cool. A lot of roller coasters. So if it works out maybe one day we’ll see you run both simultaneously – a transit agency that just takes people back and forth between the amusement parks or their stops, or different rides in the city.
JA: You know, Walt Disney already has a down path with trades monorails and trams.
MM: That is true! We’ll expand that footprint. Well, John, thanks so much for being on the show. We really appreciate it!
JA: Thanks for having me!
MM: Well, everybody I hope you enjoyed this episode. Please be sure to subscribe, and get notified when we have a new episode that’s posted. Please, rate and review it. Let us know if you liked it or if you didn’t and what we can do better. But again, thank you so much for listening. I hope you had some great takeaways. I’m Maxwell Mickey and until next time. Thanks, everybody!