RTD Board engages in ‘design thinking’ to plan for post-pandemic operations

The RTD Board of Directors at a study session this week began planning the scale, shape and purpose of its post-pandemic service.

RTD General Manager and CEO Debra A. Johnson introduced the Board to the first two phases – of five – in a process called “design thinking.”

First step: Empathize.

Second step: Define the problem.

To the first step in the process, Board members made it clear they support an in-depth effort that gathers input from a broad spectrum of existing and potential customers.

To the second step in the process, Board members decided that the egg (listening and empathizing) should come before the chicken (defining the problem).

Johnson was blunt. There is “a great amount of ambiguity as it relates to our immediate future,” she said.

The pandemic, she underscored, is ongoing. Case rates are still too high. The timing of reaching “herd immunity” from COVID-19 is uncertain. Vaccination rates in black and brown communities are low. Telework and remote instruction have changed commuting habits – and lifestyles.

Service is at 60% of the levels offered in early March 2020, before lockdown orders went into effect. Ridership is at 40% of pre-pandemic levels.

Due to social distancing requirements, RTD currently allows only 15 customers per 30-foot bus, 20 customers per 40-foot bus and 30 customers per rail car.  

While federal relief funding will ensure RTD operations in the near future, Johnson asked Board members to step back and look at the big picture.

“I ask each of you to think about, what does it mean to recover?” she said. “Is ‘it’ going back to what we had pre-pandemic, recognizing that life has changed, thus habits have changed, and doing business as unusual has become usual – i.e., we are all assembled right now virtually, Uber Eats has probably delivered a couple of your meals.

“So, what is ‘it’? Is ‘it’ volume? Should we deploy a level of service with the attitude, ‘they will come?’ Or should we think about the quality of service we are providing over the quantity of service?” Johnson asked. “… Is ‘it’ viable and seamless accessibility to activity centers 24 hours a day with 10- to 15-minute headways (frequency of service)? Or is ‘it’ greenhouse gas reductions, whereby all people in the region benefit as the air is a little cleaner with less emissions?”

She urged the Board to think in “human-centric” ways and “think outside the bus.” Johnson acknowledged that there may be many “pain points” for those who use RTD, particularly for those who rely on public transportation for basic needs.

Asked by Director Shelley Cook if the listening plans include those who don’t currently use RTD, Johnson said “everything” is on the table. RTD is “flexible and agile,” she said, and open to all feedback.

Board Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede suggested listening at bus stops, Park-n-Rides and train stations and developing a “respectable way of engaging our patrons.” Urns of coffee and hot chocolate, along with doughnuts, she said, wouldn’t hurt.

Director Erik Davidson suggested going to activity centers such as hospitals and asking non-RTD users about their transportation decision-making. The district, he said, needs to “solve problems for additional customers.”

“We need to listen to the viewpoints of our constituents even if we don’t agree with them,” Director Kate Williams said. She urged working with school districts to provide “travel training” to young children, especially in the context of issues related to climate change.

Director Vince Buzek said the district should be seen as part of the solution in helping the state’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Colorado may soon require that employers with 100 or more workers reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles on roads. Reduction targets have not yet been finalized, but Buzek said the state legislature is handing a gift to the district. “RTD needs to be the sustainability option,” he said. 

And Director Shelley Cook noted that President Joe Biden has embraced new standards for greenhouse gas emissions that could prompt “sweeping changes.” RTD, she said, needs to “find out how we can be part of that solution.”

Several directors, including Lynn Guissinger and Peggy Catlin, acknowledged customer frustration on several issues, including waiting for service to return.

Director Shontel Lewis said RTD staff should “immerse” itself in different cultures and communities to learn as much as possible.

“We need to treat them like gold,” Director Paul Rosenthal said of RTD’s customers. He proposed as much customized and individualized attention as possible. 

Director Bobby Dishell said he was familiar with the design thinking approach and commended Johnson for bringing it to the table. He encouraged “fidelity” in the process by taking it one step at a time.

The conversation touched on simplifying fare structures, translating materials into more languages to better serve the increasingly multicultural communities, setting taxpayer expectations, improving safety, upgrading customer service, updating the mobile app, interfacing with the bicycle community, listening to RTD staff, keeping the system simple to navigate and making sure the broader community knows that “listening” will lead to action and changes.

“Lots of great ideas,” Director Guissinger observed. “Bringing back ridership is at the heart of it.”

After nearly 100 minutes of discussion, the directors tiptoed into the second phase of the design thinking process before deciding to ask staff for next steps. Several directors requested a follow-up study session to continue the conversation.