Kim Williams, Chief Innovation Officer for the Metro Transit Authority of Harris County, on shifting people’s perception of public transit, what transit users really want, and public transit’s role in keeping our cities working. Williams will be a speaker at the CityAge Houston: Decarbonizing America’s Energy Capital Digital Event on June 27.
CityAge: What value does the public sector bring to the private sector?
Kim Williams: We serve hundreds of thousands of people every week, and that is an opportunity for new customers, for new awareness, for education that you wouldn’t get through social media or through a traditional earned medium, television, or cable. So it’s an opportunity to reach people in a population you might have missed. We’re also a great proving ground. We have the equipment, we have the people, and so you’re able to see what these look like.
CityAge: What major problems are you trying to solve in transit?
Williams: People have become accustomed to having the answers to their questions at a snap of a finger or a tap of a button on their phone. Giving that real-time information and communication to riders is probably one of the biggest challenges and opportunities for public transit. Accessibility is the other challenge. Although public transit is available to everyone, it’s not always been friendly to everyone. We were one of the first agencies to use Bluetooth beacons, so people who are sight impaired can use their cell phones to find their way on the system. And the other big challenge for us is climate change. If we don’t run, it has detrimental effects throughout the community. And so climate change has affected us deeply. We’re in a hurricane corridor; it’s not unusual to have a major storm come through that takes out the power that takes out the roadway network. We manage well. Hurricane Harvey pretty much shut Houston down. We were able to get a good majority of our service back up in three to four days.
CityAge: What are you consistently coming up against?
Williams: In some places there has been a historical resistance to public transit. What it really boils down to is generational differences. There’s that generation that remembers [public transit] being mostly for a lower-income population, and some of those stereotypes and negativity still exist, unfortunately. People are starting to really understand that public transit is a tool that has tremendous benefit, and is an expectation in any world-class city. Whether that’s rural, whether that’s urban, suburban, ex-urban. Having the ability for people to move in and around your region freely is a major economic development benefit. It allows cultures to collide and connect. It allows economic centers to develop and grow. Generations Z and Y are much more amenable to public transit.They see it as a tool to get to A to B in a way that’s economical, that’s efficient, that’s green friendly.
CityAge: What’s the roadmap for disrupting that generational divide around public transit?
Williams: We have to provide as many opportunities for people to be exposed to public transit, even if you are not a user. We need to let people understand the economic benefit. Transit agencies have just started putting out impact statements on what the benefit is of public transit. And that helps translate the conversation when you’re talking to chambers of commerce and elected officials that this isn’t just a nice-to-have, this isn’t just a feel-good, it has real tangible benefits to our communities. It helps people get to businesses that are being established. It makes it an attractive place for people to move to.
This above conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. You can hear more of CityAge’s conversation with Kim Williams on Episode 2 of Season 1 of the CityAge Podcast.