Dec 8, 2019 27 min read

Public Transit: Driving Towards Equity and Inclusion - with John Andoh

Quote from Transcript.

Episode 10, 40 min listen

Join us as we talk with John Andoh about how his leadership at the Comet, in the midlands of South Carolina, is strengthening inclusion and equity in his community.


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Catch The Comet

Several research articles about the transportations link to equity and inclusion:

Making the Connection:  Transportation and Youth Disconnection, Measure of America

Transportation Emerges as Critical to Escaping Poverty, Mikayla Bouchard, New York Times

It's About Time:  The Transit Time Penalty and Its Racial Implications



Ame Sanders:  [00:00:00] Could your community be more equitable, more inclusive? Are you ready to take action? Maybe you’re wondering where to start. In this podcast, we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better and discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities.

I’m Ame Sanders. This is State of Inclusion Podcast. Welcome.

Today, our focus is on transportation. You might ask me, how is transportation linked to equity and inclusion? I’ll mention a few points, but there are lots more.

The links are clearer and more direct than you might think. Here are a few points to have in mind.  Without reliable transportation, some people lack access to good jobs. They don’t live where the great jobs are, and [00:01:00] they can’t get to them reliably, or at all. There’s plenty of time lost in long commutes. This happens when you have to rely on inefficient public transit options, and in many cities, this penalty is the greatest for people of color. Just like with jobs, there’s often a distance to, and lack of physical access to education opportunities. Then there’s the matter of access to health supports, things like the ability to get to a good grocery store, or maybe to the doctor, or a pharmacy. You know, employers care about this, too. In some communities, they can’t even fill their jobs. When that happens over an extended period of time, they either close or move away. They simply take their great jobs with them.

You know, I could go on, but, hopefully, you’re convinced now that there is a link between transportation and equity and inclusion. But, what are communities doing about it? In today’s episode, you’ll hear some creative ways that those issues and others are being addressed in one community.

[00:02:00] Today, I’m interviewing John Andoh. John is the Executive Director of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority in Columbia, South Carolina, a transportation service they call the Comet.

Also, on the call with me is Nicole McAden. She serves as secretary on our board for the Upstate Transportation Coalition, and I’m fortunate to serve on the board with her. She also has a great deal of overall expertise in transportation, and she’s kindly agreed to join me on the call for our discussion with John. Thank you, Nicole.

Nicole McAden:  Thank you, Ame.

Ame Sanders:  John, thank you so much for being here.

Of course, thanks for having me.

It seems like you have a lot of great things going on in the Midlands, so tell us about Comet and about your mission to make the Midlands more mobile.

John Andoh:  Oh, Comet is our brand name for the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority. And, we provide bus services, or I should say [00:03:00] public transportation services within Richland and Lexington counties. Historically, we’ve provided traditional fixed route bus and ADA paratransit services, but we’ve been wanting to get more into the realm of mobility and be a mobility agency and find creative ways to move people from A to Z in the most efficient manner possible. That may not necessarily be that traditional bus or ADA paratransit service.

-Comet to the Market, Comet at Night

Recently, we’ve started services to help connect people to grocery stores. We have a lot of food deserts in the Columbia metropolitan area, and by having a partnership with Lyft and Uber it allows somebody to get to and from those food desert areas to a grocery store within our service area, be able to pick up groceries within a single trip, and then still get back home in the most efficient manner versus having to navigate the fixed route transit system, which can be difficult if you are a [00:04:00] single parent with multiple children trying to also carry groceries home. That service, since its inception in December of 2018, has carried 11,296 passenger trips between the two providers. Definitely a program that is working out very well.

We previously used to run night-time service until 1:00 AM on 12 bus routes. We found that to not be cost effective. It was costing us about $338,000 a year to provide that night-time service, carrying 1.5 passengers per hour, on average. By limiting the evening bus service till about 11:00 PM,  he best routes start to fade off starting at nine

We’ve enhanced our partnership with Uber and Lyft to where we will also transport people to and from their destinations with a $5 subsidy. And we call that program Comet at Night. And that service is available seven days a week, 365 days a year from 9:00 [00:05:00] PM to 3:00 AM and we’re only spending approximately $75,000 for that program. And that service is also taking off, as well, and we’ve found it to be more cost effective than running those 12 lines with 1.5 passengers per hour.

Nicole McAden  John, I’d love to go back to the Lyft and Uber examples for the grocery stores and afte- hours services. And if you could just touch on a scalability there, because we know money is not endless and so what are the Comet policies if that service were to gain in popularity and you keep providing the $5 subsidies? What is the end point on that service and that subsidy?

John Andoh:  Glad you brought that up because, yes, we’re very sensitive to, to the cost of both Comet at Night and Comet to the Market.

We budget at $150,000 for the program, $75,000 for each program. So, Comet to the Market, $75K [00:06:00] Comet at Night, $75K. then we further subdivided that to $37,500 for Uber and $37,500 for Lyft for both programs. So, in essence, Lyft gets $75K. Uber gets $75K, $37,500 for Comet and $37,500 for Comet to the Market. As it relates to Comet at Night, we only advertise the code on the buses. You have to ride a Comet bus at least once a month in order to get access to the code because the code changes monthly. We have signs on the buses because we want Comet at Night to be an extension of the transit system, not a replacement. So, if you rode Comet earlier in that day and got the code, then you’d be able to put that promo code in and then it’ll stay in your system until the end of the month. And then it resets itself. For Comet to the Market, we allow a user to use the program twice a week so they can get to the grocery store and they can get back [00:07:00] the, basically the, the Lyft or Uber program will lock them out again until the following week, again, and the week goes Sunday to Saturday.

As it relates to Comet to the Market, we also geo-fence all of the grocery stores in Richland and Lexington counties that are within the Comet service areas. So, as long as you board within a Comet service area and have your end or start at grocery stores, you can use the promo code to go to the grocery store.

If you try to go from Comet’s headquarters to city hall and try to put in the promo code it won’t work. You can only use the promotion from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM, those are the average hours of grocery stores in our area, and that’s available seven days a week. With Comet at Night, we geo-fenced the Comet service area, so as long as you’re boarding or alighting anywhere within the Comets service area, you have $5 subsidy. And then we further geo-fenced it to where I can only use it from 9:00 PM to 3:00 AM. And you can take [00:08:00] unlimited trips as you like.

And when we look at the night-time program, what we’re seeing from the data that some concern that I have from one board member was, well, what happens if we start just taking people to go bar hopping? We’re not necessarily seeing that. We’re actually seeing people who are truly using it for its intended purpose. They worked at Walmart until midnight, but they took Comet early in the day to get to their job at Walmart. And they get off at midnight, when there’s no more Comet buses, so then now they’re using the Uber or Lyft to get home.

And we’re also seeing that a lot of people generally are riding within the subsidy, or they’re slightly exceeding the subsidies. And the nice thing about it is now we’re cost sharing in those night-time trips. Because whereas we were, our subsidy per passenger was upwards of $60 a passenger, now our subsidies are only $5 and if they want to travel, they want to go from the furthest extremes of our service area from Walmart at Harbison and all the way to [00:09:00] Eastover, that trip is going to cost them about $40, we’re only on the hook for $5 they’re on the hook for the balance, $35. It’s definitely providing value to us, so we’re tracking on a monthly basis to make sure that we don’t exceed our cap. And both Uber and Lyft have agreed that if we start getting close to our cap, they’ll work with us to impose any necessary restrictions to stay within it.

Nicole McAden:  Great. And one follow-up on that because you brought up a good point about the customer is often completing the trip costs, but in the cases you mentioned earlier, if somebody did not have a smart phone or did not have a credit card to make that reservation, how are fares being accepted and paid for to finish that routes, or that trip’s cost?

John Andoh:  So, we’ll start with the case of the unbanked. So, on the unbanked side, we tell folks that you have to have a credit card in order to use the service. So, we encourage folks to go buy a gift [00:10:00] card with the Visa, MasterCard logo. Uber and Lyft also have gift cards as well. We’ll give them information on where they can buy them. Because I see it as no different than if they wanted to pay cash, by just simply just going to the local CVS and just getting one of those gift cards.

We made sure in our contracts that Uber and Lyft would accept those prepaid gift cards. Cause some systems won’t accept prepaid gift cards even if they have a Visa or MasterCard logo. And we were concerned on the equity issue. Now, for those that phone, they can call us at DART. We have what is called Lyft Concierge, and Uber Central. Our reservationist, we’ll actually book the trip for them, put in their necessary credit card information from the prepaid gift card or the or the Uber or Lyft gift card into the system, and then we would tell them the name of the driver, what the color of the car, what the make and model of the car is, and what the license plates [00:11:00] are, and we tell them to specifically look for those items and to call us if there’s any questions. In essence the car, we’ll go to them. We put the person’s information in the Lyft concierge, Uber central so that the driver knows who they’re looking for. And we would also, 9 times out of 10 that person will have a phone number. So also put the phone number in the system, so if the driver needs to reach out, they can call them direct. So, we found the easiest way to resolve those that don’t have a smartphone.

We also have what is called Wave, wheelchair assessable vehicle. So, for those that want to use the Uber and Lyft program during the same operating hours of those programs, DART, our paratransit provider will pick them up for a flat fee of $10, with the 60 minute window of pickup time passes an Uber or Lyft vehicle, but, um, it ensures that we’re providing equal access for those that may not necessarily be able to get into an Uber.

Ame Sanders:  So, one question I had about that, just to be sure I understand how it [00:12:00] works. You were Lyft concierge and Uber central. Is that a service that is executed through Uber and Lyft, or do you have people at your office in the middle of the night taking these phone calls?

John Andoh:  So, for the nighttime service, we use a subcontractor that runs basically between 9:00 PM and 3:00 AM so the DART phone line rolls over to that subcontractor, and that subcontractor bills us only when somebody calls and uses the service. And, since we started the program in December of 2018 we’ve only had one use.  And then of course, during the day-time for like the growth since DART is still running because it has to compliment the fixed route system, we would monitor regular DART van within 60 minutes of the call.

Our next mobility item, we also started the van pool program. And that’s in partnership with Enterprise. We will subsidize the first $500 towards the rental costs of a van. As long as [00:13:00] a commuter group, between five and 15 people are formed. The that commuting group will pay the difference of the cost of that van, and they can use the van as long as it originates or terminates and Richland or Lexington counties.

The nice thing about this van pool program, it allows people to get to employment sites when they travel, and not necessarily based on a schedule that we provide. This can also help set the catalyst for forming express bus service within our service area. A lot of vans that would traverse between specific destinations in our service area to those employers site.

Ame Sanders:  You only started in something like 2018 right?  So, it’s only been…

John Andoh:  April 29 2018 yeah.

Ame Sanders:  Yeah. So it’s not been that long. You’ve got a lot of things going on and from what I understand, you initiated most of those programs, right?

John Andoh:  That’s correct.

-Role of Transportation in Equity, Reflex, and WAV

Ame Sanders:  That is, that’s a lot of [00:14:00] change and a lot of progress.

I think I’ve talked with you about the fact that the state of inclusion is all about increasing equity and inclusion in communities. And so, one of the questions I wanted to ask you, and you already touched on it in some of the examples you gave, how do you feel transportation can play a role in equity and inclusion in a community?

John Andoh:  Well, I, I think to make the services assessable and open to all, like a good example is the paratransit system. I view that as a segregated system. When I say a segregated system, it’s a system for those that have disabilities that cannot necessarily use fixed-route transit or against a fixed-route bus stop.

And it’s very costly to provide that service. But the intent of the ADA was to integrate persons with disabilities into mainstream society. One program that we also have done is called Reflex. We’ve combined ADA paratransit [00:15:00] service and general public fixed route into one service, hence the name Reflex.

You can have the bus go off-route within a three-quarter mile radius of the route, if you’re a general public person or if you’re a person with disability for an additional $2 or you can simply walk to the bus stop, pay the regular $2 fair instead of a $4 fair. These Reflex routes, which we now have four of them operating throughout our service area, connect at various super stops to regular Comet fixed route bus service, and then for a DART eligible person, a DART van would meet this Reflex route at the Superstop and continue help that DART passenger continuing to whatever destination they need to travel within our service area. We found that a service like that is a, instead of sending two vehicles with passengers per hour, less than two into an area fixed route and a paratransit that by sending one vehicle and merging the two together, or now bringing [00:16:00] two unique populations together in the most efficient manner possible.

Ame Sanders:  And let me just see if I understand what you’re saying and how that works because you had a lot of stuff packed into there. So, you’ve got a regular bus running a regular bus route, and if I’m a passenger, I can pay $2 extra and have that go, you say three-quarters of a mile?

John Andoh:  Yes.

Ame Sanders:  Off route to drop me maybe at my house or much closer to my house, maybe at the top of a hill, instead of having to climb a big hill or something. Although I know you don’t have Hills and in Columbia really, but anyway, you can. I can do that. And so if I’m a paratransit rider, I’m in a wheelchair or I have some mobility issues, I can do that. Rather than having to call the special paratransit for myself.

Ame Sanders:  And when you said DART, can you tell us everybody what DART is?

John Andoh:  DART stands for, dial a ride transit, and that’s the name of our [00:17:00] paratransit program, here in the Midlands.

Ame Sanders:  So, did I understand that correctly?

John Andoh:  You understand it perfectly.

And in the case of the DART riders, instead of having to make a next day reservation, they could easily make a reservation on a Reflex service within two hours.

Ame Sanders:  Okay.

John Andoh:  And if they are on the bus, they just simply ask the driver, I would like to be dropped off route at my home, and by doing that, you now avoided having to go through their reservation system and again, a much faster and efficient service.

Ame Sanders:  So, you have to make a reservation for the Reflex System.

John Andoh:  You have to make a reservation for at least the initial pickup, but not the drop-off.

Ame Sanders:  So, I interrupted you because you were telling me how transportation can help improve equity and inclusion in a community. And so, we started with paratransit and then we went to Reflex. I didn’t mean to stop you there. Are there other things that you think about?

John Andoh:  So we want to make sure that every program that we do here at Comet is open to everybody without any unnecessary [00:18:00] barriers to prevent them from utilizing our services.

Ame Sanders:  And I would also say that the, the work you’re doing with groceries, where you have people being able to access healthy groceries outside of their community if their community is a food desert. That also sounds like a really awesome program to improve equity and inclusion in your community.

John Andoh:  Great. I’m glad you brought that up. Cause we’re also going to, we got a grant from the FTA to do a healthcare shuttle to connect people to medical, dental appointments, and the pharmacy. And we’re working with Phoenix Mobility on how to launch that service, which sometime in 2020. And that service will also provide access for those that may struggle in getting to medical, dental appointments, help ensure that they can stay healthy by having that appropriate low-cost access.

Ame Sanders:  You keep adding more things to my list. I’ve been making a list here of the things that [00:19:00] you have going on, and that’s amazing. So, you have groceries, you have an adjustment to your night-time, 11 to three o’clock capability for, for you to partner with Uber and Lyft for people to be able to get service and also for you to be able to reduce your costs. You’ve got van pool, you’ve got Reflex, you’ve got this potential future partnership with a health care shuttle. That’s a, that’s a lot.

John Andoh:  Yeah. And we still have more coming.

Ame Sanders:  Well, that’s a pretty amazing, cause I used to do projects for a living and anybody who has done projects for living can appreciate the fact that that’s a lot of implementation projects and pilots, and tests, and things to keep track of, not to mention operating once it’s all you know, in place, but even just to get it started as I’m sure quite a task.

John Andoh:  It is, yes.

-Workforce Transportation, Van Pool, Express Bus, and Express Route

Ame Sanders:  Well, one of the [00:20:00] things I wanted to ask you about too, while we’re thinking about inclusion and equity, because we’re in the same state, I know that the Midlands and Columbia have some of the same challenges that we have in my hometown of Greenville and Nicole’s home of Greenville, that we have people who struggle to get reliable transportation to get to work. People miss the opportunity to take well-paying jobs or better paying jobs or even jobs at all, sometimes, because they don’t believe that they will be able to get to work. I wanted to talk a little bit about workforce transportation, because sometimes that’s the fixed route bus system. Sometimes. But we have a lot of employment centers as you may have that are not on the fixed-route bus system and are maybe farther out and in industrial parks, or whatever. And so, I wanted to talk with you a little bit about some of the solutions that you’re [00:21:00] implementing for that. And you already mentioned one, which is the van pool system. So, I’d like to talk about how you guys are approaching workforce transportation and what that means for people who can use your service.

John Andoh:  Well, it’s two tiered. The van pool program is the first level of a system of providing workforce. The Van Pool System is the easiest because it engages the employer. And the employer, once engaged, would survey the employees and bring groups of employees together so that they can collectively do their appropriate commuting from where they live to the employer, and they’re sharing in the cost and providing that service.

We also do Express Bus. And we do Express Bus when it makes reasonable sense. A good example is, in February of this year, we started bus service to Amazon and Nephron in Lexington County, just right outside of Casey. Since those facilities opened, they never had public transit service, [00:22:00] and those two employers were struggling in getting employees, quality employees, with reliable transportation.

Since we started those services, the ridership has continuously increased, month after month. We’re going to be doing a presentation to those employers sometime next month to give them a recap of how those services are and see if it’s a service they would like to continue into the 2020 year.

We also started an Express Route from Richland and Lexington counties just outside our service area to Newberry. We were able to design that service in a manner to where it can bring commuters from Newberry into Richland County. They can also, on the reverse side, take Richland County commuters to Newberry. And Newberry has Kraft-Heinz and Samsung, for instance, which allows opportunity. And we actually are having at least two or three people that are doing the reverse commute to go to jobs at Samsung.

And, actually, later this week, I have a meeting with the department [00:23:00] of, I believe, employment and workforce, DEW, to talk about how we could collaborate on getting folks rides to Newberry, since they’re looking for an employees of the Richland and Lexington County areas, since they’re not yet a lot of employees of the Newberry area.

Ame Sanders:  So ,Nicole, anything else on your end? Any other questions?

Nicole McAden:  Nope, I’m good. Thank you, Ame.

Ame Sanders:  No? Okay.

One of the things we didn’t talk about is your employers, do they work shift work, meaning nights, and weekends, and holidays, and those kinds of things? So, do you also offer services through your, your work with your employers for those off-shifts?

John Andoh:  Yeah, a lot of the, like the Amazon, McEntire produce, house of Raeford, Samsung, Nephron. They are definitely shift work. There’s even the employers like Trane in the Northwestern portion of our service area where we presently don’t have service right now. How we [00:24:00] resolve that is really through Comet at Night and the Lyft and Uber program.

We are getting ready to try out a pilot with Uber and Lyft. It’s going to be called Comet to Work. And we’re going to target a large-scale industrial park area in our service area. It might be the 12th street extension where Amazon and Nephron is or might be the Blythewood industrial park. And we want to provide that service around the shift times where we would pay the first $5 of that trip and the user will pay the difference and we want to see, and we’re going to do that. We’re going to do a three-month pilot to see. Which is more efficient to us, is it, should we continue to have this bus route run down to that area or would it be more efficient if we discontinue that bus route and had everybody use Uber and Lyft and we just paid a subsidy and we start sharing the [00:25:00] cost.

So, we’re going to try and do a side by side with the bus route and this Uber, Lyft pilot for three months to see how it works out. If we see better productivity on Uber/Lyft pilot versus the bus route, then we’ll start the process to discontinue the bus around and shift people to utilizing the TNCs instead.

And with the TNCs, they’ll have way more flexibility than the bus route, which is only targeting basically two shifts. The morning shift and the overnight shift.

Ame Sanders:  And when you say TNC, what do you mean when you use the acronym TNC? You guys in transportation, you have a lot of acronyms.

John Andoh:  Transportation network company.

Ame Sanders:  Okay. All right.

John Andoh:  Next thing I want to add with our partnership with Uber and Lyft, because there is a growing concern about the number of vehicles, single-occupant vehicles that are hitting the roadways, we require that they do these trips as a shared ride experience. So, instead of us [00:26:00] having 25 Uber and Lyft vehicles carrying one passenger, they need to at least carry two passengers as they work their way towards picking up and dropping off people, at the minimum, so that it’s a true shared experience and allows us access to the federal funds to fund this program. Because FTA has created a definition of doing these TNC pilots, as long as it meets the definition of public transit, public transit is shared ride experience.

Ame Sanders:  So that’s good because that helps clarify how you use some of the different components within your system to help complement each other and deliver on different needs within the community.

John Andoh:  Correct.

Ame Sanders:  So, you’ve got the van pool, you’ve got Express Bus out to those big employers that you were talking about, Amazon and nephron. And then you’ve got an Express Route to and from Newberry, which is an adjacent [00:27:00] county to you guys. So you, it seems like you’ve really thought about those big employers and how you can help people get to and from work and be able to access some of those great jobs that you know everybody would want. And, that’s that’s pretty amazing.

John Andoh:  Yes.

Ame Sanders:  One of the things I had read about John was that you guys also have a partnership or you’re thinking about putting in a partnership with the hospital system for their employees?

John Andoh:  We have the ability for those that work at PRISMA health and Lexington medical center. They contribute to the transit system. So as long as their employees, staff, volunteers show an ID card, they can ride any Comet route free of charge, unrestricted. And we’ve done that with a lot of major employers:  Nephron. McEntire produce, and we’ve also done them with the school districts and a few of the colleges.

Ame Sanders:  Can they use this, these free rides anytime, or is it only to [00:28:00] their workplace?

John Andoh:  Unrestricted.

John Andoh:  Unrestricted.

And this is the way we sell this to employers. As they think of it as an employee benefit that you had free transportation to and from work as well as to anywhere you need to go: grocery store, the movie theater.

Ame Sanders:  Do you have a lot of people take advantage of that?

John Andoh:  We do, actually.

Ame Sanders:  So that’s another link to a work force type of solution and a way to engage the employers in this. One of the things we’ve talked about already, Nicole, brought up is none of this is free, right? So there’s a lot of costs to execute all these programs that you’ve described for us, and there’s a, you know, there’s money that comes from the federal government, I’m sure, and money that comes from your local community. But, if the employers can be engaged in that and help funding as well, then that makes a big difference. So maybe one of the things we should go to now is, let’s talk about how [00:29:00] in the world you manage to afford all of this stuff. Cause it sounds great. And you’ve talked about some that are pretty efficient compared to your previous spending, but talk a little bit about how, you know, the Midlands is able to fund all of this.


John Andoh:  Well, it’s just basically being creative with our funding sources. We historically have not used federal funds for operations. So, we’re now using federal funds for operations up to our operating cap. Even though we’re a large urban, we run under peak buses, so we can use up to $3 million of our $5.5 million for operations. So, we put about a million and a half. Into operations. We’ve also started using federal funds for our ADA paratransit at up to 10% of the apportionment, which has helped.

Ame Sanders:  And you also get local funding, though, right?

John Andoh:  We do, and what [00:30:00] we’re, one strategy that I’ve been trying to implement here is is that our local funding is set to sunset possibly in 2029 when we anticipate we’ll reach the funding cap. So, we’ve started to make sure that we’re not overspending our local funds and that we’re storing those local funds in a reserve account. So that can help us at least extend beyond that sunset gate. In order for us to do that, we have to use another funding source, which is where the federal funds come into play.

We’ve done a comprehensive model that takes into consideration when we have to replace our assets, when we have to buy the necessary capital for our system, and how much federal funds we’re going to need for that and how much local funds we are going to need for that. So that comprehensive model helps us in making sure that we can afford the programs that we’re doing.

Ame Sanders:  Okay, so it almost sounds like you have to have a PhD in finance to work in transportation.

John Andoh:  Oh [00:31:00] my gosh. That’s no joke.

Ame Sanders:  Or at least in government finance, that’s a lot to put together and a lot of different options to try to have line up to carry you for what must be long range plans.

John Andoh:  Our biggest focus, fiscal sustainability. How do we sustain Comet, once the sales tax ends. And our strategy to renew that vote with the voters. So, we need to be strategic and ensuring that we have the utmost faith and confidence that we’re spending the sales tax dollars as directed by the state, when it comes to our transit operation. That’s where, like you said, I laugh when you say you need a PhD and finances is because you truly do, when it comes to assigning the right service, the right funding source, the right matching dollars necessary.

Ame Sanders:  Yeah. Cause it sounds like when I listened to the things you described. So, I see you having a long-range vision with a lot of [00:32:00] very nimble, tactical tests and pilots and you know, smaller operations within your great big operation. And then also this very sophisticated model for how you fund and sustain this over time.

So, and then with all of that, and we haven’t even talked about what must be a fairly complicated a capital investment strategy to keep all of the things that are underneath this surface running smoothly and in operations over the long haul. You know, that’s a lot of moving pieces.

John Andoh:  You’re exactly right.


Ame Sanders:  So, one question I have just listening to all of this is how do you manage to communicate this to your community? Because this is, I mean, you have some great catchy names, I’ll give you that, but how do you help people understand [00:33:00] which program is right for them and how they can use it to meet their needs?

John Andoh:  So, we have a mobility manager, and her focus is to promote all of these programs that help people understand the family of services we provide. And help them understand what service is most appropriate for them. We also just developed our first marketing plan in 15 years. And that marketing plan has set up appropriate strategies on how we’re going to increase brand awareness, increase awareness of our services and our goals and the strategies that we’re going to implement to the awareness, to the general public.

It is a lot, and it is different. Most people are just used to the bus coming down the street and going to a bus stop. And putting their fair and then taking a seat. Now we’re trying to tell people that that bus may not necessarily be available to you because it doesn’t make sense for us to do the bus. You may have a door-to-door shuttle that will come [00:34:00] and get you, or you get into a private car. You may ride a bicycle. We’re even sitting on a micro-mobility panel with the city to discuss possibly implementing scooters in downtown. So, I might be utilizing a scooter. So, we want to make sure that we’re doing the appropriate model for the appropriate areas within our service area.

Nicole McAden:  I think it’s one thing to advertise and market the programs and make sure that the, the community is aware of all the different resources that the Comet has to offer. But John, could you talk a little bit about how well the community feels they’re being served? So just maybe talk a little bit about all of these new options. What’s that reception been like amongst the community.

John Andoh:  From going to community meetings, following social media, talking with various elected officials, community [00:35:00] leaders, the positive is very receptive. They feel that the Comet is being more responsive to the ever-changing demands of Richland and Lexington Counties, and that we’re trying to be different and unique and, and creative, and they’re actually liking these opportunities. And I think the most successful of all of the pilots has been Comet to the Market. Just trying to come up with a quick low-cost solution to get people healthier access to fresh food. When they’re, when everyone’s trying to figure out how we can get grocery stores into these areas when grocery stores weren’t willing to go. Now, being able to bring people to the grocery stores has really given us great credit, and I think we’ve gotten a lot of publicity locally, but also regionally on this.

-Advice and Closing

Ame Sanders:  [00:36:00] So a lot of the listeners to the podcast are people who are trying to think about solutions for their own communities. What can they do for their own community to make it more inclusive and equitable and to learn from what other communities like yours are doing? What advice would you give to another community who’s trying to improve their own transit systems? What would you tell them about thinking beyond the big bus and making transportation partnerships? So, what advice would you give them?

John Andoh:  I think in our case, hold listening sessions throughout your community. We did 26 listening sessions all across Richland and Lexington Counties, where I just went with our marketing person and we basically just listened to what the community wanted in a public transit system and gathered a ton of ideas and suggestions on [00:37:00] how a system like the Comet could help them get from point A to point B. We analyzed those suggestions and then it allowed us to help set the framework for creating the programs that we’ve created. I found that to be very effective.

And then also looking at your network, and then looking at how well your network is performing, whether it’s traditional bus, or demand response, or both. And determining is it performing at the most optimal levels that you want it to be performing at? And if it’s not, then what could you do differently to get it to the most optimal levels of efficiency. As, you know, transit funding is not indefinite, it is very finite. There are so many needs, but so little dollars. So, by creating alternative programs that may be lower cost and that can carry more people than the traditional way of moving people could be a good solution. But it takes really studying your [00:38:00] system and understanding how people are using your system. And if people are not using their system, why they’re not using your system, and what could you do differently to get them to use your system?

Ame Sanders:  Okay, so listen and then optimize what you have.

John Andoh:  I think to also be bold, be ready to admit failure. Not, every program is expected to work or is going to work. If it doesn’t work, be ready to adjust and make changes as quickly and as reasonably as possible without being disruptive to those that are depending on programs. Yeah.

Ame Sanders:  That’s some good points of advice.

So, John, like, do anything you want to tell our listeners that we haven’t touched on?

John Andoh:  Gosh. Well, we’re doing so much. As we go into our next phase of some of the newer things that we’ll be doing in 2020, like we’re going to be doing a volunteer driver program and a subsidized taxi program for people that live [00:39:00] outside the DART service area.

We’re going to be enhancing our real-time transit information. Yeah. I’d be happy to talk more about technology in the future, if that’s of interest.

Ame Sanders:  That’s already a lot for today. We’ve covered a lot of different topics and I just want to say I’m really grateful to you to take some time today to go through this with us and share this with our audience and also I’m just wanting to tell you, I wish you the very best in the Midlands. You’re out there setting an example in South Carolina, but I think it’s important that the folks who are in these areas where you have more funding and more opportunity to experiment, the more we can learn from you guys and transplant that to other parts of the state, that’s really helpful. So, thank you for being out there forging the way for some of us and we wish you the very best with the projects that you have going on. And again, thank you for your time today. [00:40:00]

John Andoh:  Thank you asking me. I really appreciate it.

Ame Sanders:  I’d like to also thank Nicole McAden for joining me today. Wow. We covered a lot of territory.

Have you been discouraged about transportation in your community? In our interview with John Andoh, we learned that if you are bold, willing to try new things, willing to accept that they won’t all work, but remain focused and listen to your community, you can make a big impact in a relatively short amount of time.

This has been State of Inclusion. Join us again next time, and if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others.

Thanks so much.


Guest: John Andoh

Contributor: Nicole McAden

Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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