"...as the reach of technology is changing, and there are more possibilities for private sector involvement, there needs to be an equal level of competence, skill, and vision on the public sector side."
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) provides over 1.4 million journeys a day across greater Boston through its subway and commuter trains, buses and ferries. And there’s a strong case that its riders are the most educated and technologically-savvy of anywhere in the world. Over 50 colleges and universities can be found within the Boston metropolitan region, including the world renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard. Plus the city now hosts a rapidly growing start-up scene as well as being a home to major international technology companies.
This heady mix of expertise aboard its trains, buses and ferries has however failed to daunt this week’s interviewee, David Block-Schachter, who became Chief Technology Officer at the MBTA in February of this year. David took time out of his busy schedule to catch up with our Editor Luke Upton to discuss creating a start-up culture within a transit agency, the challenges of taking a longer-term view and why growing up in Manhattan gave him a perfect start to a career in transport ...
Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today, so as we always open with, how did you get into working in transit?
David Block-Schachter (DB-S): No problem Luke, I was working for a variety of digital marketing agencies in the early 2000s, and decided I wanted to do something that I cared deeply about. I’m a native New Yorker, I never learnt to drive a car, I realized the only thing I was vaguely competent at was taking the subway. On my way to growing more competent, I ended up getting a few degrees in Urban Planning and Systems Engineering from MIT. After a number of years focused on research, I ended up at a small start-up called Bridj working with smart shuttles, and then found my way to the MBTA.
LU: Eight months into the new job, how’s it been so far?
DB-S: It’s been fascinating, there’s been a new administration here and they are really serious about running the MBTA ( @ ) as a customer focussed business. In both senses, the customer part and the business part. Which for me is perfect. Because it’s really at the heart of what I have come here to do, which is to figure out how new technology can improve the customer experience.
LU: It’s early days still, but what drew you to the role and what do like most about your job?
DB-S: Prior to the MBTA I spent a few years in the start-up world with a company called Bridj ( @ ). One of the things I realized there was that as the reach of technology is changing, and there are more possibilities for private sector involvement, there needs to be an equal level of competence, skill, and vision on the public sector side. After talking to the leadership team at the MBTA I became convinced that there was a unique opportunity to join a team dedicated to transforming an Authority. I know when I go to work every day, that there are 1.4 million daily trips I get to touch, and that even the smallest things I do with my team can improve their lives in a measurable way. That’s fun!
LU: What’s the biggest challenge in your role?
DB-S: When you work in a small start-up, you focus a lot on how the world is going to look in 6 months’ time, and you have the tools to make change the organization quickly. When you work at a large public agency, decisions take longer to implement and bring to fruition, as they should, and you need to focus on the levers you can use to make change 3-5 years in the future. That means much more focus on technology standards and methods of procurement - on the strategic decisions - and less time spent on the tactical decisions. You have to think a lot about where the world will be in five years’ time, not three months.
LU: I like the idea of you effectively being a start-up within the MBTA, how have you been recruiting the team for it?
DB-S: Principally by recruiting people who otherwise would have gone to a commercial start-up! We perhaps don’t work at the pace of start-up but in what we lose a little in speed, we make up for in reach and the sense of giving something back to the public. The people we do get have been fantastic, the best of the best, civic-minded people who can also just do the work. It’s a pleasure to be around them.
LU: We’ve already touched on timescales and planning, but what do you think will be some of the biggest differences between transit now and in 10 years’ time?
DB-S: Full circle journey planning. Right now, when a customer takes a journey, they often have three different types of tools they interact with. One for search and discovery - think Google Maps or Transit App - one for payment and boarding - either a mag stripe or first generation smart card like in Boston, or a contactless credit or debit card like in London or Chicago (and soon to be Boston!) - and one for post payment navigation. The more those apps are part of an ecosystem where the customer - and the agency - have seamless experience, the better that experience can be, and the better data agencies can have to plan those journeys.
LU: And finally, as we always ask, what’s your favourite rail journey?
DB-S: Growing up in Manhattan, the subway meant freedom. Taking the Lexington Avenue line to middle school, when I was eleven years old, will always have a soft place in my heart. But now, I'm a homer. I love my daily commute on the Red Line from Central Square in Cambridge to Park Street. It takes less than 10 minutes on the subway, and I get to walk through Boston Common on one end - what could be better?
LU: Many thanks for the time today David! Looking forward to hearing more in New Jersey in October.
5 minutes with… You? Each Friday the team here at SmartRail World will bring you a great new 5 minutes with... interview. This fun, fast-paced feature will help you get to know more about personalities across the industry, their ideas and experiences and of course their own favourite rail journey! Want to take part? Email: email@example.com to find out more.
You may also be interested in reading these recent 5 Minutes with: Dr. Joshua L. Schank, Chief Innovation Officer at LA Metro and Shyam Kannan, Managing Director of Planning at WMATA.