Three officials part of attempt to change the T’s culture

Three officials part of attempt to change the T’s culture

Agency trying to shed its 'insular and slow-moving bureaucracy'

Photographs by Frank Curran

WHEN BRIAN SHORTSLEEVE took over as chief administrator of the MBTA in August 2015, he wanted to shake things up. The former managing director at the Cambridge venture capital firm General Catalyst saw the T as “a very insular and slow-moving bureaucracy,” so over about 18 months he replaced about half of the top management team, hiring mostly younger people from the private sector.

Shortsleeve, who now serves on the board overseeing the T, enticed the new recruits by giving them a lot of responsibility and telling them he was trying to create a culture of innovation at the agency. He urged them, as well as everyone else at the T, to do something that’s fairly rare in state government—to experiment, to innovate, and, if something doesn’t work, to try something else.

“The culture in any organization begins with the people,” he says. “You need leaders in the field driving the agenda.”

I talked to three of those leaders, two men who were hired by Shortsleeve and a woman who was already at the MBTA when he arrived. All three are playing key roles in the MBTA’s efforts to turn the transit authority around in the wake of the early 2015 snowstorms that crippled the agency and put Gov. Charlie Baker on the hook for improving it.

David Block-Schachter, 40, was brought in as the agency’s chief technology officer in February 2016. It’s his second stint at the T. He joined the agency initially in early 2014 as director of research and analytics, but left after just a few months to take the job of chief technology officer at Bridj, a startup that sought to create an on-demand bus service. Block-Schachter bailed from Bridj and returned to the T just a couple months before the company shut down.

His focus these days is on replacing the T’s existing fare collection system with one that will accept payment by fare card, credit card, or smartphone on all modes of travel. The new system will also dispense with cash payments on board buses and Green Line trains, which should speed up travel. Block-Schachter, who has a PhD in transportation from MIT and makes $175,000 a year, structured the deal as a public-private partnership where the vendor must build and start operating the system before receiving any compensation.

From left, David Block-Schachter, Laurel Paget-Seekins, and Ben Schuster of the MBTA.

Ben Schutzman, 30, came to the T in August 2016 on a fellowship program run by his alma mater, Harvard Business School. After a year learning the ropes, Schutzman was named director of innovation at the MBTA and put in charge of revamping the agency’s $100 million paratransit service, called the RIDE. It’s been an uphill struggle since he arrived, as the operator of the RIDE’s call center turned out to be a bust and is now in the process of being replaced.

One bright spot, however, was a new service allowing paratransit customers to use Uber and Lyft to get around. The ride-hailing apps saved the T money on a per-ride basis and offered paratransit customers a lot more convenience. In the end, however, the T didn’t save any money because the service proved to be so popular that any savings from using the apps was offset by much greater usage. Schutzman lives in the South End and makes $135,000 a year.

Laurel Paget-Seekins is the head of research at the T. She’s 37 (the same age as the cars on the Orange Line, she notes) and someone who kicked around quite a bit before settling at the T late in 2014. She spent three or four years doing “random things” in Washington, Baltimore, and Oakland after attending college at Oberlin, before heading to Atlanta to earn a PhD in urban planning and civil engineering from Georgia Tech. She also spent some time traveling abroad, and accepted fellowships in Germany and Chile.

It was in Atlanta that she met Beverly Scott, who ran that city’s transit agency and would go on to run the MBTA. Scott gave Paget-Seekins, who currently earns $120,000 a year, the job that would bring her to Boston.

All three of the T executives want nothing to do with car ownership. Schutzman got rid of his car a year and a half ago. He walks to work and gets around using the T, Uber, Lyft, and the occasional rental car. Paget-Seekins lives in Jamaica Plain and rides her bike to work or takes the T. Block-Schachter, who grew up in Manhattan and now lives in Cambridge’s Inman Square, says he didn’t learn to drive until just before his wife gave birth to twins, who are now 7 years old.

“We’ve owned our car for two and a half years and I’ve driven it once. My wife said to never drive it again. I’m a very bad driver,” he says, providing a hint of his self-deprecating humor. “I don’t ride my bike. I get around on the T and I walk, and every once in awhile I get a ride from my wife when she’s being nice, like to the grocery store.”

We took our photos of Block-Schachter, Schutzman, and Paget-Seekins at the Green Line’s Boylston Station using as background props two vintage subway cars from the 1920s and the 1950s. Afterwards, we walked to the Transportation Building and chatted in a conference room in Block-Schachter’s work area on the third floor. We were joined by the T’s press spokesman, Joe Pesaturo, who sometimes interjected comments into the conversation, which has been edited for space.

— BRUCE MOHL

 

COMMONWEALTH: So I wanted to talk to you because you’re all on the youngish side working at a transit agency known for being old and stodgy.

DAVID BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Wait a minute, you looked at me when you said that. I’m immature, I think that’s the word.

CW: Does the perception of the T as old and stodgy apply to the personnel as well as the equipment?

BEN SCHUTZMAN: The perception is real, at least on the outside. I shared a similar perception before I got here.

CW: How did Brian Shortsleeve convince you to join the T?

SCHUTZMAN: He said there was an entrepreneurial culture here that he was trying to build. It was really about going out and trying to solve the challenges for the customers and bringing in smart, talented folks to work with the great people that were already here. He wanted to bring in new ideas and new ways of doing business. That’s not to say he was looking for young talent or old talent, but looking for new talent with a fresh perspective on things. Brian is a pretty good salesman, and I think to get this opportunity in an entrepreneurial environment was definitely something that I was interested in.

CW: David, this is your second stint at the T, right?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Yeah, the first one lasted only about three months. I’m a lot longer into this one. I worked at Bridj after the first three-month stint here. Joe, by the way, called it a traveling circus.

JOE PESATURO: I didn’t use those words. But to tell you how short his first stint was, when the Globe called and asked me about us losing David, I said: Who are you talking about? So I had to ask around.

CW: What’s the difference between a startup like Bridj and a place like the T?

David Block-Schachter, the MBTA’s chief technology officer.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: There’s two different things. In the private sector, especially in the startup world, you’re creating something from nothing at all, which means you don’t have the technology backbone or some of the legacy technology that you’re dealing with here. You also don’t have a customer base. There’s something very exciting about reimagining a world where you’re not beholden to the world that exists. A big part of what we have to do here is create a world that doesn’t attempt to create the best thing that we could possibly do. It’s how do you transition from the world that we are in to the world that’s going to be when we’re serving 1.3 million trips every day. It’s a gigantic different set of challenges.

CW: Just as Shortsleeve convinced you to return, how do you convince the people that work for you to join the T?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: A lot of the folks sitting back there [points to the office behind him] are people who would never have thought of working at the T. They’re working in technology. They’re engineers. They’re product managers. They’re designers. They wouldn’t consider working here because of that public perception, and they get here and meet the other young talent that’s working here and they see that it’s different. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t still some of that stodginess. It also doesn’t mean that some of the people who have been here for 20 years aren’t the most talented people I know. Change doesn’t come about because you bring in new talent. It happens because you work with what’s already there. That’s the challenge of government, taking what exists and turning it into something, which means you have to know what exists and you have to embrace it for its strengths and its weaknesses.

CW: Laurel, how did you end up here?

LAUREL PAGET-SEEKINS: I knew Bev Scott [who later became the T’s general manager] in Atlanta, when I was doing my PhD at Georgia Tech. I got David’s job when he left. I formally, officially started in December of 2014, right before a lot of transition-turnover-snow happened. That actually provided a really big opportunity for me to take a leadership role in that moment of transition. I had been around so I knew a little bit about how things worked and when there were new folks coming in with the administration I was able to step up in that moment. So some amount of where I’m at in the agency has to do with that timing.

CW: What was your expectation for the T when you arrived?

PAGET-SEEKINS: This is my first job in the public sector, and I think I underestimated the complexity of everything that we do. How complex all of our systems are, all of our infrastructure and IT systems and everything. But also the policy implications. We change one thing, it touches everything else in our organization. And how many individual departments need to coordinate with so many other departments to move something forward just because we’re all interconnected as an agency. There’s no way any one person could understand all of the rules, all of the jobs here, all of the complexity of the organization. So figuring that out, figuring out the relationships that you need to have to be able to understand how what I’m going to do is going to impact David or Ben or somebody else, it’s really critical and it’s something I didn’t expect from the outside.

CW: David, what’s your biggest frustration about working at the T?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Ben.

CW: No, seriously.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: It can be hard to move as quickly as you want to move, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are structures in place that keep us from doing stupid things fast. And that can be a good thing. With the fare collection project, we’re very proud that we’ve gotten as far as we’ve gotten in two years, and that we’ve structured it so two years from now it will be launched. But that’s four years. That feels frustratingly long. It’s very quick, I’m told, for the scale and scope of what we’re doing, but the challenges before us and the customer’s needs are so great that it’s frustrating when something takes four years.

CW: What do you mean by structures in place?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: That’s what our procurement department is there for, to keep us from doing something stupid fast. But that also means that we can’t do something really smart fast, and that we have to go through all those things that are there to prevent fraud and abuse and waste or from us just getting a really, really bad vendor.

CW: Does the bureaucracy at the T bring it down?

Laurel Paget-Seekins, the MBTA’s director of research.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER : Look, things here aren’t the way they are because people are incompetent or stupid or don’t care. They’re there because to run a system as complex as ours with as many people riding it every day requires…well, there’s a chaos to it. These decisions have been made to tame some of that chaos on a day-to-day basis. When you say, why aren’t you doing this thing that’s very simple, there’s usually a very good reason for it. It’s because it works. Whether it works as well as it could is a different question.

PAGET-SEEKINS: And it’s hard to take risks when it could impact that many people.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: A lot of the people who have come in over the course of the last two years, if there’s any difference at all, it’s that they’re more attuned to being able to fail small quickly in order to get to the bigger win. You might have started that way 10 years ago, but the longer you’re here the more you know the things that aren’t going to work, which means the less likely you are to try stupid things that may end up really working well. So in some ways being here 10 years can become a little bit of a disadvantage.  You learn about the complexity over time and in some ways start to take fewer risks now than you would. I know that I probably do fewer stupid things now than I did two years ago, maybe to the detriment.

SCHUTZMAN: I was going to say the same thing. I can just hear myself sometimes when staff are talking to me about, well, what about this idea? I’m walking it over in my mind and it’s like I’ve seen that pattern before and at least in that case it led to a failure or it didn’t work. It is trying to bridge that gap between helping people not to fail when you have a high level of confidence what they’re trying to do will fail again, but still allowing that experimentation, still allowing that smart risk-taking. That’s something we brought in in the first place but we need to keep nurturing it as well.

CW: Ben, how many people work for you?

SCHUTZMAN: 15 to 16 people.

CW: Laurel, how about you?

PAGET-SEEKINS: Six full-time employees and six interns or coops.

CW: David?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: I’d say I have between 100 to 120 people working for me. A lot of my staff is working on specific projects and are unlikely to be at the T when those projects end.

CW: Do you have enough money for your department?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: No. I’m very proud that we’ve been able to reduce the operating budget of my department 20 percent over the last two years. That being said, one of the things that we have to look at as an organization is where will we invest in the operating budget as we’re transforming ourselves. I always want more money, but I think it has to be targeted towards parts of the organization that didn’t exist before. So building out an operational technology team rather than technology that comes and builds capital projects and then goes away is something we’re struggling with as an organization as a whole.

SCHUTZMAN: I probably don’t need more money. To a certain extent, at the end of the day, the RIDE provides service to all customers who want to take trips. I would like to provide the service more efficiently, and provide more trips to customers for that same level of service. Internally with staff, I want to make sure that they’re able to recruit the right staff that we need to execute on some very ambitious goals and initiatives going forward.

PAGET-SEEKINS: I have one of the smallest budgets of all the departments in the T. It’s pretty fine for what we do. If we took on more work, we’d have to add to that.

CW: What about the T as a whole. There’s a huge philosophical debate about whether the T needs to keep doing better with what it has, or whether it needs more money to do what it needs to do.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: I don’t think they’re diametrically opposed at all. In a Venn diagram there is a combination between those two, which is to say you should sharpen your pencils and become more efficient and also invest in key areas in order to provide better service. Those two things are not oppositional.

SCHUTZMAN: I would add that it’s important in my mind that I’m running the service I’m running now and making that better and enhancing that for customers but looking to where I want to invest to take the next step.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: The Uber and Lyft pilot is a great example.  Did it save a lot of money for the T? No. But it significantly improved those people’s lives. That’s really the combination of doing more and getting more efficient at the same time. They’re not all going to be exactly that same way and come to that close break-even point, but that’s why I don’t think they’re diametrically opposed. The better we get at what we do, the better we are, the more things we can do better for people.

CW: But what about expansion of the existing T system?

PESATURO: If you’re talking about expansion projects, I think that’s above their heads.

CW: Why?

PESATURO: These three don’t decide where the transportation system will be expanded.

CW: So is it a top-down organization then?

PESATURO: They all have roles.

CW: What about the Monday meetings of the Fiscal and Management Control Board? Are they a pain in the ass or a good use of all the time they take?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Yes.

CW: Can you elaborate a bit?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Look, they’re a good thing because the board is willing to listen and to engage.

SCHUTZMAN: It’s a yes and a yes for me around the value but also the amount of effort that goes into the board meetings. The value, again, comes from keeping the pace going.  It’s sometimes attractive to not be in the limelight and just get work done, which would be really valuable. But when you have to come up once a month or once a quarter or three weeks in a row because you’re talking about a really critical important issue, it drives the business to get things done. But then it also publicly shows very transparently that the T is working on these issues versus it just happening behind closed doors.

Ben Schutzman, director of innovation and the person in charge of paratransit service at the T.

CW: Ben and Laurel, I noticed you were sitting at the control board meeting the other day just watching.

SCHUTZMAN: I was down there—I think Laurel was, too—because the budget was being discussed. At times when the budget’s being discussed that’s an obvious one because it can touch on a lot of the organization. Also, public comment is a place to hear from the stakeholders. We may hear them through other channels, but the comment period provides another opportunity to hear what people really care about and what they want to tell the board. Or you hear what the board says in a second-hand comment and then they ask Laurel to come up and say a few words.

CW: How much freedom are you given to do your job?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Obviously during different stages of different projects there are different levels of oversight. But it’s a culture that Brian really started as a manger, which is very entrepreneurial. If there is something to be done, go out and do it. Don’t wait for permission to do it. Don’t wait for the approval process. Go out and figure out what needs to be done. With fare collection, once you get into the contractual financial terms, there’s a lot of oversight into everything that you do, as well there should be. This is an important thing to the organization. But in terms of what we’ve been able to do over the course of the last few years, we were allowed to run with it and pull in resources as we needed them to make this happen and to really figure what those priorities were and make sure those are the right priorities. Just to go at it.

CW: Did you make the decision on structuring the new fare collection system as a public-private partnership?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: I think a lot of that was me. A lot of that was in conversations with Brian. We were determined to figure out different ways of doing it. Speed was a big part of it, but there were two big factors there. One was completion time, having a contractor with skin in the game in terms of getting something done quickly we knew would be really important. Making sure there was a guaranteed date and they don’t get paid until they do it. The other piece was making sure there was a performance regime [meaning the company would have to meet performance targets once the system was up and running in order to get paid]. Coming at it with those two pieces, a public-private partnership is an obvious way to deal with both at the same time.

CW: Ben, you work under Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager. How much freedom does he give you?

SCHUTZMAN: Jeff is like any other boss. When you need advice or support to get approval for certain things, that’s what he’s there for. But otherwise it is my responsibility to make sure the RIDE gets close to hitting budget and, most importantly, serves its customers dealing with all the different operational challenges confronting a $100 million business serving about 6,000 to 7,000 trips every single day.

CW: Things have not always gone well with the RIDE of late, particularly with the vendor. Yet T management still seems to have faith in you.

SCHUTZMAN: I took over the RIDE less than a year ago at this point, so I stepped in when things were not working so well with GCS [Global Contact Services, the vendor] and that’s right when on-time performance slipped. I would say I’ve been leading the turnaround and the improvement of the RIDE since then.

CW: Laurel, do you feel like you’re pulling the T into the 21st century?

PAGET-SEEKINS: It started before I got here around trying to collect better data and use data in different ways and analyze it and use it to drive decisions. We’re constantly trying to improve on it. The transportation secretary [Stephanie Pollack] obviously puts high value on data and how we think about it and how we analyze it. There will constantly be improvements to data quality, particularly because we’re often using data as a byproduct of our operating systems. The fare collection system – the one we have now—is designed primarily to collect fares. So the data is a byproduct of that. The new fare collection system will help with that, but it still won’t be perfect data.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Perfect.

PAGET-SEEKINS: It’s never going to be perfect.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: It’s going to be perfect.

PAGET-SEEKINS: It’s never going to be perfect. But a huge part of what my team does is think about what level of uncertainty are we comfortable with presenting and how good is good enough. We’ve got to make sure we’re doing due diligence to make sure we’re getting it as accurate as possible.

CW: How about you, Ben? Are the tools you’re using cutting edge?

SCHUTZMAN: One of the things that drew me to the RIDE, unlike a lot of the fixed route systems, is that it already has a lot of data generated about where the trips are going, where customers are picked up and dropped off. It’s a different challenge than the challenge that Laurel’s working with, which is, one, do we have the data in the first place and then, two, how reliable is it. At the RIDE we know the answers to those first two questions and now we’re trying to use the data to better design our pilots, like we have with Uber and Lyft, or better design our next contracts.

CW: I saw on your LinkedIn page that you once worked at Uber. Did you start the Uber and Lyft pilot at the RIDE?

SCHUTZMAN: It was started before I came in, and I came in when the contracts were actually being signed. I would say a little bit of that experience [at Uber] and past experiences at companies I’ve consulted with, I have tried to bring a little bit of that to the T, including testing new concepts out in small ways, piloting them, tracking the data, seeing what the data tells you about whether it’s successful or not, and then cutting things off if they don’t work. So I would say some of the processes I’ve used in the past I’ve brought in and tried to use them at the T.

CW: David, the title of your PhD thesis was “Hysteresis and Urban Rail: The Effect of Past Urban Rail on Current Residential and Travel Choices.” What was that about?

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: Have you read the whole thing?

CW: I haven’t.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: You’re probably waiting for the movie. The idea is that Boston has this incredible endowment, which comes from where our rail system was. That is, around the beautiful streetcars that existed running throughout Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and the surrounding areas. The question is from that, how have they in fact shaped the city? That’s the beautiful thing about doing a PhD, because you can do something that’s so esoteric or it can be completely and totally useless.

PAGET-SEEKINS: Hey, I’m using mine.

BLOCK-SCHACHTER: [Back to describing his thesis] Can you actually measure the effects of where streetcars once were on the environment in terms of density, in terms of car ownership? And how many people in those areas are taking transit even though those streetcars aren’t there any more? They’ve been replaced by bus lines or they’re completely gone. It’s a fascinating way to spend a couple years. You learn a lot about urban history.

CW: Laurel, what was your thesis on?

PAGET-SEEKINS: It goes back to why I got into transportation, realizing there are competing goals for public transit systems. Environmental goals are to get people out of their cars and ride transit. Also, there are social equity goals of serving people who don’t have access to cars. Sometimes those are seen as different types of service, but where is the overlap of what is the network design and operational characteristics of public transit agencies that serve both of those goals at the same time? So I focused on two variables. One is trip purpose. If you’re going to be using public transit for all of your trips whether it’s a choice or not—it’s not just the work trip, but all of the trips—how is the service designed to enable people to take all of their trips on public transit. And then nonmotorized access, being able to get to transit without having to drive to a park-and-ride lot. This is based on my experience in Atlanta, where the park-and-ride lot there is different than it is here. So I looked at 17 transit agencies around the US, in terms of what drove those characteristics. It still informs my thinking about ridership here.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

CW: It seems like you really enjoy talking about your work.

PAGET-SEEKINS: I love talking about my job. When I tell people I work at the T, they’re always interested because everyone rides it. It’s hard to find anyone that hasn’t had some exposure to the T.