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Voice of on-demand transit: Barkha Patel

We’re proud to feature a few movers and shakers in the field of microtransit, who are paving the way for mobility innovation for their communities.

Via Transportation •

Spotlight on: Barkha Patel, Director of Infrastructure at the City of Jersey City, New Jersey. She previously served as Deputy City Manager and Director of Transportation Planning after receiving a Masters in City and Regional Planning from Rutgers University.

Barkha Patel works for one of the most densely-populated, transit-rich, and culturally diverse cities in the US. She oversees the planning, design, and implementation of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of capital improvements and infrastructure projects related to the City’s streets, transit, parks, public spaces, municipal buildings, and other public facilities. Her team also introduced the state’s first subsidized on-demand microtransit service, Via Jersey City, to the community. We caught up with Barkha to learn how innovative transportation projects became her passion.

Tell us a bit about your career path and how you navigate your professional progression as a transit leader over the years.

BP: Although transportation planning was a part of my formal training, I never intended to work in this field. I specialized in Urban Design in Planning School, but got into the transportation space solely because of my admiration and fascination with Jersey City. All of my graduate school work happened to revolve around Jersey City in one way or another. When I graduated, the only open planning position in Jersey City was for transportation. I took it because I really love this city and wanted to contribute in any way I could. At that time, I was advised by people much wiser than me not to work for the public sector. The belief was that city government could never be as fulfilling, creatively engaging, or rewarding as working for a private firm.

I think that narrative has completely changed in just a few years and our work in Jersey City has played a meaningful role in that shift. I am a woman of color working in a field where people who look like me are typically underrepresented, undermined, and undervalued. It is incredibly empowering to not only find success in this line of work, but to help change the way people conceptualize and practice city-building. Typically, transportation projects can take millions of dollars and decades of planning to implement. Our approach has been different. We’ve been innovative and proactive, approaching the city as a lab and meeting difficult challenges with bold ideas. It takes visionary leadership and conviction for any city to take on the challenge of public transit because it usually requires significant investment of funding, resources, time, etc. We are able to do it because of the unwavering commitment from our Mayor, Administration, Council, and professional staff to ensure the highest quality of life for Jersey City residents.

How many people on your team within the City work full-time on the city’s transit network? And what does your teamwork look like?

BP: There are currently three people on my transportation team – and that’s the largest it has ever been. When we first launched Via in the city, it was designed and launched by me and the City Manager at the time. Launching the service really required us to wear a lot of hats. The two of us worked on every single aspect, from designing the program and procurement to the launch, constituent services, marketing, securing funding, monitoring and evaluation, grant applications, account management, etc. The Transportation team now splits these responsibilities and works directly with the Via management team.

How did your team approach designing Via Jersey City to meet your community’s needs?

BP: Our number one priority was, and is, to improve transportation options for the transit deserts in our City. We knew this service had to work for a variety of needs and we designed it for people who rely on transit for essential trips, dropping off kids to school or child care, picking up groceries, traveling for medical appointments, commuting to work, connecting to social resources, etc. Beyond that, we wanted to restore dignity to public transit by designing a service that is comfortable, convenient, and affordable. These values are also reflected in the vehicles we chose, which are allow easy access for people using mobility devices like wheelchairs and provide space for people to store strollers, grocery bags, etc.

Could you describe your level of involvement in the day-to-day operations of Via Jersey City? Beyond using the software platform, what kind of management and support does your team get from the team at Via?

BP: The Via team handles most of the daily operations from soup to nuts. Typically our team gets more involved when there are incidents, but Via handles the majority of operational aspects – vehicle procurement, driver hiring, operation of rides, etc. The City ensures the service is compliant with our contract and meeting performance standards, but is not intimately involved with day-to-day operations. It’s a reflection of the fact that we’re a small city with a lean staff, so we don’t have the bandwidth to be involved in that. That’s a good thing about partnering with a company like Via which provides that service to us.

What inspired you and your team to think differently about transportation in Jersey City? And what led you to look for a new way to offer transportation to your community?

BP: Jersey City has one of the highest rates of transit ridership in the country. However, before launching Via JC, all transit services in the City were provided by external agencies like NJ Transit, Port Authority, and private companies like ferries, et cetera. This was a rare situation because the City had zero control over the systems that served our residents and very little influence to call for much-needed improvements.

When I started working for the City, we were focused on what we did have control over in our transportation system: our streets. We started experimenting with demonstration projects, which allowed us to test out street safety improvements like bike lanes, curb extensions, parklets, etc. in a temporary, low-cost way before investing in a permanent change. This approach was a game changer - it allowed us to quickly and effectively deliver solutions to hundreds of problem areas throughout the City. Building on the success of these projects, we decided to use a similar approach to tackle the City’s transit issues. Following the removal of several critical bus routes in the city and long-standing frustrations with existing services, residents were looking for a more efficient, reliable, and convenient transit option. We did our research on the technologies that were available in the market at the time, and started meeting with companies that offered a smart solution. Via Jersey City wasn’t designed to replace existing transit. Of course, a high-capacity fixed route system is the most efficient way of moving people from point A to point B, and we want those systems to remain and be successful in our City. But we see a lot of value of on-demand microtransit to fill in the gaps, and provide trips that might not be easy or efficient for other systems.

Travel patterns have changed drastically, especially in the context of the pandemic and the social and behavioral changes that have resulted from it. Microtransit gives us the ability to respond to change as quickly as the environment is changing, which is not an option you typically have with conventional transit.

What are your top takeaways to cities that also look to upgrade their transit system?

BP: My advice is to start small and leverage private partnerships to help with funding when possible. A major takeaway for me is that you need your tools and your vendors to have the flexibility to allow a client to change things that are not working as intended.

We’ve seen lots of successes in the partnership with Via, but were still surprised at the volume of ridership. We started small, launched the service as a pilot, and built in the ability to reconfigure and modify aspects of the service as needed. Our service has been touted as a leader in the space, as it’s one of the most successful launches just from a ridership perspective. Our goal is to continue building on that, and make sure that we improve our ability to serve people living in transit deserts.

The transparency of regular data reporting is important for us as well, as it holds us accountable whenever we need to refocus our mission. We are also able to take advantage of the data analytics that Via offers to us, which we don’t usually get from other transit agencies.

What’s your next big goal for Via Jersey City?

BP: Our big goal now is getting a sustainable funding source in place so we can continue providing this service. Now that people are so reliant on Via Jersey City for their daily needs, we need to make sure we can sustain it.

We’ve seen lots of positive impacts that the service has brought to the community, but In your view, how is Via Jersey City helping you build careers as well?

BP: I think Via Jersey City has elevated us as pioneers in the field of transit equity and innovation. It is also a unique addition to my personal portfolio. This was an opportunity to take on a transformational initiative that has positively impacted the lives of thousands of people. The unexpected advantage of working for a smaller city is the ability to have involvement and influence in multiple aspects of a big project like this. I was able to oversee every single element of Via JC and that experience has allowed me to build practical expertise that is invaluable.