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Voice of on-demand transit: Alicia Winkelblech

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: Alicia Winkelblech, Director of Transportation at the City of Arlington, Texas. After obtaining undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture and urban planning, Alicia began her transportation career at the North Central Texas Council of Governments before joining the City.

Alicia’s department handles the programming, management, and operation of the City’s two public transportation services — Via On-Demand Rideshare and the Handitran paratransit service — as well as the Arlington Municipal Airport. The department is also responsible for long-range transportation planning, autonomous vehicle initiatives, urban air mobility, and the development of new, innovative transportation solutions.

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

AW: I have been with the City for 15 years. When I began my career in Arlington, I was housed in the Planning and Development Department, but focused specifically on transportation planning. I had one staff person, but we did the work of a much larger team. Over time, I became the Assistant Director over Strategic Planning for the City with a division that was also responsible for long-range city planning, neighborhood planning and research and analytics. However, there was always a strong focus on transportation. We integrated more and more innovative mobility projects into our work plan. We were a lean team with a lot to do. The type of projects and pace of work necessitated us acting more like a startup than a city department.

In 2018, the city moved the Strategic Planning division into a new department called the Office of Strategic Initiatives (OSI) and gave me the position of Department head. During this reorganization, OSI also gained the City’s Grants Management team, which manages HUD funding the City receives.

Part of the goal in developing OSI was to allow the transportation group to move at that startup pace with a little bit less red tape. We continued to implement unique, innovative transportation projects, from work on high-speed rail planning to autonomous vehicle testing to the City’s unique transit solution with our Via On-Demand Rideshare service.

This summer, the City created a new Transportation Department, combining three distinct groups to try to streamline some of the transportation services. The department now includes all of the innovative transportation planning I worked on previously, the Via Rideshare Service, the City’s paratransit service and the Municipal Airport. I was lucky enough to become the Director of this new department. It is exciting to be a female leader in what historically has been a male-dominated field. Although there are a lot of successful women working in the space now days.

How many people on your team within the City work full-time on the transit network? What’s your involvement in the operation of Via Arlington?

AW: Our team runs a super lean operation here, so we all wear a lot of different hats.  For our Via On-Demand service, there are two of us that spend a significant amount of time on Via. However, we have a lot of different responsibilities, so we've really enjoyed our partnership with Via — it feels like we're all on the same team. We bounce ideas off of each other. The Via team offers a unique consulting arm that comes with our service, allowing us to run a little bit leaner here, yet really manage our service with a hands-on approach. Via helps us analyze how the service is doing, provides any and all data that we need and helps us think about new ways we might want to refine the service or address a challenge. That extra assistance is one of the things that we love about Via and part of why Via just won our RFP to continue the service. They can offer the turnkey solution we need, with vehicles, drivers, a software platform, customer service and in-depth analysis.

We think that contracting our transit service out to experts who can provide all of those elements is the best way for us to do things. It allows city staff to work on the bigger vision and be very strategic about how we're developing and implementing our larger transportation strategy.

What led you to look for new, innovative ways to offer transportation for your community, as opposed to going a more traditional route of a public transit agency?

AW: Historically, the residents of Arlington have not supported traditional transit solutions at the ballot box. The cost to join a transit authority was high and portions of the community were not comfortable with big buses rolling around the City. However, in 2016, our Mayor and Council recognized that Arlington’s nearly 400,000 residents needed an alternative transportation solution to personal vehicles. While we were not ready to go to the voters again to request the use of sales tax to support transit, we needed to figure out a solution to meet the needs of our residents.

Our Mayor appointed a citizens’ Transportation Advisory Committee, made up of 31 members representing a wide array of stakeholders and residents. They spent a year hearing from experts, researching different transportation modes and understanding the City’s anticipated growth patterns. In the end, they created Connect Arlington, a transportation framework for the future of mobility in Arlington. Their focus was on innovation, flexibility, scalability, and equity.

One of the recommendations was to develop an on-demand ride-share network throughout the city. On-demand transit was a much more cost-effective solution than traditional transit that could be scaled up over time. Due to the smaller price tag and contractual set-up, the city did not need to go to the voters. Instead, we were able to able to cobble together FTA funding and general funds to pay for the service as we grew it over time. We could start small, test it, and then grow it if we saw success, which was really important to us.

In 2017, we partnered with Via, starting a small rideshare service just in our downtown and university area with a connection up to the CentrePort train station, allowing access to regional transit. We saw immediate success. Over the next several years, the service grew steadily and incrementally. In January 2020, we were able to go citywide. That's the story of how we ended up where we are today.

What challenges did you run into as you brought Via Arlington to life? How did you overcome them?

AW: It’s actually been pretty smooth, introducing the service to our community. This on-demand mode allows us to see how our community is embracing and using the service, what's working and what needs to be tweaked along the way. However, a challenge for us is always just getting the word out. It's hard to get 400,000 people to know that the service exists. Even today, you run into people that don't know about it; or they've seen it, but they don't know what it is and they don't understand how to use it. So that's always a challenge. We’ve worked a lot on that with Via and have put some new strategies in place to help with this.

What are some of the key things you learned while exploring on-demand service?

AW: One of my favorite things about this on-demand mode is equity. Via Arlington has proved to be a very equitable mobility solution. Now anywhere in our 99-square mile city, residents have access to Via within a one-to-two block walk. If we were to be in a situation where we had rail lines or traditional bus lines, we would have very few of them. Unless you happened to live really close to that bus line or that rail line, you wouldn’t have public transit access.

What advice would you give to other city leaders seeking to re-invent transportation in their city?

AW: I would suggest that you first look into funding sources. We were one of the first cities in the nation to use FTA formula funds for a turnkey, contracted on-demand transportation service that serves as our primary transit solution. I think a lot of cities are probably doing it now; even though it's not traditional transit, FTA has been supportive of using formula funding in this way.

Another piece of advice I would give them is to start small. You can have a plan for growth but start small and find your success. Then grow off of that.

Lastly, you need staff that can plug in and really partner with your rideshare vendor. Even though it is a turnkey solution, there are still lots of opportunities to tweak things, improve the service, address challenges, or take advantage of opportunities.