John Lewis CEO of LYNX
Jobs in a region depend on the ability of the workforce to get from their place of origin to their place of business, economically and efficiently. It is true from the entry-level position to those at the pinnacle of success and power. That is the fundamental reality of transportation, and it forms the circulatory system that makes economic life – from work to education to recreation – possible. Last year, Lynx carried 30.1 million passengers, up from 26 million just four years ago. With SunRail a reality and the I-4 corridor construction soon beginning, those 105,000 people who utilize Lynx every day will only rise. We sat down with John Lewis, CEO of Lynx, to discuss where the future is taking us.
EW: What was it that drew you to the industry?
JL: I was always attracted to government service. Right out of college, I went to work on Capitol Hill for the senator from Maryland, Barbara Mikulski, and I focused on transportation and infrastructure. That is where I saw its impact on everything from economic development to education to public health – it all was linked to tires on the road. People have to get to places, whether that is work or pleasure, and it all came down to trains, planes, ships and automobiles. That is what captured me.
However, the wheels of Congress grind slowly, so I moved over to Maryland DOT. I did policy and capital planning, but I wanted to be where the action was. So I moved into operations, first with a highway project, then into transit. I loved the opportunity to measure what you do on a daily basis – few people have that.
EW: What brought you to Orlando?
JL: Central Florida was attracting everything; it was the place where everyone wanted to come and I wanted to be in the middle of that, because it was going to be at the epicenter of what is happening in transportation. You can’t find another place where they are making the kind of infrastructure investment that they are here. When I came down, I looked around and said, ‘This is the time to be here, as this area is really taking off.’
EW: Strategically, what is the greatest obstacle or barrier to Lynx’s success?
JL: There is one barrier: dedicated funding to public transit. In Baltimore, I covered the city and three counties. I had 1,600 vehicles and 4,000 drivers. In Orlando, along with three counties, I have more territory with only 300 buses. In Maryland we had dedicated funding that enabled you to bond or borrow. You could do things to grow your system, because you had the ability to plan. Here I have had to get good at begging, each and every year. We have fantastic partners in these governments, but I have to compete with police, firemen and education, and it can be hard.
What has driven Lynx’s growth is demand. If we put a product out there that meets the public need, they will make their decision based on their wallets. We have had almost 30 percent growth in three years, without what I would call ‘created growth’ where we were adding vast new territory to our system. This is organic growth; it is responding to public demand.
EW: Most metro areas in the northeast are built around public transportation options. What will it take to see that happen in Florida?
JL: It is happening in Florida. When you go from 26 to 30 million riders, it is happening. In what I call ‘the legacy systems’ of the northeast or Chicago, people use public transportation because it is more efficient than getting in a car and sitting on a highway for hours inching your way to your destination.
Here, congestion hasn’t been an issue. With I-4 construction, that will change, but the demographic changes will be here forever. Baby Boomers are moving out of the workforce and they are living longer and are well prepared for that next phase. These people are active; many want to live in urban environments and they prefer to not drive. On the other side are Millennials who want to live, work and play in the same area.
When I was 16, I counted the days and minutes until I could get my drivers license. Young people today are waiting months and even years. For example, my 16-year-old daughter has zero interest in getting her license; they socialize on electronic media, not by driving to the mall. In the 80s when I got my license, 80 percent had their license within six months of turning 16. Now, it is less than 50 percent. It is not how they define independence.
What is driving our ridership are kids and Baby Boomers, but it is a window where we have to meet the demand, and we have challenges.
EW: How is technology a part of that transition and changing the way you do business?
JL: Here is the challenge: how do we build systems that makes sense to both those demographics? The LYMMO system downtown makes it very easy. It is essentially a big loop, and worst case scenario is you miss your stop and go around, so you won’t end up in the outlands.
If you are a Millennial or teenager and you can get anything you want in the palm of your hand, you aren’t going to look through a schedule book. We’ve invested in real-time updates for our LYMMO services, five minutes away, two-minute wait, etc. Our mobile site enables people to check options. People’s time is their most precious commodity, and we can’t waste people’s time if we’re going to keep them as customers. We started that with LYMMO and will expand it throughout our system.
The next phase, starting this year, is revising how people pay for our system. LYMMO is free so that isn’t an issue, but people don’t want to carry exact change. They want to pay the same way they do at Starbucks. We have to catch up to that mobile technology. Cash is not how people make transactions anymore. Technology is revising how you make use of our services and how you pay for it.
EW: If you had an unlimited budget what would you do?
JL: That is an easy answer. Getting back to our biggest challenge, the organic, latent demand is there, so we’d like to have an opportunity to provide more options. More than half our routes are on a 45-minute loop, so if you miss the bus and you have to wait 45 minutes to an hour, and it’s July or raining sideways, you aren’t going to risk it. From an efficiency standpoint, it doesn’t work. If I could wave a wand, I would have no route where the wait is longer than 20 minutes, and 15 would be optimal. That is the difference between the northeast and here. In Baltimore, we didn’t worry about schedules because if you miss one, another would be there in five to 10 minutes, max.
EW: You get public funding, just like any other infrastructure need. What percentage of your budget comes from that source?
JL: Lynx has one of the highest farebox recovery percentages in the country. We are at 33 percent, but of course that means 67 percent comes from other sources. Our goal is to get to 50 percent.
EW: What will it take to do that?
JL: First, more frequent services where the demand exists. In the urban core, we shouldn’t have a route that is greater than 15 minutes. We have to be surgical where the service is needed the most. We are also diversifying our fleet, with neighbor link services, which use smaller shuttles, like the airport, to circulate within the community and connect you to a hub. If you lower cost of vehicle, you don’t have a large bus chugging down a street. I could double my fleet and absorb it overnight.
EW: You mentioned these demographic trends, but what else is driving change?
JL: I-4 by necessity will change how people think about their commute. In Los Angeles, they coined the term ‘Carmageddon.’ The project has to be done, and infrastructure is a pain people have to endure.
SunRail is a major portion of that; they can get people downtown, but what happens when you get off the train? It’s the same with All Aboard Florida. What happens when you get off the train at MCO? That is where Lynx comes in. Now we can compete with the car commute. People’s time is their most important commodity.