When Nat Ford looks at this town, he sees things differently from you and me.
Where we may see our aged and mostly empty Skyway as a white elephant, he sees a valid original concept and a great foundation for updating and expansion.
Where we might see an old lady sitting on an overturned grocery cart as a pathetic homeless person, he sees a bus stop that needs development.
Where we did see the Mayport ferry as an expensive problem no one wanted to take on, he saw an essential public service that actually is more self-supporting than buses.
Where we see a college or medical-center campus with a parking and mobility problem, he sees a technology opportunity.
Where we see urban sprawl that will demand more expensive highways, he sees the potential for new transit stops that will generate smarter housing to take advantage of easy, modern transportation.
And where we may see an automobile culture that feeds traffic, parking, safety, pollution, global-warming and expense issues, he sees a systemic challenge.
Now, hitting his stride in his seventh year as the CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, Ford envisions changing the very personal relationship you have with your car. He wants you to have a choice of transportation modes, including making more use of your feet.
He is working on a system of quiet autonomous vehicles moving people efficiently in, around and out of Downtown from all over the core city, and maybe even on college campuses and St. Johns Town Center.
He sees two major Ultimate Urban Connector corridors Downtown — a Bay Street innovation corridor from the stadium to the sparkling new Regional Transportation Center and a health corridor from Baptist Medical Center straight up Main Street to UF Health Jacksonville.
Some of that is in the very near future, and you’ll be fascinated to hear what he see farther out.
But to appreciate the vision of Nat Ford, you have to get there through three inflection points in his career that brought him to Jacksonville.
Public transportation always has been an essential part of the life of Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. He was reared in Queens, N.Y., where his father, a Mississippi native, worked his way up from the New York subways track department to chief operating officer for the entire system, with tens of thousands of employees.
“All of those years,” Nat Ford remembers, “I got a front-row seat to see what transportation was all about, a system that ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and with his increasing levels of responsibility, quite often he worked 24 hours, seven days a week. I remember him answering the phone, and it was the control center for the New York City subway system, looking for him to deal with management issues, operational issues, emergencies, things of that nature. And then off he went to take care of it.”
Throughout his childhood, Nat routinely used the New York public transportation system himself.
“A lot of young people actually used the subway to get to school and activities. I used the bus, the city bus, to get to elementary school, middle school and high school.”
After he graduated early, at 16, after not having had to study much, Ford’s first year of college “may not have been one of the most successful” but, as we say, “built a lot of character … So I came back from school, and Dad was like, OK, well, you’re home, but you’re going to have to go find a job.”
Ford worked for a while as a commodity market clerk, but after a few years, he was drawn to a much higher-paying job back at the transit authority — as a union train conductor.
Over the next 10 years, perhaps inspired by his father’s success, Ford quickly worked his way up, always taking the Civil Service exam for the next higher job and winning four or five promotions. “Being unmarried, no children, that kind of thing, I was able to study a great deal,” he said. “And I was able to end up in the top 10 out of hundreds, if not thousands of competitors, for the next position.”
Ultimately he became a superintendent of district operations.
“So at that time, at the young age of my early 30s, I was managing a few thousand people and had a number of terminals and facilities and rail yards that were under my watch. A young person with a lot of responsibility.”
Along the way, Ford found his passion and his first inflection point.
“The real excitement came when I finally reached the level of train dispatcher, where I was running a terminal. I was actually, for an eight-hour period, literally processing hundreds of trains using a team of train operators, signal maintenance, things of that nature. I had the thrill of — I hate to describe it as such — but really nowadays, you see how kids are so hooked on playing these computer games. I had my entertainment every day and for an eight-hour period.
“And again, being single, I worked a great deal of overtime. So I worked double shifts, and I worked at some of the busiest terminals in the New York City transit system.
“It was a source of pride every day to move literally millions of people passing through your hands, so to speak.
“From there, I was bitten by the bug. Every day you just strive to do better than you did the last day, and you had to make split-second decisions in terms of processing trains and passengers. And the next day, that orchestra, that symphony, started all over again.”
Moving people’s lives
In 1992, Ford took his ambition on the road. He became an assistant chief transportation officer for San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit, responsible for the commuter rail between that city and Fremont. The experience taught him not only another mode of transportation but also how to work with local governments and elected officials, as the route traversed multiple jurisdictions.
After five years, Ford came south to be senior vice president of operations for the Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority, ninth largest in the country, where he expanded his band width to multi-modal operations, with more than 680 buses serving 25 million miles and a rail system with 38 stations connecting 48 miles of track. He was named CEO in 2000, leading the rehabilitation of the system and implementing the first complete passenger-fare smart cards in the country.
This experience was his second major inflection point, as Ford began to learn that public transportation is more than modes, tracks, bus stops and equipment.
He says he was profoundly influenced by his board, which included Juanita Abernathy, widow of civil-rights icon Ralph David Abernathy; Joseph Lowery, another prominent civil rights leader, and other community leaders.
“It’s shaped who I am today to a large degree in terms of my leadership attitude,” Ford said. “Up until that time, my whole focus was more performance-related terms of on-time performance, vehicles, really statistically kind of just the day-to-day blocking and tackling of making the trains run on time. They helped me truly understand the importance of transportation to the community, from an economic standpoint, from a health-care standpoint, from an equity standpoint, in terms of accessibility, to hospitals, to jobs, to college and educational opportunities.
“So that kind of spirit that I have now in what I do here at the JTA, yeah, it’s buses. And yeah, it’s the Skyway and yeah, it’s road projects, but at the end of the day, what I really preach to our staff is what does it mean, in terms of somebody’s lifestyle and generational lifestyle, and access to economic vitality and health care.”
Holism and technology
Ford returned to the West Coast for his third inflection point. In 2006, he became CEO of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and broadened his experience by being responsible for the city railway, parking and taxis.
He led the integration of the siloed system.
“The citizens actually chose to do that, because they did not like the disjointed decision-making around transportation. Transit was a No. 1 priority. But people walk, they bike, they actually park and they wanted a holistic strategy for the governance and objective, professional decision making on the balance between those different modes.”
Even more important, Ford discovered that technology could make complex systems function faster, smoother and more efficiently. The San Francisco agency launched the nation’s first parking-management system, an app that provides real-time information about parking availability.
“The idea was to cut down congestion in 48 square miles,” he said. “I have to get you in a parking spot as soon as possible. I don’t need you circling around looking for a parking spot on the street and quite often a lot of the municipal parking lots were empty. We developed an app that actually got you right to a parking spot, and if you chose, that app would also take you into a nearby municipal garage where the rates were actually lower. So we got into congestion pricing by adjusting prices to ensure that we had a certain amount of availability on the street and maximize the availability of off-street parking.”
At the same time, Ford watched the birth of ride-sharing, which became transformational. “Uber came along because of scarcity of taxis in San Francisco. While I sat there, I started getting emails about this new transportation technology using an app. We watched it, but we could not get the taxi industry to adopt credit card swipes, GPS, things that Uber leveraged and utilized to actually create a business model that has now gone through the roof.
“Technology for me has been critical in terms of its impact on transportation going forward in this industry — autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and using the Internet of things to effectively provide people better services.”
Gavin Newsom, then mayor of San Francisco and now governor of California, had expanded Ford’s responsibilities but left to become lieutenant governor in 2011.
“We had an acting mayor, and he and I decided it was time for me to move on. He was looking for commitment from me that I would not continue to look for jobs in other parts of the world. I think six years doing a job like that was enough, and it was time to get back home on the East Coast.”
Ford did independent consulting work in 2011-12. “The interesting thing about that was I got a chance to work around the country for a number of large engineering construction firms, helping them actually compete for transportation infrastructure jobs. I got a chance to spend time in a lot of cities around the U.S. working with these international firms.”
Bringing it all here
Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s public transportation system was mired in problems and controversy. A Times-Union investigation found that 258 JTA bus drivers had 1,276 criminal and driving violations since the 1970s, leading to the departure of CEO Michael Blaylock.
Ford’s name surfaced as a rising star in the world of public transportation, and he came to interview.
“During the interview process,” he remembers, “I was taking lunch or something, and I just observed this elderly lady sitting on an overturned shopping cart at a bus stop that really was just a pole in the ground, a kind of worn-down, goat-path-looking area. And I just thought that this was the place I wanted to come. This was the place to be able to improve on her experience with all the 30-plus years of experience working around the country. When I left that lunch and came back the other way, I actually saw her still sitting there almost an hour later.”
He was hired in 2012, and one of the first challenges he had to take on was a decades-old bus route structure that presumably caused that woman’s long vigil on the grocery cart.
“The philosophy at that time was, we just we put the least amount that we need to put out there, in terms of service,” Ford said. “I came from New York where I’m managing a train coming every 30 seconds to Jacksonville with a bus every 75 minutes. So it was like almost going to the moon in a lot of ways.”
With the attitude he developed in Atlanta about the impact of public transit on people’s lives, Ford led JTA into a massive restructuring of the bus system. He told the T-U editorial board in 2013: “We want a faster system, one that’s more understandable and more direct.”
After public outreach that included 14 public meetings, 19 community advisory groups, 95 community events and scores of meetings with business and civic groups, JTA launched its overhaul in 2014 — redesigning all bus routes to provide more buses more often, increasing on-time reliability, increasing service late at night and weekends, spacing bus stops more efficiently, simplifying bus-route numbering and providing riders online, real-time information on bus arrivals and departures. Improvements included almost six miles of new sidewalks and 62 new curb cuts.
“It’s definitely bold,” Ford said on a return visit to the editorial board just before the launch. “(We) couldn’t take a delicate approach to this.”
The impact was immediate, with dramatic service improvements and ridership increases by 6 percent overall and as much as 18 percent on weekends.
Looking back, Ford said, “No one across the country had ever done anything like that. Maybe with 30-plus years of experience and a little bit of New York cockiness in my mind, it was like, we’re going to do this, we’re going to be the first to do it. We’re going to take that bold risk and that bold challenge. And we did it. It has been replicated by cities all around the country now as the way for transit systems to be viable, to not ignore, but find a way to deal with the political issues around something like that. For the JTA, I think that’s what set us on the course to where we are today.”
The next year, JTA launched the First Coast Flyer, its premium bus rapid-transit service, speeding people to Downtown connections from the Beaches, northern neighborhoods and The Avenues Mall area, with the final route down Blanding Boulevard to Orange Park Mall coming in 2020. The buses offer free Wi-Fi and news and weather monitors. The sleek, aerodynamic Flyer vehicles are powered by cheaper, cleaner compressed natural gas (CNG).
In 2016, JTA took over the Mayport ferry, the service that no one else wanted because it seemed maintenance-heavy, revenue-light and politically laden. “Everyone was, like, Nat, you lost your mind. You’re the new guy who came into town, and they’re going to saddle you with the ferry,” Ford said. But he found that fares covered 50-60 percent of the cost, “better than any of the bus routes that I was running, so it’s coming closer to covering its actual cost.
“I also saw that by taking responsibility for the ferry and making it work and making it a viable part of the infrastructure, it would also give JTA the opportunity to really begin the journey of looking at transportation from a holistic standpoint. So if it moves people, be it a ferry, be it an automobile, be it public transport, and scooters and bikes at some point, we think we have a role in that. Not because we need to manage it, but we need to make sure that it’s all interconnected. And it operates harmoniously.”
The next interconnection Ford wanted was the Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center, tying together the Skyway, the bus system, Greyhound intercity service, a pedestrian overpass and, ultimately and ideally, more.
“From a walkability standpoint,” he said, “you don’t want folks walking three or four blocks with a suitcase or whatever. You want them to have close transportation connections. That’s the only way public transportation works, having close connections from one mode to the other.”
There already was a Regional Transportation Center plan when Ford arrived, but it was a $130 million to $150 million plan with a $60 million budget. He called in the planners and told them, “Give me a $60 million project. And interestingly enough, I would say the $60 million project is much more compact and iconic in design.”
You can see the striking building going up on West Forsyth just north of the Prime Osborn Convention Center. It is set to open in late March or early April.
All this relatively quick innovation and progress won Ford fans like Jeanne Miller, JTA board treasurer as well as president and CEO of the Jacksonville Civic Council, an influential organization of business and civic leaders.
“He’s a visionary,” Miller said. “He’s very, very accomplished, a stellar example of a true expert in transportation. He has a great deal of professionalism and high standards for everyone, including himself. He has raised the standards of excellence (at JTA) in all aspects.
“What Nat has brought to the entire organization is the broader view of how transportation affects the daily lives of current and future users, for example millennials … You’re carrying loved ones, you’re carrying people to their doctors’ appointments and their jobs. It’s a covenant with passengers that we will bring you from point A to point B. Transportation is an integral part of everyone’s lives, especially in Jacksonville.”
Ford’s early successes also brought national recognition. In 2016, Ford was named a White House Champion of Change in transportation innovation. That same year, JTA won the Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award of the American Public Transportation Association. Ford became chair of that organization.
The future is almost here
One of the reasons Ford sees things differently from you and me is his way of looking at old problems in new way. His team doesn’t just include transit specialists.
“A lot of folks we brought in are private-sector folks. Our head of the U2C program is from Amazon. His No. 2 is from Amazon, where they were steeped in robotics and artificial intelligence and things of that nature. We are attracting talent to the JTA that is not ‘transportation’ or ‘transit’ talent, but people who are innovative and creative, and we are excited about the energy inside this organization.”
Now that JTA has updated most of the existing transportation system, Ford wants to figure out how to create a more effective system using new technology to serve a revitalized Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
Perhaps testing the limits of his New York cockiness, Ford began to eye our most visible symbol of transportation failure: the Skyway, the 30-year-old, 2.5-mile monorail people mover that, despite being free, moves relatively few people. “I had a number of people who were whispering in my ear, when are you going to tear that thing down, you gotta tear that thing down,” he said. “You had folks who were commenting about tearing down the Skyway who have never ridden it. They didn’t realize that you have escalators, elevators, you’ve got a roof system, you’ve got a lighting system, you’ve got a lot of infrastructure. And over in Brooklyn, you have a very large control center that has been built there and a maintenance facility.”
So Ford put together a diverse advisory group that studied the Skyway and found that the original 12-mile planned route for the Skyway was remarkably similar to the current Downtown revitalization plans. And if those plans work, with many more people living in and visiting Downtown, the city will need those other roughly 10 miles of transit.
It’s clearly impractical to expand the Skyway. “Cost prohibitive, takes forever, casts shadows, all of those different issues. But you’ve got the core, you’ve got a skeleton, 2 1/2 miles that gives you time savings above the fray of automobiles. Why not leverage that?”
It turned out that the original Skyway proposal was a roadway, for rubber-tire vehicles.
“At the same time, we started hearing about this technology around autonomous (driverless) vehicles,” Ford said, “and that’s when the light bulb went off.”
What emerged was the current plan to convert the existing Skyway from monorail into roadways and, where they end, build ramps to go down to ground level to continue the roadway. “We do these autonomous vehicles, take them at grade, and we could get from 2 1/2 miles to 10 miles a whole lot faster than an aerial structure at a lot less cost.”
He figures that, by the time JTA secures the funding for the expansion, “the AV technology should be mature enough in another five to seven years, it should be more than mature enough that we can operate it in mixed traffic or dedicated lanes.”
At that point, the old Skyway will become the Ultimate Urban Connector, or U2C, with at least 22 stops in Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, JTA is evaluating different AVs at its test track on East Bay across from the sports complex. Other companies are coming in to participate, and state and federal transit officials are following JTA’s research and testing.
“I’m sitting back here and saying, is this the next Uber that’s happening?” Ford said. “That’s where we are as the JTA. We’re not on the bleeding edge of technology, but as we make our decisions, we are recognizing that transportation is transforming, technology is advancing. Artificial intelligence is advancing. Electrification is advancing. So as we are making our infrastructure decisions now or planning decisions now, we incorporate that in.”
The technological innovation doesn’t stop with the U2C. It will be part of the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, a smart-cities project that will embed technology along Bay from the sports complex to the JRTC, providing a constant stream of real-time data to ease traffic flow.
Take the people to transit
Now that, hopefully, you’ve gotten your head around U2C, what might be next on Ford’s plate is TOD, which stands for transit-oriented development. That idea is to take public transit to the places where people want to, and likely will, live and actually facilitate the housing development — rather than have transit later chase the development in a catch-up.
Right now, JTA is trying to sell or lease five “lazy” parcels around Downtown, with more parcels to come when the Rosa Parks Transit Station on West Union Street moves to the JRTC. The way Ford sees TOD: “If we increase this density and increase residents Downtown, we will at some point be charging fares on the U2C, so we pick up the fare revenue, and our system becomes more efficient and effective because of people riding it … and we are priming the pump for more density and more ridership and fare revenue.”
Ford says developers already are watching what JTA does and considering that in their plans. “On First Coast Flyer routes, if you look in within a quarter-mile of each one of those lines, you’d be surprised that the level of development or permits that are being pulled and anticipated already on the east line, the north line and the southeast, but on the (upcoming) southwest line, we are actually already seeing where people are kind of handicapping the development that will occur along our BRT lines.”
Taking transit to the people
Ford’s technology ambitions go beyond Downtown. As part of what it calls its Agile Plan, JTA already has talked about deploying autonomous vehicles with Jacksonville University and FSCJ and plans to approach the Mayo Clinic and maybe even St. Johns Town Center.
“The idea is, one, there is a transportation need,” Ford said, “but two, that would continue with our learnings as it relates to these vehicles and how they operate in pedestrian environments and in different environments where AV technology deployment may make sense, because eventually in the long run you’re looking at the JTA having a fleet of autonomous vehicles.”
While the U2C ultimately would extend through Brooklyn and on to Riverside, the demand is already there. Brooklyn alone has more than 1,000 new apartments built, under construction or credibly planned, but accessing the Skyway requires hiking over to LaVilla across the Park Street viaduct.
But wait! Remember that large control center and maintenance facility is in Brooklyn. Ford has his staff looking at opening a Skyway station at that facility so Brooklynites could hop on the monorail for a free ride to the Central Station and connect to the rest of the system.
“A quick immediate step,” he said. “What would it take? We have the maintenance leads (rails) that are used to bring the vehicles out in the morning and back in the evening. Is there a possibility that those leads can be leveraged in the interim? Just to provide that connectivity?”
The ultimate vision
If you think those plans and ideas are pretty radical for a city that is pretty much defined by the automobile, Ford has some perspective for you:
“I think at one point, it might have been defined by horse and buggy, and then the automobile showed up. The way I look at it, we’re living in that same type of transformative time frame, where we went from a horse and buggy to the horseless carriage. Did you know, at some point, automobiles had to have a flag person actually walking in front of them with a little sign that it was coming? There’s going to be a change similar to the transformation that occurred then, but the changes are happening much faster now.
“We need to embrace these new modes. We need to embrace our customers’ demands. Our customers are looking for door-to-door. When we talk about the U2C and autonomous vehicles expanded to 10 miles, the sky’s the limit, because we can at some point start talking about door-to-door service, where we actually pick you up at your door and get you on the main line and take you where you need to go. We’re looking at 24-hour service.
“If we’re now looking at operation that has less manpower requirements in terms of operators, you’re talking about a service that is much more cost-efficient, so I could provide many more vehicles at a lower cost.
“And so we’re just trying to be visionary and try to embrace the technology we know is coming.”
FRANK DENTON is retired and the former editor of The Florida Times-Union and J magazine. He lives in Riverside.
(c)2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Visit The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. at www.news-journalonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.