Corporate Innovation Best Practices – Q&A with Central Ohio Transit Authority

Rev1 Ventures works with leaders in corporate innovation to connect corporates with promising startups and entrepreneurs.

Sophia Mohr is Chief Innovation and Technology Officer at Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), which provides mobility services to our region of more than 1.4 million residents. She and her team are focused on developing innovative mobility solutions to Central Ohio, a region expected to grow to three million residents by 2050. A really interesting aspect is how COTA has been nimble in the pandemic, to make technology-based changes that have been implemented rapidly, have had significant impact on residents’ lives and livelihood, and help COTA move every life forward.

MM: It is hard to think of a more challenging responsibility than figuring out how to keep people moving in a region like ours, where population is expected to more than double –especially when Columbus has been such an easy city to live in.

SM: Columbus is a growing city. Columbus has been identified as one of those cities that is nice to live in. We are attracting people and growing faster than we forecasted just a decade ago. It is a challenge to provide innovative mobility for a growing region, but it is a challenge that we welcome. I have been at COTA a little over two years. When I first saw the role, I knew about COTA, but I didn’t know what transit innovation was all about. The more I looked into the opportunity, the more fascinated I became. The decisions that we are making now are going to impact how we all live and move in the next ten to twenty years.

MM: The pandemic affected so many aspects of life. I have heard it said that because of COVID-19, we are growing even faster than we thought.

SM: The city is at an inflection point. As a society, we are going to see more changes in mobility–not just transportation or transit–in the next 20 years than we have in the past fifty. Look at our streets, at how we move. What does doubling our population mean? How do we move our population to work, to play, to have access to the opportunities a growing city can provide. As someone who has lived in Columbus for most of my life, I am thrilled to be part of this pivotal moment for our city.

MM: Your background is in industrial and systems engineering. And then you were in strategy and services design for NetJets. How do you bring that perspective to leading innovation with COTA?

SM: My focus has always been on designing systems for people and how we interact with technology to get things done. Good design tells people intuitively what to do. A city needs transit, but transit isn’t historically always thought of as intuitive. As a public entity, we at COTA need to think of everyone in our community and design for them. We are really trying to think about designing transportation differently, in ways our community might not realize but can become part of how we move and live our lives.

For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, many organizations were shutting down or limiting services, and COTA was no different. However for some, transit is their primary means for work. Based on the data at the time in the Northeast area of Columbus, we would have brought a bus line back hourly, but when you think of the people who rely on transit, hourly is not convenient.

Instead, we created the nation’s first full-time bus-on-demand in Northeast Columbus. We handled it through an app, similar to Uber or Lyft. The bus didn’t come to a person’s house, but it did come to the person’s bus stop. We are averaging a twelve minute wait with a full-sized bus. It is a great example of COTA using technology to do something we never could have done ten years ago. This was the first in the U.S., and it is still running.

MM: Can you share other examples of game-changing technology that COTA has rapidly put into play over the last couple of years–as the work and transportation environment has been turned upside down.

SM: We are working on an artificial intelligence (AI) project that takes multiple data sources to predict where congestion and accidents may occur. In doing this, we are redefining what a transit organization should be doing. It’s not just about the bus. It is about the total mobility of people in our community. We are one of the first transit agencies to stretch the boundaries of transit this way. We are defining our role in ways that people don’t expect.

Another example: One of the things that we have learned is that people don’t buy bus passes because they don’t know the true cost. So, in November, we rolled out our digital fare payment system. Riders pay through the Transit app.

MM: And you also found inequity in how customers were paying for fare, such as people who could purchase monthly passes versus people who could only pay by the trip?

SM: Exactly. We found that people who can afford transit the least tend to pay the most. Now the new digital payment system has introduced fare capping. The smartcard or Transit app account keeps track (by the week or the month) When they pay $4.50 a day or $62 a month, their fare is capped and they can continue to ride for the rest of the day or month at no additional cost. That’s a game changer and another interesting way that technology can help COTA do something we couldn’t do before, and it’s an example of how we’re constantly asking ourselves how we can better serve the community, especially those that rely on us the most.

MM: It has been an eye-opener for us, to work with your team. Talk about how COTA is using our services to help accomplish your mission.

SM: We are connected with Rev1 to help us access all types of technologies to make things better, from safety, to customer experience, to data. We want to be at the forefront. We aren’t looking at innovation from solving transit problems. We look at it from the perspective of what would a mobility company do. We provide solutions that connect people to prosperity and move people forward.

MM: How do you execute on that mission from inside a transit organization? Seriously? It is one thing to say you want to take an end-to-end view; it can be quite a different thing to actually do.

SM: It goes back to our overall mentality, and that starts at the top. Our CEO’s background is not public transit. She thinks differently–and the community realizes it needs to think about mobility differently, too. For me, coming into this role, I have a better perception of our community. I had always worked in private industry. This is my first time in the public space. I wouldn’t have thought I would have ever done this; it just wasn’t on my radar. Now, I have a much better appreciation for how public transit helps and serves people. Our mission statement about moving every life forward also means leaving no one behind. Everyone deserves a chance to prosper, and COTA is a part of helping them get there.


Learn more about how Rev1 and COTA are working together here.

Read more about corporate innovation here: Tips for Success from G-Force Innovation