Joe Regier of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County uses transit as a way to introduce the university—and its diversity, intelligence, and amenities—to the communities that surround the school.
Check out TransLoc’s 2021 poll analyzing Americans’ public transportation expectations and behaviors post-pandemic in our Transit Value Index Survey!
Cohen: Josh Cohen
McPhaul: Danny McPhaul
Regier: Joe Regier
Cohen: We’ve got another of my TransLoc colleagues, Danny McPhaul, guest-cohosting with me this week, and we are going back to school together at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to see how they are using transit to help bring the university to the community, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Before we introduce today’s guest, I want to introduce you to a special guest-cohost. Last month you met my colleague Ashley Schultz, and this month you get to meet Danny McPhaul, TransLoc’s manager of client services. Maybe before we get started with our guest, why don’t you just introduce yourself real briefly, the work you’re doing at TransLoc, and a little bit about yourself?
McPhaul: So I’m a client—well, it’s hard now because the transition’s been recent. So I’m a former client success manager, and so a lot of the work that I’ve been doing at TransLoc is heavily customer-focused. So I started here about almost three years ago now, coming up—wow, time flies—and was one of the first client success managers hired in TransLoc’s kind of transition from account management to more of a focus on a client success model. So I’ve kind of been here from the beginning, watching it grow, helping it grow, I would like to think, and forming strong relationships with our clients.
Prior to TransLoc, I have client success experience in a couple of different companies spanned over the last 10 years or so, with some at Verizon, some at Cisco. So, larger ones, but I’ve enjoyed kind of—not that our clients are small, but more in a—you get more of a personal kind of relationship with clients here, so I appreciate that.
Cohen: And Danny loves The Golden Girls.
McPhaul: Oh, absolutely. It could just be a podcast about The Golden Girls. I just figured we want to—
McPhaul: We want to, you know, stay focused. So I was going to leave that little tidbit out, but yes, yes.
Cohen: Yeah, we’re going to stay focused, but that’s an important thing to understand about you, honestly.
Cohen: Not just likes The Golden Girls, but, like, has T-shirts and everything, so—
McPhaul: Not just T-shirts. I have an absurd amount of Golden Girls T-shirts. I would tell you the number, but that would be embarrassing. Just know it’s a lot.
Cohen: Okay. Just know it’s a lot. Okay, good.
McPhaul: Just know it’s a lot. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: So Danny’s experience working with our guest today, Joe Regier, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was one of the reasons we wanted to have Joe on the show today. Joe is the executive director of UMBC Transit and Community Connections, a post that he’s held since 1998. I’ve actually known Joe for over 13 years, since my early days at TransLoc. I think, Joe, I found the email I first sent to you. It was in June 2008. So there we go.
So I’ve moved on to different roles at the company now. Danny is the one who interfaces with Joe. But it’s great to talk to you again, Joe. Welcome to The Movement.
Regier: So, I don’t feel lost. I feel found again.
Regier: Which means that maybe there was some loss, but I’m found again.
Regier: Yeah. So the love continues. You know, quite frankly, just thinking historically, 2008 was a while ago.
Cohen: It was.
Regier: The industry has seen incredible change. And my university, UMBC, Baltimore County, right? University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has grown in this time. And UMBC Transit has become, again, another vital part of its growth. And you guys were there when I got it back.
I came in ’98, like you mentioned, and really, that was to build a new student union and develop some student activities and student affairs departments. And they said, “Okay, so you’ve got transportation too.” And I went, “Wait a second. I don’t know anything about transportation, you know. I’m not that guy.” And they respected that, which was great, so they handed that back to the former director. But I got it back on his retirement in 2005.
Regier: So, on his retirement, it came back to me, and I said, “The only thing I can do with this right now is just do on-the-job, you know, education and training.” Right? I’ve got to listen to people. And, quite frankly, that’s one of your strengths as an institution, as a business, is you’re listening to people. So we kind of met in that juxtaposition of roles. Right? And I was out there, trying to reach out and understand what the industry was, and how I could, you know, benefit from other people’s advice.
Regier: And that was an interesting couple years, before I really kind of got grounded in saying, “Okay, I guess I can do this.” And then, pretty soon, about the time I said I can do this, you guys came along. And I was out searching for—at the behest of some student government interest in doing some things for transportation, I was searching for a business who was doing some sort of something with buses and locating, to increase the safety factor, quite frankly, and increase the efficiency of our routing and some other things.
But the fact that all these years have passed, and we are so much better than we were, quite frankly—yeah, I just have to pat us both on the back. [LAUGHTER] TransLoc and UMBC Transit.
Regier: I inherited a bunch of Blue Birds.
Cohen: Wow. Basically, old school buses?
Regier: Old school buses.
Regier: There was a whole lot of learning to do, which is good, you know—
Regier: —for a new administrator, because that humbles you, and you go, “I got to listen. I’ve got to learn.” So, in the meantime, we built a fleet of 23 beautiful buses. I got to say it. I just have to take my hats off to ourselves.
Regier: They’re gorgeous. One of them just went down to the convention down in Florida, APTA.
Cohen: Oh yeah, yeah.
McPhaul: APTA, yeah. We had some folks down there.
Regier: Yeah, it was on display down there. It’s a new hybrid we got. We got four new hybrids.
Regier: And so the fleet development, the technology development, but ungirding all that is the relationship development with you guys, quite frankly. How many institutions can look back on 13 years of progressive development within a contract situation? And thinking about what procurement is and what it isn’t, and how friendly—and it isn’t—[LAUGHS] how did we do that? We did that because you guys listened to us. I’m going back to the listening part. You guys listened to us and respected us, and we respected you because you came back with improvements. You listened to us and said, “Well, that’s an interesting take. Let’s get back together and talk again.” [LAUGHTER] The talking again has gone on for 13 years.
Cohen: Yeah, a lot of talking.
McPhaul: That’s a lot of talking. That’s the building blocks of the relationship.
Regier: It’s pretty amazing.
McPhaul: Joe, I guess—yeah. And that’s the thing, is that being your account manager, I’ve been able to experience a lot of kind of what you guys have done, and most recently I know—or not most recently; a while ago, back when we could still travel, I was able to come up and give you guys a visit, and you were able to talk a lot about the relationship that you guys have with the community. And I know that UMBC has been kind of mindful about how it has engaged with the community from the OCA Mocha coffee shop that you showed us, to the building of a new performance art center without any new parking. So, both of which involve transit, and it would be great if you can kind of help us to understand how UMBC has looked at that engagement with the community.
Regier: Great question. Quite frankly, the fact that we did not build another $40-million parking garage is to our credit. Now, is there still that voice out there that says that would be a good idea? Yeah. But have we succeeded in negotiating the reality that you can do what we needed to do in terms of, you know, growth without doing that? The fact that we exist today without those garages is a testimony to the fact that transportation as an industry can negotiate really tough economic times in the positive.
Cohen: How big is that performing arts center that you guys opened?
Regier: Seating-wise, let’s say—I’m going to guess.
Cohen: Yeah, I mean, just—
Regier: Maybe a thousand.
Cohen: Yeah. So, I mean, you have to assume that’s, what, 500 vehicles, 750 vehicles if you’re going to have a full event there?
Regier: Exactly. Now, let’s compound that. Because in the same time period, we built a new events center—right—a new events center, which is right next door to the transportation office. And there is a huge parking lot right next to us.
Now, when they started talking events center, did I in my mind see that parking lot, you know, elaborating up four levels and being a parking garage? I did. [LAUGHS] I said, “Well, that’s great. I’m going to live right next to a parking garage.” Well, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen, and partially because of transportation, and partially because of ingenious scheduling and thinking about how to incorporate such a monumental addition without doing that thing, which is building a parking garage.
So, I mean, it’s a very proactive decision. Right? So I commend the university on thinking, “Well, the last thing we need to do is build another parking garage. We’re headed in a new direction.” You know? And that new direction really has to do with thinking independently of what we’ve done before. It’s thinking new.
And I believe one of the next penchants that we’re going to be asked to think about is how we connect with the local community to bring them on campus via transit. And still, we’re considered a private unit. Private. It’s really odd. We are a state institution, but in terms of getting federal funding for buses and things, we’re private. Right?
Cohen: Right. Is that because you have restrictions on who can ride it?
Cohen: Okay, got it.
Regier: So, we are looked at as a closed system, and I think one of the—again, the futuristic thinkings is, how can we open up to our local public to, again, convince administrations that, “No, we don’t need to build a garage. We just have to make available what we have”? So that’s an efficiency. And efficiencies are one of those things that kind of flow right through the legislative menagerie and come out the other end. “Oh, okay, you found an efficiency. Well, good for you.” Well, yeah.
So, my hope is that, at the end of the day, you know, common sense will prevail. And there is no more threat of another parking garage. We can actually do what we need to do and just do it, in my terms, smarter. Because, you know, quite frankly, being considered closed—just change that word, okay? Just change the word legally, and I’m fine. And I can do some stuff in the future, like—I’m going to point to the future again—moving from diesel and gas to electric.
So the institution is a very progressive, innovative institution, and that’s one reason I gained some traction with some of my ideas, is that we are innovative. Right? And we’re like, they say, number six in the nation. Right? Well, whatever that means. I don’t know. Who are the other five? I don’t know who they are. But if we’re number six, I’ll take it.
Cohen: Yeah, sure.
Regier: Because there’s a lot of people out there. Anyway, if we can get to the point of opening up to our local publics, there will not be a parking garage on campus—there will be happy people boarding beautiful buses, traveling five minutes to home. We can get to these localities, five minutes in one direction and 10 minutes in the other. And these people are attending fantastic plays in that performing arts center, which, quite frankly, I’ve got to brag on that for a second. It is the most advanced technical theater in the nation. Because I ended up working with one of the husbands of one of my previous employees when I was doing the student activity stuff, the student union stuff, and he—originally, he was the OG, original gangster, on that project. And I was the original gangster on some of this stuff here.
But he ended up building a progressive, fantastic theater, where those students go through that program. They wind up with a degree that any of them could be on Broadway, could be in Las Vegas or California or Hollywood or wherever—
Regier: —and have all the knowledge of what’s possible in their hip pocket. Anyway, that center, with its plays and events center with its conferences, you know, we are—what—15 minutes away from the BWI Hotel chain. So, in the future, do I think transportation is playing a bigger role in connecting and keeping parking garages off campus? I indeed do. [LAUGHS] I indeed do.
Cohen: And just to provide a frame of reference, Joe, I mean, how much do these parking garages cost?
Regier: Well, that $40-million figure was floated.
Regier: And that only gets you—I can’t remember the number. But it’s not thousands of spots. Right?
Regier: We’re talking hundreds of spots.
Regier: And if you’re going to fill a stadium—you know, we have modest stadiums, again, because we’re very much a—I’m going to call us one of the highest performing nerd campuses in the United States. [LAUGHTER] Do you know what the GPA, the average GPA of our incoming freshmen was?
Cohen: I’m scared to ask because it’s going to make me reflect on my high school career with—[LAUGHS]
McPhaul: Yeah. I’m going to give a no comment to that, to not going to my—[LAUGHS]
Regier: Incoming average GPA, 3.97.
Regier: Somebody got a B plus.
Cohen: Yeah. Only one kid got a B plus.
McPhaul: Only one person messed up the average, yeah.
Regier: And we are, at one point in time, when I was more cognizant of all the numbers, we were the most diverse campus in the United States. We were.
Cohen: And how many students are on campus?
Regier: Thirteen thousand six hundred. About 2,800 are graduate. And—
Cohen: And thirteen thousand five hundred and ninety-nine had straight A’s and one got a B. [LAUGHTER]
McPhaul: That one guy.
Regier: You know, that is kind of who we are. And we’re very diverse, very diverse. So if you were looking at our diversity populations—which is also interesting, because these are the people who take the experience of UMBC out to the world.
Regier: Right? Our influence as an educational institution goes beyond what happens in the classroom. So this is going back to my roots in student activities and student union work, and transportation. The people that I move every day, many of them are international students. And at one point in time when I was working directly with that, you know, trying to uplift and educate, I knew that we had 120 countries on campus at the same time.
Regier: A hundred and twenty. And at one point, the number was 150. I didn’t believe it, but I didn’t take the time to negotiate. But think about that. Think about that. So, if we are presently—I’m just looking, thinking about numbers. If we are somewhere around 80% would be—and these are like, if you took 80% and divided into thirds, that would be White, Asian, and African. African American, Asian, and White. On all the rest, being the other 20%, Hispanic and other. Internationals. Right? But daily, daily, I know that I am moving hundreds of international students from home to campus. Okay? So transportation in that realm develops, helps develop this incredible campus where you’re walking down the sidewalk on the main academic corridor. You’re hearing French. You’re hearing Indonesian. You’re hearing Indian. You’re hearing Yugoslavian. You are hearing, amongst those individuals, just an incredible dialogue going on.
And who are they walking with? Our Marylanders. We are still a Maryland institution, and who are we interweaving? This international populate. It’s—I’m saying, there’s no place like it. You can’t—one walk down that big, long academic corridor from the administration building to the library, blow your mind.
Cohen: So, Danny, when you went, did you get a chance to check out that coffee shop?
McPhaul: Yes, I was actually going to bring it back there because I did. That was one of the things that Joe was very excited to show us. So I did get to check out the OCA Mocha, which is why I mentioned it. So I love the—I won’t take any of the thunder, because I love the idea of how it came to be that, you know, you guys pitched to us, and what it actually is, essentially, in the community. So, Joe, if you could speak more to kind of the—what was the spark of idea for OCA Mocha, how it came to be, and what is it as far as in the community and how it affects the students?
Regier: Okay. So, again, being the original gangster on some of this stuff, they looked—they being administration, my boss and some others. They were looking around and trying to figure out who could connect with the community in a better way. And since transportation is in the community, they looked at my position. So, eventually, I was nominated, and I was elected to a position on the Greater Arbutus Business Association Board. So along—so with that kind of parallel work, along with just doing what I need to do on campus, I started to appreciate the concept of there being an outpost, which—and I say outpost because, geographically, UMBC was built in a circle. It’s got a circular road that’s its exterior perimeter. Right? And next to it is a community called Arbutus, and a little bit farther away is one called Catonsville.
The one that’s closest to us, Arbutus, has a boundary between ourselves and this residential population that starts right there. So, that means there has been historically just a natural—it feels like the wagon train stopped; they circled the wagons, and here was UMBC.
Regier: And then here was the community over here. And the two—
Cohen: So kind of just separate?
Regier: Separate. A real boundary. So, when I looked at that, I started thinking when I was approached to be on this business association, “How can we move beyond our circle?” And one of the thoughts would be an outpost. Again, kind of just thinking in terms of those cowboys in the Wild West. Getting something out there might be a way to bridge this gap.
And so working with the local community and watching the real estate change hands, I got in line early on with one of the owners of some property. And I said, “You know, when this thing starts to move, we need to talk.” And eventually that turned out to be a negotiated settlement on renting a space and renovating it to become something. And that something was the result of a entrepreneurship class, which was looking at this same kind of strategy kind of parallel to what I was thinking about.
So these two ideas just met up right in the middle. It was like two things happening at the same time. I was thinking of an outpost. They were thinking of something that had to do with some sort of representation in the community. And they came up with “Where Coffee Meets Community.” Where coffee meets community.
And so that was—so, some of the people still involved, still working there as managers, were in this class, the undergraduate class in entrepreneurship. So, they ended up pitching, you know, this idea of a promotion for something out in the community, to the presidents and to the executive board of the university and so forth, and were successful.
Regier: So we ended up getting funding to help with that, and then transportation helped, again, with some of my, you know, oversight of the construction process. Yeah, they were lucky because I had some background. Okay, so there was—there’s always some luck involved. So I did have some background in that.
And we were successful. We took this, what was a hookah bar—hookah bar—with problems in the community. Because, you know, stuff happens. Right? You know, there’s underage drinking going on. There’s not happy citizens next door going, “What is—why did somebody allow a hookah bar to be established?” Anyway, that thing went away, and when it closed, immediately we were there. And we took that, we went in, and I remember, with my flashlight, looking up into the attic area, trying to see what it was this place truly was. And I saw beautiful wood. So, at the end of the day, we ended up carving out this whole entirety, taking it down to the roots, and rebuilding it.
Regier: So we got enough financial backing from the university to do that. And then we ended up utilizing some of these students from the class, creating, you know, a rental situation, and they created a business plan. And they got a business started that is an LLC, separate from us. So we created this really iconic, new way of creating that outpost into the community.
And guess who, during COVID, was at the door, you know, supporting the business? It was the local community. The local community bought into the concept and kept that place going, and now it’s gangbusters again already. It just didn’t take long. Right? We knew that, you know, you need about like 20 months or something to stand up a new business. Right? They had actually stood up the business in 12 months, and then COVID hit.
Regier: But, beyond that, we’re pretty much back to normal, you know, business profitability. And those two—and two of the people who were managers were just recognized by the university as outstanding grads in entrepreneurship.
Regier: So we’re getting publicity that way. We’re getting community involvement. We have community meeting room space there at OCA Mocha. So beyond being great coffee—right—and beyond being some really fantastic promotions, we have interns who are students working to build this—I mean, if anybody wants to go online and look for this: O-C-A, M-O-C-H-A. You’re going to find some incredible online looks at what community building looks like, via a coffee shop and university in a community.
And, you know, the jazz band is going to be there next year. Next year? No, next month, I think. There’s a performance space. There’s a meeting room space. And there’s coffee and there’s community.
Regier: So, quite frankly, that whole vision for that entrepreneurship class fertilized the ground, we watered it, and boom, there it is. You know? So, it’s a huge success. It’s on the route. Again, I’ve got people who can walk from campus to there, or who can get on our bus and drop them, you know, maybe 50 paces from the front door.
Cohen: How far is that from the heart of campus?
Regier: Point five miles.
Cohen: Okay. So it’s an easy walk for those who like to walk, but if you don’t, you can take the bus.
Regier: It’s an easy walk.
Regier: Yeah. And it lands on the main street. So, the next thing we’re doing is student government association. We were talking just last night. Along with OCA Mocha and transportation, we are going to then reinvigorate a discount program for the UMBC ID with these businesses on main streets, in both Catonsville and Arbutus. So transportation will have ads on our buses. And I’m looking to produce some video content, put some screens on our buses, so that you can go in, you know, so that our riders can see, “Okay, I’m walking into this business; this is what I can expect.” They can see the smiling face with a piece of pizza ready for them or whatever, you know.
So, we’re going to build on that. That was a good program. Again, kind of got stalled in this hiatus. But we’re going to come back stronger than ever. We’re going to work with the chambers of commerce from both communities, and hopefully have—I want to shoot for a hundred businesses, with a discount program for our students.
Regier: Getting those people into the community, helping—you know, every student—you know, this is one thing from a long time ago. Every student is worth a hundred thousand dollars to the local communities over the course of their four to five years. Hundred thousand dollars.
Cohen: That’s how much the check is that they write to the university, which then trickles down into—
Regier: If you take in housing, food, and the rest of it, whatever your expense, you know, it is a minimum of the national standard of—quite frankly, this is sad to say—poverty level of, you know, 25,000 a year. Okay. That’s where we’re at. So each student is worth that. And quite frankly, when you start to explain some of these things to businesses, they go, “Yeah, I need to bring some students in, because guess what? I’ve got 13,000 of them right over here.” What does that—you know, start doing the math.
So, I hope, by the end of spring, that we’ve got a hundred businesses signed up for this, and their ads are on my buses, and they are happy as can be, and our students are getting off campus, circulating, learning new things, and being a part of this larger public.
Cohen: This does seem like a trend, though. That, you know, it used to be kind of universities kind of had a little bit more of what you described at the beginning, which was this, like, hands-off barrier between them and their communities. Right? And it seems like this has been a trend over the last I don’t know how many years. But—and you might even be able to give some perspective on that, of universities kind of, instead of looking inward, looking outward. Right? And to me, that’s actually really powerful. Right? Because it—not only is it, you know, some of the things you mentioned about the diversity of your student body and interacting with the Marylanders there in your community.
But on top of that, it seems like it’s an opportunity for learning for all the folks involved, and also it just seems like it’s a recognition that universities are such a huge part of these communities. Right? Like, if all of a sudden tomorrow UMBC just was gone in an alien explosion or something like that, that would be a huge, huge impact to that community.
Regier: Exactly, exactly. So the recognition, like I just mentioned, yeah, the recognition of the economic impact of the student body, if you didn’t have any emotion behind it, if you were just looking, you know, brass tacks here, this is important. And so just so on the analytical level, an absence of an institution as large as UMBC, the absence of it would have profound effects on what is already there.
So, the fact that, you know, we came back strong with our enrollment portends success for the local community. And maybe closing on that thought, I just hope that the next, again, 15 years that we think about where transportation is going, that it becomes more inclusive. This population who mixes and understands one another simply by brushing elbows and shoulders, that all of that becomes part of our yield. That we have done more, incidentally, you know, quite frankly, sometimes, that we have done more incidentally to promote a democracy and a fine-tuned, appreciative mix of populations who appreciate one another. I think, you know, there’s a lot of incidentals to transportation, and I think that’s one of them that I hope to be able to celebrate.
Cohen: Totally agree. I think that—to me, that is the number one benefit to transit. In fact, I think guest—I think it was number—in Episode 008, Cleve Ricksecker in Columbus, Ohio, one of the things he talks about with their universal transit pass in Columbus that they offer with all the local businesses there and headquarters and all that in downtown Columbus, in order to avoid building another parking deck, he said one of the key benefits is that, you know, you get businessmen and businesswomen on the bus, and they’re rubbing shoulders with someone who might not have a home, or someone who’s, you know, more a service worker, something like that. And that’s one of the—I think one of the things he said is that’s one of the last places where that happens now. Right?
Cohen: And that’s why I think it’s so important that we kind of have that. And so I’ll be interested to see, over time, how your system evolves, perhaps, to be more of an open system that is going to allow even more of that rubbing of elbows, if you will, throughout the whole community—not just amongst students, but throughout the community.
Regier: Exactly, exactly. I just know, in fact—I mean, I know—I’m just thinking about the elder statesmen in these communities, you know, and the wisdom they can offer our young students. And, you know, that I envision times that they’re invited to the dinner table, and they got their home away from home, you know, a real collegiate experience, not only on campus but off campus. Right?
Cohen: Love it. Joe, this has been great. I’m really, really grateful that we had a chance to catch up here. Danny, thank you so much for, you know, all the work you’ve done engaging with Joe over the years and keeping them—listening to them.
McPhaul: Yeah, absolutely.
Cohen: Obviously. And also for lending your voice a little bit today as well. I appreciate you taking a part here. And, Joe, I appreciate you giving us a little bit of insight into how UMBC is using transportation as a tool to engage with the community. I think it’s wonderful.
Regier: Thank you for the invitation. It’s been—it’s good to see you two.
McPhaul: [LAUGHS] Absolutely.
Cohen: All right. Thanks, y’all.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.