Tracks to the Future

How Michael Roschlau, president and CEO of the CUTA, is championing Canada’s integrated-transit potential

Michael Roschlau (Photo: Greg Locke)

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“We have a strong commitment to developing our people. Three percent of our payroll is dedicated to professional development. That allows each team member to have their own development plan that is defined in conjunction with their supervisor, so they can build their knowledge base and skills to support their career goals.”

When Michael Roschlau was a teenager, there was a subway being built just a stone’s throw away from his family’s house. Day after day, week after week, he walked by and witnessed its progress as it rose from nothing. “As a young kid, it was exciting and inspirational,” Roschlau says. It was that early excitement that propelled Roschlau into pursuing transportation and urban geography at university, and he paid for his education by spending his summers working as a cab driver. His life simply gravitated toward transportation, and after completing his PhD in Australia, focused on public transit and its relationship to the economy, he came back to Canada and joined the Canadian Urban Transit Association in 1986.

Roschlau progressed through the ranks at the CUTA and became CEO in 1998. Since then, the biggest change he has overseen for the not-for-profit organization is its strengthened relationship with the federal government, and he has done this by demonstrating that transit is of national interest. The organization began in 1904, and in order to evolve, it has had to change how it aligns itself. This has meant adding a new promotional dimension to the association’s services, building on the data, training, and events that had formed the core of the CUTA in the past.


What’s around the bend for the CUTA’s Transit Vision 2040

1. Concentrate on land-use integration
That means putting transit at the centre of the community and integrating transit with urban development.

2. Don’t ignore service quality

That means making sure that the industry is delivering the best possible quality of service it can afford.

3. Place a relentless focus on the customer

Make sure transit systems are oriented around delivering for them.

4. Find sustainable funding

Do this for both infrastructure and capital as well as for the operating needs of Canada’s transit services.

“One of the biggest challenges working in the public sector is finding ways of separating policy from politics,” says Roschlau, who today also serves as president of the CUTA. “There are constant diversions because of countless political priorities that make the route from A to B convoluted.” In the end, it is important for Roschlau and the CUTA to advocate for investment in public transit at the federal level, so he welcomes the partisanship as a necessary challenge to achieving his organization’s lofty Transit Vision 2040, which goes beyond buses and trains to a more holistic concept that the CUTA has dubbed “integrated urban mobility.”

“I like to call it a blueprint for the next generation,” Roschlau says. The Transit Vision 2040 plan intends to chart out key actions that public transit needs to take to optimize its role of providing seamless mobility for Canada’s communities. Started in 2009, the plan is using a 30-year time frame to mimic a human generation. Because the current generation of young people is looking to increase its connectivity while simultaneously eschewing the private automobile, the ability to walk, cycle, or take transit to get wherever one needs to go will become more important, as will ideas such as bike sharing and carpooling. However, Roschlau doesn’t want to focus solely on youth. The other challenge of evolving mobility is catering to the aging of the population.

While there is a lot of excitement around the plan, keeping the excitement high and continuing to engage its members is an ongoing issue for the CUTA. Through presentations, webinars, and educational materials, the CUTA has made education a priority. Now, it’s moving toward monitoring performance by setting incremental targets to keep moving toward an integrated future.

“There’s a real political will to make this quantum leap towards a new service model,” Roschlau says. But it’s maintaining that interest and constantly engaging not only its members but also the federal, provincial, and municipal governments that challenge the CUTA on a regular basis.

With 25 years remaining, the Transit Vision 2040 plan is just getting started. “By definition, transit is a green mode,” Roschlau says, “but we still have to be concerned with our own environmental footprint.” Sustainable technology and a passion for a better future are driving the plan, but even the CUTA doesn’t know where technology could take us. Cleaner fuels and hybrid buses are in use today, but by 2040, the entire infrastructure could be electric or something else entirely. What Roschlau does know is that he’s enjoying the ride.