By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Charlotte Shaw, the incoming executive director and CEO for the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), is not one to sit around.
She has worked with firms like the U.S. Department of Defense; McDonell-Douglas, an aerospace company that merged with the Boeing Company in 1997; and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). In addition to those jobs, she has also authored self-help books and is currently experimenting with videography.
“I like historical documentaries on people who have done great things,” Shaw told The Birmingham Times. “I don’t have a lot of time to do that [right now], but it’s probably something I’ll do in my retirement.”
The St. Louis, Missouri-raised Shaw, who has served as deputy director of capital projects for Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s office since January 2020, is not thinking of retirement anytime soon, though. She’s primarily focused on overseeing MAX Transit, the role she will assume on October 1.
“I want to bring the positive, affirming image that public transportation is not just for, what people seem to think all over the United States, poor people, because it’s not,” Shaw said. “It’s for people who want the convenience of riding transportation without having the inconvenience of driving in traffic with a bunch of cars and using fuel to get there. [Public transportation offers an opportunity for people to commute] safer, easier, and with less emissions.”
Making public transit an attractive option for residents can be done a number of ways, Shaw said. One is to make sure the routes go where people want to be—a goal she shares with outgoing BJCTA head Frank Martin.
“I, too, want to continue that effort to move people around to opportunities, jobs, locations, social events, sporting events,” she said. “I want to see that our tourists can come in and extend and expand their reach past a lot of the tourist sites and go to other places throughout the city for dinner, lunch, or whatever reason.”
It’s also important that BJCTA is a premier company “with a reputation for being a great place to work, so we can provide the best customer service to our riders,” Shaw said. “If we don’t provide good customer service, we don’t get riders. … It’s important for me to ensure that our riders feel good about riding transportation.”
Shaw said good public transit system should be an expression of freedom in Birmingham, a Civil Rights city.
“What better way to demonstrate unity than to live and work together as a community—regardless of race, status or gender,” she said. “What better way to come together as a diverse group of people than to ride a system together and not worry about status, race, or gender, but just enjoy a pleasant ride to get to your location.”
Moving People Around
It’s also important that the BJCTA’s transit options reach into the surrounding municipalities, Shaw said. “While the city of Birmingham is definitely our largest contributor, I think the important thing is that we have the opportunity to move people around all the various municipalities, so that it’s seamless.”
By “seamless,” Shaw means that a rider shouldn’t be able to tell when they cross the lines of cities.
“The only system that can do that is a bus,” Shaw said. “We want to make sure that some of the underdeveloped areas get the same opportunities by increasing economic development around the transit systems.”
One popular solution for low-ridership areas is to establish mobility hubs, places in a city that might have a bus stop alongside alternative transport options, such as electric scooters and bikes.
“I’m a person who believes in a walkable city. I’ve lived in downtown [Birmingham], so I can walk to and from work, and I can eat in locations close to my home after I get off work,” Shaw said.
To make Birmingham more walkable, Shaw believes there need to be some changes in the way streets prioritize traffic.
“When you start mixing scooters, bikes, motorbikes, and all of that kind of stuff with cars, you’re walking into a dangerous situation,” she said. “For a city to be truly walkable, we have to make driving into some of these areas less convenient, making it convenient for the bus to get there and less convenient for cars to get there.”
Shaw’s considers transit her “first love.”
“[I like] the fact that trains move fast, that buses move people around the city, and that we make a difference,” she said. “Transit makes a difference in the growth of a city. … I [also] like the opportunity to work in concert with economic development [efforts to establish] modern transportation.”
Route to Birmingham
Shaw earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, public administration, urban studies, and pre-law from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her first professional experience was in contracts management for a broad range of companies, including General Dynamics, McDonnell-Douglas, SunTrust Bank and Oracle. Just before coming to Alabama, she held a variety of positions at MARTA, leading planning for the system’s projects and managing a long-term budget of $3.5 billion.
When Shaw first received a request to come to Birmingham in late 2019, she wasn’t interested, but “everybody seemed to think this would be a good fit for me,” she said.
“I got the deputy director job [in 2020] to help put the [Birmingham Xpress Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)] system in place.”
The same thing happened when Shaw learned that Martin would be leaving the BJCTA. Cedric Sparks, Mayor Woodfin’s chief of staff, and Denise Bell, the city’s director of capital projects, said Shaw would be a “perfect fit” for the MAX executive director and CEO role.
“Encouragement from others has always led me to my next place,” Shaw said.
For Shaw, transportation can be anything that moves. “At one point, I thought I was going to be an airline pilot, she said. “When I came through, like 30 years ago, doing corporate and various things as a young woman, there weren’t a lot of female pilots. I didn’t feel like breaking that particular ceiling to try to get through, so the next big thing for me was transit because I liked the fact that I used to love train sets as a kid.”
In her role in the mayor’s office, Shaw was already overseeing the Birmingham Xpress BRT system, which promises to be a fast, reliable path through the city; it is separated into three segments—eastern, central, and western—which together form a 10-mile corridor through the city. Portions of MAX Transit that run through the corridor will be replaced by Birmingham Xpress.
Earlier this month, before the announcement that she would be heading BJCTA, Shaw asked the Birmingham City Council for $14 million for the Birmingham Xpress BRT.
“I was able to come out with the $18 million needed to complete the entire project as originally scoped,” she said. “I went in conservative and was hoping to come out with a bigger number, but I didn’t know that I would. I did go in at the baseline of what I needed.”
After getting the bigger number Shaw said she felt like a “rock star.” “I came out of that meeting, … [and] everybody started clapping. [My colleagues] were like, ‘What did you just do?’”
Shaw did what she has been doing her entire career—finding ways to win.
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