Photo courtesy David Berdish
David Berdish, who recently retired as Ford Motor Company's manager of social sustainability, isn't much for punctuation, at least not when he's talking. Unspooling his thoughts at a mile a minute, he's consumed with a passion for big ideas ― for Virginia Commonwealth University (he "literally bleeds black and gold"), for big bike races like the 2015 UCI World Road Cycling Championships, and, more recently, for the future of Richmond's nascent mass-transportation grid.
Born and raised in Detroit, Berdish came to VCU for graduate school after earning a bachelor's degree with an oddly paired double major in poetry and labor economics. "I fell in love with Richmond," he says. After getting his masters in operations research ― now called "decision-making sciences," he notes ― he was hired by Ford Aerospace and moved to Tyson's Corner.
Berdish is an expert at creating harmony among transit systems, and he and his partners are working on the next best thing: The RVA Pass app ties together the many pieces and parts of the region's disparate public and private mass-transit services. Piloted in Richmond, RVA Pass may revolutionize how people in cities all over the world catch the bus.
RM: So when you were hired by Ford, was the company working for some agency of the government in Washington?
DB: I never got the clearance to find out what we were doing. … I've worked 30 years for Ford. I had actually written in the late 1990s a couple of articles about systems thinking and systems analysis. And in 2000, when Bill Ford became chairman, he announced to everyone that Ford Motors was going to have a sustainability objective. I got called that day, and I was told … that I was going to report to his office and I was going to become the manager of human rights.
Ford is the only company in our industry that has a [human rights] code and … we will not partner or venture or do tier-1 business with companies that don't have a code ― which frankly costs us. If we find out a supplier that has forced labor or slave labor or child labor, we rip up the contract, no questions asked. We have high standards of human rights.
So my job became, in addition to human rights, what we called the sustainable mobility manager. My job basically was saying, how does Ford Motor Company provided products and services to the people who are either too poor to afford our product, or living in a city where infrastructure sucks so bad that they don't want to drive a car, or on the flipside, where infrastructure's so good and they have a mass-transit system that there's no need at all.
RM: What led you back to Richmond?
DB: Well, when President Obama was elected and he announced TIGER, which was the Transportation Initiative to Generate Economic Recovery, I worked with 12 different cities, including Richmond, to put together a grant to see how we could use some high-tech, green technology ― and how we could use that.
But President Obama, you know, was pressed against the wall because of unemployment issues. The money that was supposed to be used for high-tech green solutions ended up being used for shovel-ready projects so people could get to work, and that's back to bridge fixing and patching holes in pavement. I would be looking at the trends and reading the news and looking at different applications like electric trolleys or Segways or different alternative forms of transportation to be used to get around the city and all of a sudden Richmond, Va., pops up and all it is is a little announcement about the new Segway dealership owned by Buck Ward, who happens to be my best friend in the world. I gave him a buzz.
RM: When was this?
DB: This was in 2007. I just read about it and I call him to tell him about this and at the same time, I'm working on the electric vehicles, and so I'm like maybe I can come down and visit you. And I meet these different people like Gary Rhodes at J. Sargeant Reynolds, [Richmond Times-Dispatch Publisher] Tom Silvestri and Jacek Ghosh at the VCU Sustainability Office. And I was establishing such close relationships ― I was spending a lot of time with Ron Kody at Richmond Ford trying to figure out the best way to market the electric vehicles. Now I want to land here. I think Richmond is a great place to do this. And the Richmond 2015 [world cycling championship] is a catalyst for this type of sustainable change. If we can do what we want to do with Richmond 2015 and RVA Pass, we'll be one of the first cities in the world to do this multimodal interconnection, and it's going to put us on the map: To have an integrated multimodal system where a citizen can look at their smartphone and say "Hey, there's a bike share available here," or "There's a bus coming." I've been in cities where they've tried to work on it, and the politics aside, there are some really dynamic people in this city, with some really, really great ideas. And it just happens to include the people on the Richmond 2015 board who get this.
RM: What is the RVA Pass? DB: I look at RVA Pass as a systems integrator. I think the best way to explain it is in context with Richmond 2015. This app will tell you how to get to the car shares; the bike shares; the Segways; to GRTC; hop-on, hop-off circulators.
I land in the airport with my app, from Italy or whatever, and it tells me I don't have to pay 20 bucks for a cab, there's going to be a bus coming that's going to take me that's part of my transportation package. And once you get inside the course and you're in the grandstand, we want to be able to track the cyclists to tell the fans you can grab a bike share [to the next viewing spot].
RM: Will be there be a way for me to ping that cab so he knows I want him? Is it two-way?
DB: You pay the subscription service for what you want. One day, three days, nine days. And when you flash the barcode or whatever ― I'm not the tech guy ― that just gets billed to an account.
RM: So will you be ready for Richmond 2015?
DB: We will be ready. If you look in Europe, where the buses are always packed, it's because they have access to good information, and they have access to different modes. I think with GRTC, [passengers] stand to gain a lot. This is so much cooler and so much easier and more convenient than trying to find a parking spot on Cary.
RM: When is this going to roll out?
DB: Well, we're going to do piloting at the 2014 Collegiate [Road Nationals] bike race, which is in May 2014. If we kick ass, which I intend to do, if RVA Pass is successful, there's a lot of people who would want to work on this.
- Berdish was born and raised in Detroit.
- He earned his master's degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. "They call it ‘decision-making sciences' now, but it was ‘operations research' at the time."
- His expertise: "Basically analytics and system optimization; identifying choke points."