A previous version of this article stated that Leslie Richards was the first woman to serve as the General Manager of SEPTA. She is actually the second woman to hold the position, following Faye Moore (2002-2008).
When Leslie Richards, 52, became the 11th general manager of SEPTA in January, and just the second woman to hold the title, she knew that she had just taken on an exceptionally long list of responsibilities.
The nation’s sixth-largest transportation authority employs almost 10,000 people and serves around 1 million riders on a typical weekday, according to the agency. There is an unending torrent of questions related to budgeting, scheduling, repairs and compensation, just to name a few.
One thing Richards didn’t imagine would be part of her role?
“I never thought that part of my job would be encouraging people not to use SEPTA,” she said.
That’s where transit systems in the U.S. are today.
Many, like SEPTA, were strapped for cash and relying on aging infrastructure even before the pandemic. Now, the consequences of the pandemic have taken a gigantic bite out of fare revenue, just as those systems became an ever-more important tool to take hospital employees and essential workers where they need to go.
But public transit is uniquely ill-suited to practicing social distancing, according to University of Pennsylvania professor Erick Guerra.
“It’s not a great time to be taking transit, it’s not a great time to be operating transit,” said Guerra, who researches regional planning and infrastructure. As of press time, seven SEPTA workers have died of COVID-19, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Richards, who served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of transportation and on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners before taking her current job, has studied the ways that infrastructure and transit can improve quality of life since she was a freshman at Brown University in 1985.
Now, just a few months into a job that requires daily engagement with millions of people with disparate transit needs, the principles she’s learned are being put to the test. Which, maybe, could be an opportunity.
“From our employees, from our customers and from the public, we are seen as the essential service that we truly are,” as a result of the pandemic, Richards said.
Richards grew up in Bucks County, and her family belonged to Congregation Beth Chaim in Feasterville. After attending Germantown Academy, she went to Brown, the only time in her life, she noted, that she’s lived outside of SEPTA’s service area. The lack of general education requirements meant that she could follow her curiosity as she saw fit, and that freedom led her to urban studies and economics.
By the end of college, Richards knew that she wanted to try to change communities at a policy level, but wasn’t yet sure what form that would take.
After a brief interlude, she returned to school, picking up a master’s degree in regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. She met her husband at that time and, after a few years working for government agencies, took a work hiatus, staying home with her three young children for eight years.
When she did go back to work, it was for an environmental consulting firm, where she helped to explain complex technical topics regarding right-of-way issues, clean-up protocol and permitting practices to community members affected by her firm’s construction.
“I’ve always enjoyed talking with people,” she said.
It was good practice for what came next.
While at home, Richards started to get more involved with civic life in Whitemarsh Township. She learned a lot about politics when she ran the prize booth on Whitemarsh Township Day, making tough choices about which kid received which prize, and how that would affect a run-in with the corresponding parent at the supermarket.
She ran for Whitemarsh Township supervisor — and won — in 2007. She held that position until 2011, and the next year, she and current Attorney General Joshua Shapiro made history when they won Democratic control of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners for the first time in county history.
It was during that process when Richards met Tom Wolf, who was not yet governor. When he did assume the office a few years later, Wolf asked her to serve as the commonwealth’s secretary of transportation, which she did for five years. And last year she was approached about taking over the position of general manager at SEPTA.
She’s had to hit the ground sprinting.
Richards took the job “at a really challenging time,” according to Drexel University sociology professor Mimi Sheller, who is also the director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy.
As the pandemic stretches into its third month, Richards and SEPTA are working as fast as they can to keep laborers safe and play a productive role in stopping the disease’s spread.
“We can definitely make sure that we keep listening to all of the challenges that are presented to us, and that we make the best decisions we can on the information that we have,” she said.