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Multi-Channel Communication Key to Transit Crisis Response

As the novel coronavirus continues to batter the U.S., transit agencies are searching for ways to reach riders and staff. Despite sweeping ridership declines, many frontline health workers rely on transit services.

by / April 22, 2020

It’s not just transit riders in need of up-to-moment communications with trains and buses during the COVID-19 crisis; frontline workers like drivers and ticket agents also need to be engaged as well, according to mass transit experts.

These experts shared this advice during a recent webinar hosted by transit data analytics company Swiftly and Transit app focusing on how the novel coronavirus is impacting transportation agencies across the country. 

“I think the best thing we can do for our operators right now is to provide them with a safe operating environment … But secondly, give them a little bit of a safe state-of-mind. It’s really hard today, to provide that,” said Mike Helta, chief innovation officer at the Maryland Transit Administration, which provides transit services for the Baltimore metropolitan region. 

Helta added that maintaining the flow of information to those working on the frontlines of transportation systems is critical to situational awareness at a time when agencies and the services they offer are being tested by daily changes.

These changes also require effective, timely and consistent communication with riders, particularly as service levels shift to meet safety needs or declining ridership.

“Our base ridership are those folks who are dedicated riders. They ride us because they need us, and then of course, we’ve got those folks, our first responders. Some of our heaviest ridership numbers are based on trips to the medical district. We’ve got doctors, nurses, everybody riding the trains in,” said Gordon Shattles, director of external relations with Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), underscoring the importance of communicating accurate information to a range of potential riders.

Shattles said DART's communications strategy has had to adapt to reach as many riders as possible, offering that there is "no one right way to get everybody" information about evolving transit services.

“The big one is going to be our rider alerts,” he told Government Technology, referring to common opt-in alerts delivered to mobile phones. “This is our most direct way to talk to people.”

“We’ve also got our website… We’ve got videos, latest stories, latest information,” said Shattles. “We work very closely with the media. They’ve been fantastic especially throughout this.”

Communicating with frontline workers — bus drivers and the like — does not always follow standard internal avenues like email. Bus drivers, Helta points out, are not generally assigned transit system emails; however, they often have personal emails and phone numbers on file, which communication and other teams have turned to for information sharing.

“We’ve been focusing as much as we can on mobile phone communication, with text messages and email messages,” said Steve Young, vice president of technology and innovation at VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio, during the webinar.

"Having very up-to-date communication with those frontline workers, as best we can, to let them know we care. To let them know the measures we’re taking to help them,” Young added.

In Dallas, DART is producing as many as three videos a week to showcase safe ridership practices, which are then pushed out to riders, Shattles said.

Social media, however, seems to be the messaging platform that meets the most riders, he said, particularly younger riders.

“We’ve always had great social media outreach, and we’ve got a team dedicated there. We’ve got pretty much 24-hour coverage right now,” said Shattles. 

DART uses its interactions with the public to respond quickly to concerns like an unsanitary condition on a transit vehicle, and social media is especially helpful.

“We find that calling is good, but a lot of people just like an ability to send us a text, send us an email, send us something on Facebook,” said Shattles. “Because we’re already there, and we’re going to respond back immediately. I think it’s that immediate gratification people appreciate.”

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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