An interesting story to emerge from this pandemic has been the issue of public transportation.

For those who depend on it, public transport is essential, and discontinuing service would cause big problems. But in an age of social distancing, a bus seems like the least safe place.

Chatham Authority Transit has taken that line (pun intended) during the pandemic, working on solutions to keep buses running while keeping passengers and employees safe.

CAT interim CEO Michael Brown has worked in transportation for over 20 years, starting as an operator and slowly progressing to leadership.

We spoke with Brown last week about the challenges they face, how their team works together, and why transportation should be considered essential.

What are the challenges you face at CAT?

A few challenges come to mind: One is keeping our employees and customers safe. This has been one of the biggest challenges for us, making sure we have all the personal protective equipment, making sure our vehicles are disinfected and clean, making sure we are communicating information to the public as well as to our employees.

Another major challenge for us is to be able to stay connected as an organization while distancing ourselves socially. We have virtual leadership meetings three times a week, and we have virtual town hall meetings for all employees three times a week. This gives us the opportunity to let our employees know what we do, what the management team is doing, how we work to keep them safe, how we work to conduct CAT’s business and how we work to ensure that everyone is still getting a paycheck as we go through this.

We see that there are things that came out of this pandemic that we are going to do in the future that we haven’t done in the past. One of those things is virtual town halls because they allow us to connect with all of our employees without them having to be in the same room. We just set a time, they go online and they ask questions.

This is a change that we are going to make, as well as the way we disinfect our vehicles. It will be a whole other way to keep our vehicles clean.

How do you keep your vehicles clean?

We do the same. We’ve doubled the bleach content and we’re making sure to change our mop heads and buckets more frequently. We use a product called Vital Oxide, which is like a mist that we spray on the bus and it kills – now I’m going to look like an advertisement, but it kills 99.9% of germs including the coronavirus. Wipe down the driver’s area, all seats, all handrails, every bus, every night.

We are in contact with other transport agencies through APTA and other CEOs, other maintenance directors, other communication directors, so that we can get best practices for what do other agencies across the country. We’re doing about as much, if not more, than these other agencies are doing to keep people safe.

What does the ridership look like right now?

Ridership is down, as you might expect. We offer a reduced service; our service life is less than it normally would be. We offer approximately 13 hours of service right now, Monday through Saturday, and a little less on Sunday.

Our ridership on our fixed route is down by more than 70%, and our paratransit operation is down by more than 40%. We are offering fewer services, so we are going to have less traffic. We also encourage our customers to use the service only for essential trips, which are classified as to the doctor, the grocery store, or to work.

It almost seems counterintuitive to encourage people not to ride, even though it is the safest thing to do. Does this seem like a problem to you?

As public transit agencies, we want to increase ridership and improve and expand our modes of transportation. So having a public transport agency to encourage fewer riders is unique. It’s not something I thought I would see in my day!

But these are amazing times, and the most important thing is to keep everyone safe. We do this by implementing measures where we ask people to only use our services for essential trips. We run our fixed route buses at 50% of their capacity, we encourage our passengers to wear masks, we put signage on all buses.

But you’re right, it’s not something you’d hear from a transit agency CEO or anyone in transit, but in these extraordinary times it’s important that we try to ensure the safety of everyone, not only our operators but also the customers themselves.

Why should transport be considered essential?

We hear so often that medical professionals and first responders and law enforcement are essential, and they are. But transport is also essential. Sometimes I feel like transportation workers don’t get the same respect and recognition that we are essential.

I think it’s important that everyone realizes, and I think a lot of people do, how important public transport is. If we stopped the service, there would be a lot of people in this community and this county who would have no other means of transportation. They don’t have a car, they can’t afford Uber or Lyft or a cab when they need to go somewhere.

We take what we do very seriously. We know how much we are appreciated, we know we are providing this valuable service and we don’t take it for granted.

At the end of the pandemic, how do you plan to restore citizens’ confidence in public transport?

I want to tell our customers that we have never left them. We have always been there for them during this pandemic. Yes, we had to cut our service, but we did it to protect not only our employees but also our passengers.

Not only have we always been here, but we will continue to be there for you and for our passengers and our community when things start to relax. We have measures in place to ensure we continue to sanitize our vehicles, provide PPE to employees and encourage our passengers once this elevator resumes and continue to use public transportation. I know there is a vast majority of our customers who will come back — they have no other transportation.

Our frontline employees are to be congratulated as they are the ones who volunteered to continue coming to work and providing this essential service. Our operators, our duty officers, our mechanics and our supervisors, these are the front line employees who are there and who are at the greatest risk because they are there with the public.

I have to say when the going gets tough you really see it brings out the best in people, and we have a lot of good people at CAT. I only have good things to say about our team.

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