By Scott Bogren

Re-Building Customer Confidence: It's an Issue of Safety

June 4, 2020

With all 50 states now in some form of re-opening after athe blizzard of state-of-emergency declarations and stay-at-home orders that characterized the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the U.S. – and with CTAA members of all types and sizes now taking their first steps into the first version of a new normal – it’s time to both tackle (and acknowledge) the central challenge in the national transit re-start: restoring passenger confidence in riding public transit.

Assuring that passengers feel safe is going to be the key hurdle confronting all CTAA members – be they operators focused on commuters, medical appointments, older adult grocery trips or any other trip destination you can imagine. And it’s really not anything new; safety has always been our members’ top priority. But make no mistake, this is an entirely new and vexing challenge. Last week, as the New York Stock Exchange re-opened, it did so with both a warning and prohibition about using public transit. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), in issuing new guidance on re-opening office buildings late last week, suggests that employers offer incentives to employees to use transportation forms that minimize close contact with other people. Clearly, these two examples alone highlight the fact that there is a perception of public transit being unsafe.

The safety of transit passengers is an issue into which transit must lean. If you believe that perception is reality, then all transit leaders and advocates must admit that for too many Americans, the perception (and thus reality) is that transit is unsafe due to potential spreading of COVID-19. So what should we all be doing?

Develop Proper Safety Protocols

Just as public transit leadership has done for decades, systems need to assess risks throughout their operations, and then work to mitigate those risks. Obviously, when it comes to reducing virus transmission risk, a complete cleaning and disinfecting protocol for vehicles and facilities is a must. These plans must include regular and routine actions (for example, wiping down high-touch areas, or the use of UV wands to sanitize vehicles) that take place periodically throughout the provision of service and that are visible to customers. Heavier duty disinfectant fogs and sprays for vehicles must be applied on a regular schedule in accordance with CDC guidance.

The people-component in your safety protocols is just as essential as the cleaning regimen. Passengers need to have easy access to hand sanitizers. Where possible, systems need to provide masks for passengers who don’t already have one. Some CTAA members are using disposable, single-use seat covers; others are installing plexiglass shields between passenger seats.

Driver compartments need to have guards and/or partition that provide effective barriers to protect both passengers and operators. Driver ready rooms need to be cleaned and social distancing practices strictly followed. Systems need to develop new HR policies that emphasize the health and safety of staff and passengers. Issues like mandatory quarantines, fitness for duty testing (for example, temperature screening) and clear scenario planning around positive tests, exposures to positive relatives/friends, exposure to virus hot-spots must be implemented.

Good Old-Fashioned Training

A mainstay of safe, successful public transit systems has always been effective training for all levels of staff. CTAA (as I hope you’re aware!) offers training and certification programs for everyone from system managers to front-line supervisors to safety specialists to dispatchers to drivers and to maintenance personnel. We’re looking at the content of all of these programs with an emphasis on adding in the new reality of virus mitigation throughout the transit team.

Transit system leadership must actively develop and embrace new training protocols throughout their agencies to ensure the safety of passengers. Proper training has been the path forward to improving safety in transit – look no further than the dramatic safety increases seen across the transit industry to the point where riding in a bus has become, statistically, one of the safest modes of ground transportation available in the nation. Now, we just need to adapt that mindset to making transit safe from the spread of COVID-19.

Communicate What You’re Doing

Once all the cleaning and safety protocols and training are in place, transit system leadership needs to let the public know exactly what it is doing (and has done) to ensure passenger safety. This is the “leaning into the problem” part of the challenge that the pandemic has brought to the transit field. Let me be clear, it is not enough to do these things quietly and effectively. As we discussed earlier, there is a perception that transit is not safe; and if we don’t directly attack this perception with clear action, we’ve done nothing to re-build customer confidence.

CTAA is recommending that its members develop a full-blown media campaign in their communities emphasizing passenger safety and all that’s being done to ensure it. Social media needs to show images of what the cleaning protocols look like; operator testimonials about training and safety need to be highlighted; real-time rider technology needs to add the latest vehicle cleanings and social distancing information to be pushed to passengers’ phones and computers; and, virus-related safety data needs to be made public and transparent. The only way to deal with a perception of risk is to deal with it squarely and openly.

The First New Normal Emerges

As I noted in the last message to members we are entering the second phase of the pandemic – and much of what happens next and in the months to come is unknown.

To help all of our members we’ve scheduled a Virtual Mini EXPO (LINK) next week (June 9-10) whose purpose is to give you insights, ideas and best practices around such key issues with the transit re-start as operations, safety practices, financial planning, HR policies and communications. We’ll also have break out rooms at the end for members to gather and further discuss key issues with staff.

I’ve been so encouraged by the information we’re getting from CTAA members around the nation. You’re setting our agenda by telling us what you need and/or sharing innovations and solutions you’ve devised. The ingenuity of our members is truly astounding. Please keep it up, and remember, we’re here to help you.

Be well.

Scott Bogren
Executive Director


The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.