Collaborating across State Boundaries for Community Transit

What do passengers need to rebuild their confidence in transit?

This was the indirect question aimed at the attendees of the 2021 Midwest Transit Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The answer stemmed down to community, operations and collaboration.

During the first week of September three state associations, Iowa Public Transit Association, Kansas Public Transit Association, and Missouri Public Transit Association, hosted hundreds of transit advocates including operators, citizens, and elected officials to hear from national, regional and state transit leadership, including Jeff Nelson, Scott Bogren, Taulby Roach, and Dale Schaefer.

A residual theme throughout the 2021 Midwest Transit Conference focused on the human element of transit. The need for greater communication, empathy and resiliency to ensure the transit industry, with the help of their vendors and partners, can deliver essential service as we move through these critical times to recovery.” – Kimberly M. Cella, Executive Director at Citizens for Modern Transit and Missouri Public Transit Association.

During the Conference Lunch Session, Jeff Nelson, General Manager, Rock Island County Metropolitan Mass Transit District (MetroLINK), and APTA Chair noted: “I’ve been in this business for three decades and I know that we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to re-invent public transportation in America. We cannot measure success on ridership alone. The number does not matter, the positive impact to our community matters. This is our time to prove what transit needs to be, what it can be, and how critical it is to our nation’s future.

Transit operators have gone above and beyond to bring back riders, regain public trust regarding the health and safety of services, all while continuing to provide exceptional, timely services. Consultants, suppliers, and operators alike agree that as an industry, we need to restore equitable societal benefits across the system. Each resident deserves access to transit and a safe and productive journey. When that happens, we have done our job.

During the General Session, Scott Bogren, Executive Director, Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) noted: “Change was already coming to the public transportation industry prior to the pandemic. The key today is for transit leadership to differentiate between temporary and permanent change because of the pandemic. Transit leadership at the local level has a long and successful track record of overcoming challenges and CTAA believes that the current situation will be no different.

Breakout sessions around rebuilding operations tied back to collaboration and conversations around passenger confidence tied back to community.

Conversations related to operations, recruiting and retention were highly attended. Across the region, ridership has returned while operators continue to grapple with the labor shortages that have become all too common in the transportation services sector.

Conversations related to community included ways to increase passenger confidence and enhance the passenger experience. The region has seen new, high-density housing in proximity to economic improvement zones, which have attracted some of the largest tech companies, proving to be a major source of new ridership. These tech-savvy customers demand modern amenities including real-time departure information and a digital onboard experience. By adding onboard amenities such as Wi-Fi and entertainment, agencies are responding to customer demands while increasing the collective societal benefit of their services. These solutions help to rebuild passenger confidence, enable productivity while in transit, and deliver increased brand recognition, satisfaction, and loyalty. By focusing on the passenger first, together as a community, region, nation, and country, Midwest transit operators can create an experience that will positively impact post-pandemic travel.

Overall, the conference instilled a positive, can-do spirit amongst the attendees, which was needed to address all the issues this unprecedented time has created.

Remote working is flexible, but nothing can make up for in-person networking and learning. Thank you to those that made this multi-state conference a reality – including Michael Foley, Jeanne Fitzgerald and Alicea Castillo.