AN interesting storyline to come out of this pandemic has been the issue of public transit.
For the people who rely on it, public transportation is essential, and the cease of service would lead to big problems. But in an age of socially distancing, a bus seems like the least safe place to be.
Chatham Authority Transit has been riding that line (pun intended) through the pandemic, working on solutions to keep the buses rolling while also keeping passengers and employees safe.
CAT’s interim CEO, Michael Brown, has worked in transportation for over 20 years, starting as an operator and slowly moving his way up to leadership.
We spoke with Brown last week about what challenges they face, how their team is working together, and why transportation should be considered essential.
What are some of the challenges you’re going through at CAT?
A couple challenges come to mind: one is keeping our employees and our customers safe. That has been one of the biggest challenges for us, making sure that we have all the personal protective equipment, making sure we keep our vehicles sanitized and clean, making sure we are getting information out 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 we social distance. We have virtual leadership meetings three times a week, and we have virtual town hall meetings for all employees three times a week. That gives us a chance to let our employees know what we are doing, what the leadership team is doing, how we’re working to keep them safe, how we’re working to conduct CAT’s business and how we’re working to make sure that everyone still receives a paycheck while we go through this.
We’re seeing that there’s things that have come out of this pandemic that we’re going to be doing in the future that we haven’t done in the past. One of those things are the virtual town halls because it gives us a chance to connect with all our employees without them having to be in the same room. We just set up a time, they dial in, and they ask questions.
That’s a change we’re going to make, as well as how we sanitize our vehicles. It’ll be a whole different method of how we keep our vehicles clean.
How are you keeping your vehicles clean?
We do the same thing. We’ve doubled the bleach content and we make sure we change our mop heads and mop buckets more frequently. We’re using a product called Vital Oxide, which is like a fog we spray in the bus and it kills—now I’m going to sound like a commercial, but it kills 99.9% of the germs, including coronavirus. Wiping down the driver’s area, all the seats, all the handrails, every single bus, every single night.
We’re in contact with other transit agencies through APTA and other CEOs, other maintenance directors, other communication directors, so we can get best practices for what other agencies are doing across the country. We’re pretty much doing as much as, if not more than, these other agencies are doing to keep folks safe.
What is ridership like right now?
Ridership is down, as you might expect. We’re running a reduced service; our span of service is less than what it would normally be. We’re running about 13 hours of service right now, Monday through Saturday, and a little less on Sunday.
Our ridership of our fixed route is down over 70%, and our paratransit operation is down over 40%. We’re running less service, so we’re going to have less ridership. We’re also encouraging out customers only to use the service for essential trips, which is classified as to the doctor, the grocery store, or to work.
That seems almost counterintuitive to encourage people not to ride, even though that’s the safe thing to do. Does that feel like a problem?
As transit agencies, we want to build ridership and improve and expand our transportation modes. So to have a transit agency encourage less ridership is unique. It’s not something I thought I would see in my time!
But these are extraordinary times, and the most important thing is to keep everyone safe. To do that, we put measures in place where we ask folks to only use our services for essential trips. We’re running our fixed route buses at 50% capacity, we’re encouraging our riders to wear use masks, we’ve placed signage in all the buses.
But you’re right—that’s not something you’d hear from a transit agency CEO or really anyone in transit, but in these extraordinary times it’s important we try to keep everyone safe, not only our operators but also the customers themselves.
Why should transportation be considered essential?
We so often hear about medical professionals and first responders as well as law enforcement being essential, and they are. But transportation is essential as well. Sometimes I feel that transportation workers don’t get the same respect and acknowledgement that we are essential.
I think it’s important that everyone realizes, and I think a lot of folks do, how important public transportation is. If we were to stop running service, there’s a lot of people in this community and this county that would have no other means of transportation. They don’t have a car, they can’t afford to get Uber or Lyft or a taxi when they need to go somewhere.
We take what we do very seriously. We know how valued we are, we know we provide this valuable service, and we don’t take that for granted.
When the pandemic is over, how do you plan to restore people’s trust in public transit?
I want to tell our customers that we have never left them. We have always been here for them through this pandemic. Yes, we had to reduce our service, but we did it as a way to protect not only our employees but our passengers.
Not only have we always been here, we will continue to be here for you and be there for our passengers and our community when things start to ease up. We have measures in place to make sure we continue to keep our vehicles sanitized, provide PPE for employees, and to encourage our passengers once this lifts to come on back and continue to use public transit. I know there’s a vast majority of our customers that will come back—they have no other means of transportation.
Our frontline employees should be commended because they’re the ones who have volunteered to continue to come in to work and provide this essential service. Our operators , station care, mechanics and supervisors—those are the frontline employees who are out there and have the biggest risk because they’re out there with the public.
I have to say that when things get rough, you really see—it brings out the best in people, and we have a lot of good people at CAT. I have nothing but positive things to say about our team.