It's no secret that transit systems can seem complicated and intimidating to new customers. Riders may have trouble understanding and navigating system route maps and schedules, and may be overwhelmed by transit options. According to a 2009 study in the Transportation Research Record, only 5% of seniors use public transit. The study also found that the main reason for this lack of use was a widespread unfamiliarity with public transit, and a lack of confidence in using its services.
Travel training is one method that transit agencies have used successfully to bridge the learning gap for new riders, especially seniors and persons with disabilities. Travel training can give new riders the skills to:
- Understand trip planning software
- Read route maps and schedules
- Locate bus and train stops
- Flag down buses
- Calculate and pay fares
- Obtain and use transit passes
- Recognize when the desired stop has been reached
- Indicate to the bus driver to stop
- Obtain service updates
- Use mobility devices safely on vehicles
- Tell if a vehicle is equipped for mobility devices
The hope is that by engaging inexperienced riders in using transit systems, they can become more comfortable and eventually use transit independently. This can generate more active lifestyles for riders, and allow them to function fully as part of their communities.
One innovative use of travel training is teaching persons with disabilities who would otherwise use costly paratransit service to use fixed-route service. Two studies conducted by Easter Seals Project ACTION in 2012 found that travel training services had the potential to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in net savings to transit agencies. (See the Research Pays Off: Can Travel Training Services Save Public Transportation Agencies Money? link below.)
Travel training is fully customizable to the agency’s resources and community’s needs. It can be run by paid employees, volunteers, or both. Intercity Transit, based in Olympia, WA, began their travel training program in 2000. Anyone can sign up for the program, which trained about 100 people in 2014. Intercity's travel trainer is a paid employee who initially meets with new riders and does the orientation training. One of its unique features is the volunteer rider component, Bus Buddies, who are volunteers that ride with customers needing special assistance shopping or running errands. Intercity's travel training and Bus Buddies programs are separate, so riders can opt for one program and not the other depending on their needs and abilities.
Attracting volunteers may be a stumbling block for transit agencies who would like to start travel training programs. Many travel training programs, such as the MST Navigators program run by Monterey-Salinas Transit, offer incentives to ensure that volunteers work a set number of hours a month – often free transit rides or passes. What's important is that the transit agency has enough dedicated travel trainers to serve the community's needs, whether they are volunteers or paid staff.
Travel training can also be enhanced by technology. King County Metro has offered free travel training services for over 15 years, including destination-specific, system, group, and lift/ramp trainings. "We have developed a software program that helps us to administer, track and report on all of our employee and client training data in a very consistent and efficient manner," said Amanda Bryant, Program Manager for King County Metro. "The new transit instruction software program works in conjunction with the paratransit Trapeze software. All of our transit instructors use tablets in the field."
Beyond just using technology in the training sessions, there are several ways it makes transit travel easier for new customers. GPS-based smart phone apps such as Wayfinder give riders visual and audible cues to help them ride transit independently. Transit websites such as Olympia's Intercity Transit and Portland, Oregon's TriMet offer trip planning to help customers anticipate any transfers they may have to make, as well as giving information about fares, routes, and delays. However, technology options are not useful for every potential rider, so programs like Bus Buddies will still be very useful in the future.
No matter how a travel training program is structured or carried out, the key to success depends on how well the program responds to community needs. "The secret to the success to the Metro Bus Travel Training program is the strong community outreach component," said Berta Hartig, Marketing and Communications Manager for the St. Cloud Metro Bus of St. Cloud, Minnesota. "Metro Bus has developed mutually beneficial relationships within the network of care providers, senior living facilities, social service agencies and organizations that support people with disabilities and seniors. Because these agencies understand the benefit to the individual, agency and the overall community, and have seen the success individuals have in learning how to ride and become more independent, they continue to refer people to our program."
With the myriad ways that travel training can be achieved, there is no reason for anyone to be excluded from their community because of an unfamiliarity with using transit. As the US population ages, travel training programs will be vital in giving people the independence they need to live full lives, and the versatility of travel training programs means that every transit agency can respond to their community's needs, whether by using volunteers, technology, or community organizations to best reach out to potential new customers.
Beverly Foundation's Supplemental Transportation Programs for Seniors
First Year aboard the Travel Training Bus
Research Pays Off: Can Travel Training Services Save Public Transportation Agencies Money?
Babka, R., J. Cooper, & D. Ragland, (2009). Evaluation of an urban travel training for older adults. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, No. 2110. Washington, D.C., Transportation Research Board of the National Academies: 149-154.
Travel Training for Older Adults: Part I
Travel Training for Older Adults: Part II