Lori Eaton spends her afternoons hurling giant smoke rings, racing marbles and bringing pig lungs back to life — all in the name of public transportation. Though it may appear that she is a magician by trade, Eaton is actually one of many transit educators across North America instructing the public on the use and benefits of public transportation.
The program Eaton works for, “ET: Protector of the Planet,” is an interactive DVD program featured at the Everett, Wash.-based Imagine Children’s Museum. The program, which premiered in May, has already garnered a Promising Practice Award from the MetLife Foundation and Association of Children’s Museums.
It is just one of many innovative programs that transit authorities across North America have implemented in recent years in an effort to educate the public on the use and benefits of public transit, increase ridership, make the streets safer, the environment less polluted and life better overall in their communities.
Engaging a young audience
Because these programs vary in their audiences, their approaches and activities also vary. The programs for children, for example, tend to adopt a highly varied, fast-paced and playful approach. Museum staffers, who collaborated with Everett Transit to create the “ET” program, like to refer to the element of playfulness that engages their young audience during the program as the “wow factor.”
“That is our claim to fame here at the Children’s museum,” says Executive Director Nancy Johnson. “Because we know that’s how [children] remember it, we try to bring in props that have huge visual effects.”
Such visual effects include the aforementioned smoke rings and pig lungs, which are interspersed throughout the hour-long program in live demonstrations, to show the effect that air pollution can have on the human body and, thus, the importance of public transit in reducing that pollution.
Throughout the “ET” program, Eaton, education manager at the Imagine Children’s Museum, also interacts with the characters in the DVD program, which captivates her young audience. “The students participating in the program think that it’s very magical,” she says. “It really gets them engaged.”
Other programs aimed at educating children on the benefits of public transportation include the Corpus (Texas) Christi Regional Transportation Authority’s (CCRTA) Youth Educational Program. As part of the program, local schoolchildren receive coloring books, get a chance to sit in a bus driver’s seat, visit bus yards, meet with mechanics and experience a bus wash. In addition, the children get a chance to eat lunch with the bus drivers.
Like the Children’s Museum, Kristi Peña, CCRTA’s interim manager of customer programs/communications/marketing, has also found it helpful to keep activities fast-paced, highly-varied and playful for young audiences. “They feel really important sitting next to a bus operator,” she says. “We also have a mascot — a big bumble bee — that they really get excited over.”
When working with older students, Peña changes her approach. She tailors each school campus visit to the particular group of students she is educating. For a high school economics class, she once handed out information on CCRTA’s rider demographics and asked students to answer specific questions based on the data for a graded assignment.
“A lot of the older kids feel like it’s not cool to ride the bus,” Peña says. “I try to get them out of that mode. When you’re on the bus, you can learn more about people and about our city — you wouldn’t get that anywhere else but on a bus.”
Travel training for adults
Adult programs similarly take on a more serious approach, especially the new Introduction to Travel Training Course administered by Easter Seals Project ACTION (ESPA), a federally-funded organization dedicated to increasing mobility for people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The Easter Seals travel-training course is a three-day program that teaches travel trainers like Eaton and Peña how to better educate the public about transit services and includes an entire curriculum that was prepared by a curriculum design board. Every participant in the program, which premiered in March in Portland and Chicago, benefits from the highly detailed curriculum, says Karen Wolf-Branigin, training and technical assistance manager for ESPA.
Travel trainers are provided “a wealth of information,” says Wolf-Branigin. “They have workbooks that they use. We give them a CD with all the information that we’ve used during the course, plus a lot of resource materials.”
In addition to attending numerous workshops and classes at a designated hotel, travel trainers taking the course hit the streets and partake in group exercises that mirror common challenges seniors and disabled individuals face on a daily basis.
But, it is important to note that the formal nature of the Easter Seals course is attributable to the fact that it is dedicated to teaching transit professionals.
Other courses on public transportation given to adult prospective riders can be less formal. Steve Jaffe, a transit educator for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (L.A. Metro) “Seniors on the Move Program,” likes to keep his audience of seniors engaged with light-hearted fare.
About 15 times a year, his groups travel to a local rail facility, have their photos taken for a senior reduced fare ID card, attend a workshop called “Bus 101,” learn about local transit options and view a film, “Seniors Day Out.”
“The whole thing is actually a very fun day,” Jaffe says. “Part of the reason for the trip is to make it fun. We talk about this topic, but we keep it light. And there’s a lot of humor throughout.”
Jaffe recalls one woman who joked once about a tree jumping in front of her car. “I asked, ‘Has anyone recently decided to stop driving?’ And a woman raised her hand,” Jaffe says. “I asked, ‘Well how’d you choose?’ And she said, ‘Well you know trees these days are very disrespectful. The other day I was driving. I had one jump out and hit my car. Trees are very aggressive.’ People often talk about aggressive drivers or kids that are driving really fast.”