With the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s (RTA) current CEO India Birdsong out on maternity leave, Dr. Floun’say Caver is serving as Acting CEO and tasked with continuing to move the agency forward while also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest in the region.
METRO’s Managing Editor Alex Roman recently spoke to Caver about keeping employee morale up during these difficult times, the importance of providing mobility to keep driving the economy forward, and a partnership the RTA formed to help the homeless in the region during the pandemic.
Ridership at the RTA was hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic, can you talk a little bit about where you are now as an operation compared to the beginning of the pandemic?
Prior to the onset of COVID and the stay at home order in mid-March, we were at even ridership levels when compared to the previous year. Our ridership decrease maxed out at about 70% of our pre-COVID levels, on our fixed-route bus and rail systems, as well as our paratransit system. When our state began its phased re-opening, we were slowly climbed to about 50% of our pre-COVID ridership numbers.
As far as percentages, what kind of operations are you putting out on the roads and rails?
At beginning of April, we implemented a service reduction, which started with two modes that had been hit very hard by the stay at home order. First, we suspended our Park and Ride service, the Suburban Flyer service, because its commerce and ridership was severely hampered by the pandemic. Second, and connected with the other closure, we also suspended the operation of our trolley system that offers free rides through the downtown distribution network. So, in that April period, we decreased our service by approximately 15% and continued to operate at 85% of our pre-COVID levels. However, on August 9, we returned to service levels approaching 95% of our pre-COVID levels. We think that boost in services is an important catalyst to the economic and social recovery of our region because it allows for increased mobility.
Can you talk about some of the measures RTA has taken to ensure the safety of its riders and employees?
Early on, we took these issues very seriously. Prior to the stay at home orders, we implemented a robust cleaning protocol that resulted in the disinfecting of every vehicle every 24 hours. We also began robust cleaning procedures in our workplace, as well as in our train stations and transit centers. We learned that we had to continue to be agile. We made several investments that we think have assisted our organization in keeping our employees and customers safe. One of those investments is called the Moonbeam3, which is a UV light system from a company that is based in Northeast Ohio. If there is a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in one of our facilities, we will dispatch the Moonbeam to be that last layer of cleaning and protection, because when you are wiping down a surface you might get about 90% of the germs, but with this technology we are able to kill nearly 100% of the germs. The technology has been helpful for us as we have not had any clusters of COVID outbreaks in workspaces or departments.
Additionally, our bus operators were not enclosed by driver protection barriers, or the big plexiglass enclosures typically used to protect operators from assaults. So, our team went through various iterations to figure out how we could come up with a barrier between our operators and customers that would keep both safe. What we found was something that will work temporarily, which is a marine-grade plastic, like you would find on some convertible cars, that is erected between the operator and the customers who are paying at the farebox. This serves as an extra form of protection.
I would also like to add that since the onset, I have been proud of our staff and their commitment greater Cleveland. I am proud to say to that we were able to continue to provide all the scheduled service. So I believe, and our employees believe, that we are taking the necessary safety precautions. Our team has been showing up and doing a yeoman's job in not only providing an essential service but also in carrying other essential workers to and from their jobs.
RTA has also really focused on helping those in the community as well, including helping the homeless people in the region, can you talk about that partnership?
At the onset of COVID-19 and the stay at home orders, many of the homeless shelters changed their processes, and some closed their facilities, which placed our homeless community in a situation where they were without access to their normal day-to-day civic services. Because of that, we had an influx of homeless individuals at our facilities and on our vehicles. And while we understand why this happened, we still needed to facilitate business and thus had to find the most constructive and empathetic way to address this issue. So, we challenged our team to engage local resources and ended up engaging two social service agencies — one is called Frontline Services and the other one is the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. Our goal was not to just scamper people away, but to help them connect to services that may assist them during this pandemic. For those of us with the blessings of home and family, this has been a difficult time. It is even more difficult for individuals who may not have that natural support system. And so, we want to provide connections. The social service organizations were able to assist some of the homeless individuals in our community and help them find a life solution. Sometimes it may have been compelling them to go and take medications that they needed. In other cases, it might have been linking them with another service that they would not have normally been aware of. I think this program has been very effective because not only were we able to help the well-being of people in this vulnerable position, but also build empathy for them during this difficult time.
With your CEO India Birdsong out on maternity leave, what have been some of your biggest hurdles outside of the pandemic and how have you worked to solve them?
As acting CEO in her absence, I surely have kept in contact to continue to provide her with the information necessary to continue to lead our organization into the future. One of the issues that has left an indelible mark on me was this summer’s civil unrest. Just as the community was climbing out of the stay at home orders and the economic downturn, we entered a period of civil unrest. This placed race matters at the forefront of society. Organizationally, we had to have some critical conversations that could no longer be disconnected from our business. And so, we have had some very good conversations and are creating a more energized strategy around diversity and inclusion. In that respect, it has been a good summer because we are addressing these important topics. We also have a police department and the George Floyd tragedy has caused us to review our policing and use of force tactics. I will say that prior to this, we already outlawed chokeholds, but we have now made modifications to ensure that we have outlawed all the ancillary tactics that could result in the asphyxiation of a person. Dealing with these important topics has been a challenge but well worth it.
Outside of that, the major challenge we have faced as an organization is staying on track with the aggressive agenda set by our CEO. The prior year we completed five pillar studies and still have items that need to be addressed so that we can implement a system redesign and fare equity program. We are planning to engage our board with these plans. Even with all that is going on this summer, we still must keep working because we have an opportunity to continue to move the business forward during this whirlwind. And so with these challenges, we know that our community needs us more than ever. What we have learned from this pandemic, when the state was forced to shut down, is the mobility divide is now as important as the digital divide, because when an individual has a lack of mobility it perpetuates economic inequities. I think that what we understand as an industry, and hopefully as a country, is that there is a social justice and equity aspect to having superior transit and transportation services. Prior to COVID we grouped workers into blue collar and white collar, but now we are in an economy that can best be described as those who can work from home and those who can't. Of those that cannot work from home, many are public transit customers, and so we need to be around to continue to assist them in their efforts to contribute to our economy and community.
"Transportation is a part of the production function of a region's economy. When we threaten it, we threaten those individuals and those components of the economy that are reliant on individuals being able to get where they need to go."
With the pandemic and the social issues this country is currently dealing with, what are some of the things the RTA has done to keep employee morale up?
Since the onset, we have tried to communicate aggressively and openly with our staff. We created intranet sites and have instituted other ways to continue to inform our staff about everything that is going on with the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that openness has created an opportunity for folks to understand that we are as afraid as they are. During the height of COVID-19 in our region, we met two times a week with our union and have continued to have open and frank conversations as we continue to make decisions during this difficult time. And while the union president may have different thoughts, we have been open to listening to his thoughts and incorporating them into the final decisions.
In regards to the unrest and the social aspect, one of the things we did immediately was to engage with a firm that we have a relationship with and began holding WebEx-based town hall conversations related to race, inclusion, and gender to help teach individuals how to talk about these things. Historically, professionals have been told to leave those issues and concerns out of the workplace, right? But this summer, we cannot do that anymore. And so through these forums we have tried to help people deal with some crucial and critical conversations that need to be had. We committed to 15 weeks of these town halls and are halfway through our bi-weekly meetings. I think they have been helpful to create an outlet so that people are able to find a mechanism to deal with what is going on, and quite frankly, discuss what is being discussed at everyone’s dinner table, right now.
You have talked a lot about providing opportunities and making sure opportunities are there through your transit system...how necessary is funding to keep those opportunities open and your services on the road?
As a transit agency, our role is twofold. First, we have a mobility imperative where we are facilitating the mobility in our region. In addition to that, we have an opportunity to help build neighborhoods and communities. Without funding, and increased funding during these times, many transit agencies will have to make decisions that will be detrimental to their communities. Transportation is a part of the production function of a region's economy. When we threaten it, we threaten those individuals and those components of the economy that are reliant on individuals being able to get where they need to go. I described earlier that this notion is similar to the digital divide, and that mobility helps to decrease inequities in our system, but I'll just describe our rider profile, which would probably be very similar to what you’d see in many of our largest urban cities. Seventy-nine percent of our customer base are minorities, 60% earn less than $35,000 a year, and 77% are transit dependent. Of that 77%, 54% of those folks do not have a driver's license. And so when we think about who is disproportionately affected by transit cuts, it is those individuals who do not have another mechanism to get to and from work, but who may be the ones who are working on the frontlines. So, when we cut service, some people may be able to figure out a way to get to where they need to go, but anything that inhibits frictionless transportation causes ripple effects for those who rely on us to link them to work, healthcare, and other essential services.