We’ve again come to that time of year when the days become a little shorter, football takes its rightful place as King of the Weekend, and yellow school buses come out of hibernation to make our morning commutes just a little more terrible. It is this time of year that boys and girls, fresh faced, cheery eyed, and eager to learn, go back to school. And before they begin any structured learning, perhaps before they do anything else, they take part in a ritual as old as the institution itself, that cherished ice-breaker we remember so well – telling their new classmates what they did over the summer. Who went to soccer camp? Who went on vacation? Who had to get their tonsils out?
I’m going to share with you what I did this summer, and really this spring too (at least, part of what I did.) I worked on a survey for GMTMA to identify both the needs of and issues facing the traditionally transportation-disadvantaged, specifically, people of low-income, disability, or advanced age. For those of you familiar with surveying, you know it is a difficult process, or more accurately, a difficult process of other difficult processes. At the TMA, we designed, distributed, collected, and analyzed this survey over a period of months. Though we took careful measures to create an instrument easy enough to be completed without assistance and short enough to be completed in ten minutes, in many instances, I personally administered the survey, question-by-question. But surveying, although complex, time consuming, and fraught with pitfalls, is necessary, particularly in this line of work. Surveying is a crucial part of communicating with the people we are trying to assist. It is a means of learning, of becoming insightful and empathetic; by asking someone to describe their experience, we become wiser and the decisions we make, more effective. So this summer I surveyed.
I learned a lot by sitting with people and asking them about their world as it relates to transportation. Where do you like to go? Where would you want to go if you could? Why can’t you get there now? In truth, a lot of people didn’t know how to answer these questions or had to be prompted in different ways before the answer became clear. Some people didn’t want to respond at all. But in the end, 557 people took the time to answer my questions. I have 557 glimpses into these people’s world, a world where, for most of them, lack of transportation has put them at a disadvantage.
But I also have 557 opportunities, 557 assistants, 557 reasons to find a better way. I have 557 reminders that people need help doing things you and I take for granted every day. I know things that maybe I already thought before, things that a lot of people might consider elementary. But really, until you hear it and you are forced to think about it and you realize what it means, I don’t think you really know it.
I know that a bus does no good if it stops coming five hours before a shift ends. I know that the only thing stopping a potential hire from becoming a recent hire is often a 10-minute car ride, which might nonetheless be an impossibility. I know that there are people out there who thank their lucky stars that their daughter lives close enough to take them to the senior center a couple times a week, lest they never have a chance to see their friends. And I know there are people out there who have resigned themselves to a world where thoughts of leading a spontaneous life have all but passed.
I know that people need to get where they’re going, otherwise they never end up there.
Right now, I’m still working on this survey, creating the report that will help guide the TMA through its mobility management endeavors and hopefully, into some impactful projects that will help change people’s lives for the better. Though the end is nigh and I’m honestly glad for it, I’m equally glad for the experience of it. I encourage transportation planners, mobility managers, service providers, and anyone else who makes decisions about community transportation to talk to the people whom you wish to help and listen to them, as well. The work we do can only be made better by doing so.