Strengthening our Service through Partnership

By Gina Douthat | 5/23/2024

General Manager
Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK)
Ft. Wright, KY

As leaders at our respective public transportation agencies, we are well aware of the significant impact our work has on our communities. Our transit systems operate as vital arteries, ensuring that people have the mobility they require to live active, independent, and full lives.

However, the effectiveness of our agencies requires many layers to function properly: a healthy infrastructure; technology that improves our ability to operate; and an educated, healthy, and ready-to-work population; among others. Equally significant is the collaboration we cultivate with local businesses and the communities we serve. In this symbiotic relationship, each party plays a crucial role in enhancing the accessibility, efficiency, and sustainability of public transit, ultimately contributing to the collective well-being of the communities we all serve.

At the heart of partnership lies the recognition of shared outcomes. Public transportation systems, whether buses or trains, strive to provide convenient, affordable, and environmentally friendly mobility solutions to the public. Businesses require a supply of human workforce to meet their needs—often delivered on our systems. Meanwhile, communities look for accessible transit options that connect them to essential services, schools, jobs, and fun.

The cooperation between public transit agencies, local businesses, and communities is demonstrated in many ways. One of the most apparent benefits of greater cooperation is the shared desire to tap into a diverse pool of talent, allowing businesses to fully meet their recruitment goals and the needs of local job centers. Connecting workers to jobs has long been a goal of our agencies and one of our most important contributions to our communities. But can we do it alone? I would argue the resounding answer is NO!

In my experience, now 25+ years long at a small urban transit agency, there is a give and take to the transit-business partnership. Businesses locate in a community for a variety of reasons—their ability to generate profit and successfully operate that business being at the center. All too often, after the business locates and begins to recruit employees, the phone call to my office comes. “Can you provide bus service to XX company that just located here?”

With ever-increasing strains on local operating funds and ever-increasing inflationary costs on almost every material, supply, and part we purchase, adding service has not been on the radar for many agencies post-pandemic. I would argue, however, that it is precisely the time for some creative business-transit agency-community partnerships to emerge. And it may be ripe timing for businesses to pay attention and engage with transit agencies. Why?

If the transit agency is truly to meet the needs of businesses, it behooves businesses to understand transit. At TANK we work with HR departments and our local economic development corporations to help them truly understand the services we provide, know how to read the schedule, and understand what their employees experience in their commute. We work with them to encourage them to be as flexible as possible when making adjustments to shifts and work schedules, so they align with the services provided.

It may mean employers put some “skin in the game” and privately fund service that aligns with their needs or even pilot entire routes, geared toward providing more direct or frequent service closer to their facility or business park.

It might mean creatively using employee benefits to pay for all or part of the cost of using transit for employees or partnering in technology to develop a new way to encourage transit use companywide.

Engagement is equally crucial in shaping how our public transportation systems evolve. Transit agencies can’t keep operating service in the same ways and assume our results will be the same. A recent survey at my agency shows that more than 40 percent of people riding our service today are new to riding the bus in the last two years. Post-pandemic ridership behavior is different—just like how people work. Are we still meeting the needs of our community?

Partnering to ensure that transit agencies truly understand and can effectively serve these changing dynamics in how people work is critical to maintaining our relevance. By actively involving businesses in the planning and decision-making processes, agencies can tailor services to meet the unique needs of employers, employees, and communities. This may involve soliciting feedback on route planning, service frequency, impressions of safety on our systems, and fare structures to ensure that public transit remains inclusive and a considered option for all.

Beyond the practical aspects, the partnership between public transportation systems, businesses, and communities also has profound social implications. Accessible public transit options that provide significant service to good jobs are vital in promoting social equity by providing mobility solutions and upward mobility to those who may lack access to private transportation, thereby bridging socioeconomic divides and fostering a more inclusive society.

Forging relationships with our local businesses and communities can assist agencies in better-leveraging resources, expertise, and local knowledge to address challenges holistically, ensuring that public transit remains a cornerstone of our communities.

Partnerships between public transportation systems, businesses, and communities are not merely a matter of convenience or efficiency, they are a fundamental priority for ensuring that our systems are woven into the community and are meeting the critical needs of our partners. By working together toward common goals and being open to creative partnerships, we can truly be leaders in sustaining transit service that is efficient and reliable but also equitable, sustainable, and responsive to the needs of the people and businesses we serve.