Fights on the bus. Verbal harassment and assault. A bus window smashed with a hurled rock.
These aren’t new problems, nor unique to Detroit and other major urban hubs. But the tight labor market and high-stress/high-stakes nature of operating public transit in a COVID context has helped the rest of the world sit up and take notice: transit operators have a lot to deal with.
Given the complexity of the job (even prior to the pandemic), truly qualified operators have long been in short supply. As Russell Nikiforuk, Manager for Operator and Technical Training at Coast Mountain Bus Company, explained in 2019:
“You have to manage not only the technical aspects and those skills of operating the vehicle itself, it’s also doing it while having to deal with members of the public, which can present their own set of challenges. Someone may have really strong technical . . . [but] run into some challenges here and there in the sense of how they’re handling themselves in relation to dealing with customers in different situations.”
Metro Detroit’s Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) has committed themselves to making sure their operators have the tools they need to meet this challenge head on. They’ve teamed up with FAAC (an organization noted for advancements in simulation training technology for mass transit and public safety workers) to create the first fully-immersive situational awareness training system integrated with a public transport simulation system.
According to Beth Gibbons, Manager of Marketing Communications and Education at SMART, the goal is to “incorporate customer service into the driving experience.”
Public Transport Simulation Training Technology to Improve Customer Service
As SMART Training and Development Coordinator Lafeyette Kelly explains, “the day to day problems of passengers, conflict resolution, [these] are the big ticket items for us. What gives [transit operators] the most trouble, their most concern, is if someone is upset … I’m on this bus by myself; what can I do? We hope that, with the use of these different [branching simulation] scenarios, [that will] give them a . . . kind of tool belt they can use. ‘Oh I saw this before. When i see a person do this, I should say this.'”
SMART’s Beth Gibbons fully expects to see this kind of fully integrated public transport simulation training to become the norm in the near future. “In talking with other transit agencies,” she notes, “it really is amazing how similar our training experiences are. . . . My sense is that everyone is trying to change their focus. You can hire anybody to drive a bus. But the public part of it, quality service is more important now than before. If they have a pleasant experience when they board the bus and throughout their trip, all of the other things that might delay a trip or create other issues, kind of minimize.”