CLEVELAND, Ohio — Northeast Ohioans taking public transportation in Greater Cleveland will begin seeing teams of red-vested ‘ambassadors.’ Tuesday, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) announced the launch of a Transit Ambassador Program.
“This was born out of conversations to be able to create a safe environment and continue that safe environment, for not only our customers, but our staff alike,” RTA CEO India Birdsong said during a press conference announcing the initiative.
Once fully staffed, 10 unarmed ambassadors will work in teams at rail stations and the RTA’s HealthLine. An additional 4 licensed social workers will accompany Transit Police as Crisis Intervention Specialists to help defuse crises, conduct mental health and substance abuse outreach and establish relationships with social services agencies.
“Their goal is customer service while also lessening the footprint of law enforcement on the system,” explained RTA Transit Police Chief Dierdre Jones.
The ambassadors will be tasked with helping riders navigate the system, providing general information and maintaining a clean environment. Additionally, RTA leaders said the teams will help customers ‘understand and comply’ with fare policies and communicate with Transit Police for assistance as needed.
The initiative comes after a 2017 Cleveland Municipal Court ruling that the transit system’s fare inspection methods were unconstitutional. Before that point, RTA Transit Police officers had been stopping some customers and asking to inspect fare cards. A judge said the practice violated customers’ 4th Amendment rights protecting them from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Following the ruling, drivers became responsible for checking fares, which some say led to back-ups while passengers boarded buses.
“We would like to see that responsibility moved away from the operator and distributed to those transit ambassadors to help make it a more seamless, elegant, frictionless experience for riders,” said Robert Winn, a volunteer with Clevelanders for Public Transit (CPT).
The organization has been advocating for changes to alleviate delays and slow service. Winn and others believe the RTA’s ambassador program stops short of addressing a main concern of riders.
“We’re excited to see crisis intervention specialists, we’re excited to see transit ambassadors, but we think the potential is there for them to do more - in terms of elevating the passenger experience,” he said. “Ideally, we would see transit ambassadors help restore all-door boarding and help speed up that boarding and fare payment process.”
During Tuesday’s press conference, RTA leaders said its new ambassadors won’t inspect fares, but will have “de-escalating conversations” with customers who haven’t paid. They said the system is the process of determining how to effectively operate all-door boarding.
A recent survey of GCRTA riders found fixed route bus riders listed bus timeliness, cleanliness and safety as the most important factors. RTA leaders hope the addition of ambassadors will address all three areas. CPT advocates said it’s a step in the right direction.
“All of the additional wayfinding customer service and crisis intervention is a net positive, but all door boarding and proof of payment is something we’d really like to see,” Winn explained.
Initially, the Transit Ambassador teams will operate at rail stations and on the RTA HealthLine in 2 shifts. Eventually, the RTA plans to expand the program to other locations and routes.
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