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Summary Public transportation agencies have always had challenges when dealing with difficult passenger situ- ations. Difficult passenger situations are those in which passengers are argumentative, uncooperative, disruptive, or threatening, or assault a transit agency staff member or other passengers. Public transit agencies realize that most passengers simply want a safe, clean, reliable, and uneventful ride to get to and from destinations that are important to them. Beyond the basic goal of providing safe mobility for their customers, transit agencies acknowledge that difficult customer situations can discourage people, especially those with ample mobility choices, from using public transportation. Therefore, agencies do their best to anticipate, prevent, respond to, and counter difficult customer situations. This report was prepared to identify the many ways that transit agencies prevent, prepare for, and deal with incidents involving difficult customer situations. The primary source of information contained in this report was obtained through a survey sent to 49 transit agencies in the United States. Completed surveys were received from 41 transit agencies of various sizes from 20 states, representing an 84% response rate. In addition, a literature search was conducted that gathered pertinent information on difficult customer situations from scholarly papers and articles in various news media and industry journals from around the country. Case examples from four transit agencies of different sizes from different parts of the country provide a more comprehensive and complete description of the various programs these representative agencies have instituted. The major findings of this synthesis are that public transportation agencies try to prevent difficult customer situations through a combination of public education, extensive training of transit personnel (particularly among vehicle operators, operations supervisors, and customer service personnel), the use of technology to discourage and detect inappropriate behavior, the development of legal foundations for agency action in the form of trespass warrants or codes of conduct, and gaining the assistance of higher levels of police authority when necessary. Some efforts to prevent difficult customer situations are made by transit system personnel who engage in marketing, communications, and community relations to educate the public about the proper way to use the transit system and what behavior is expected and prohibited. This takes many forms, including â¢ Participating in a variety of community forums (particularly school-related events) to present information in person; â¢ Developing printed items, such as ride guides, brochures, posters, bookmarks, and placards, and displaying messages on electronic screens that describe unacceptable behavior by transit riders; and â¢ Developing videos that can be viewed on agency websites, YouTube and other social media, and monitors at transit facilities and that can be shown during community meetings. Transit agencies make major efforts to train frontline personnel in customer relations because they are the employees who deal with difficult customer situations firsthand, often without the immediate assistance of other agency personnel. Such training emphasizes the need to be professional, patient, courteous, and respectful even if the customer might not seem to deserve such treatment. Frontline personnel learn how important it is to listen carefully to a customerâs concerns and not take anything addreSSing difficult cuStomer SituationS
2 that is said personally. Personnel might be trained in using verbal judo and how to defuse a situation before it gets out of hand. They learn to avoid arguments and confrontations at all costs and deescalate situations to their best ability. Most transit agencies teach sessions in stress and anger management and staying physically and mentally fit to help personnel avoid falling into the trap of reacting, rather than responding in a professional and rational way. Training emphasizes emotional intelligence and not letting emotions be âhijacked.â When difficult customer situations get out of hand, despite the best efforts of transit personnel, technology and standard operating procedures that transit personnel are trained to follow come into play. These procedures help ensure that the response of transit personnel is as consistent and professional as possible from one incident and customer to the next. The technology includes video cameras and microphones that can record customer actions and statements. Monitors placed in transit vehicles and at facilities can allow customers to see themselves on the screen and realize that they are being filmed. Such monitors discourage customers from taking inappropriate or prohibited actions. Video footage captured in this manner also can become a valuable training tool for frontline personnel. Transit agencies also increase the eyes and ears that monitor customer activity by providing applications (apps) for smartphones. People can use these apps instantly and silently to make the transit agency or law enforcement personnel aware of prohibited activity, using texts and/or photographs. However, advances in technology create a double-edged sword of sorts. Smartphone applications might provide opportunities to report incidents to authorities in real time, but they also provide oppor- tunities to share negative incidents through social media that can harm the transit agencyâs image and erode confidence in the system. Automated vehicle locating systems allow agencies to monitor the exact location of their vehicles to provide assistance when needed. Transit vehicles have emergency alarms and controls that can immediately alert supervisors and local law enforcement of incidents as they occur. Although frontline personnel might be by themselves when addressing a difficult passenger situation, they are rarely completely divorced from assistance. For that reason, they should not take matters into their own hands. Instead, they should follow protocols learned during training and, when possible, seek supervisory assistance available via communication channels. Through these channels, frontline personnel can receive guidance in what to do next and gain the approval and authority they need to take action to maximize their safety and the safety of other customers. Transit agencies also have access to local law enforcement resources. It is important for transit agencies to nurture good relations with local police departments and the judicial system, to enhance their understanding of transitâs occasional need to address difficult customer situations that might require police assistance and legal processes. Such situations sometimes involve dealing with people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs or who might have mental health issues; no amount of logic or reason will influence many of these customers, and more powerful authority is sometimes required to handle such circumstances. Many transit agencies work closely with human service agencies that are in a better position to help those who are homeless or destitute and might be in a position to offer shelter or other life-sustaining assistance, including transit fare, which can minimize loitering and fare disputes. After an incident, transit agencies can provide assistance to transit personnel who have experienced particularly difficult customer situations. Such help can be made available through personnel training departments, employee assistance programs, or âdefuser teams.â For example, one Canadian transit agency has employees with prior experience in dealing with traumatic situations and who have gone through rigorous training in listening skills, empathy, and strength, help bus drivers deal with and recover from highly stressful incidents. Transit agencies can also help themselves by providing service that is as reliable as possible in terms of schedule adherence, to minimize the possibilities of running late. When passengers are afraid they will miss their connections or arrive late for work, thereby jeopardizing their jobs, they can become
3 understandably frustrated and hurl verbal abuse at the operator. Providing accurate real-time arrival information through automated vehicle locating systems helps calm the nerves of waiting passengers and allows passengers to inform other people if they will be late. Engaging in social media to provide responses to real-time passenger concerns also gives customers some assurance that the agency is on top of situations. Transit agencies can install barriers to protect bus operators from physical assaults. Adopting codes of conduct that describe prohibited behavior and its consequences provides transit agencies with the authority needed to take appropriate action to suspend riding privileges temporarily and even permanently. This not only eliminates that particular difficult customer from the transit system but also sets an example that tends to become known to other customers, thereby discouraging others from engaging in problematic behavior. A slight majority of transit agencies (51%) that responded to the survey for this report said that the number of difficult passenger situations they deal with is increasing. There are a variety of suspected causes, including the presence of more people with mental health issues or who are homeless, the greater number of middle and high school students who use public transit rather than yellow school bus services, and the increased number of passengers with special needs. Although there continues to be a small percentage of people who present challenges, some relatively minor and some far more serious, transit agencies appear to be better equipped and prepared to prevent as many difficult pas- senger situations as possible through the means described in this report and to manage those that occur. Research could be done to identify software that could allow transit agencies to keep better track of the types and numbers of difficult customer situations they experience. Research could quan- tify the effectiveness of various techniques used in preventing difficult customer situations. Finally, additional information on successful techniques could be gained by conducting focus groups with frontline personnel.