NJTIP@Rutgers empowers: Making transit accessible and usable for New Jerseyans

Karen Alexander Headshot

This week on EJBTalks Stuart Shapiro welcomes Karen Alexander, executive director of NJTIP@Rutgers, an initiative of the school’s Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center. They talk about how became inspired to work in the field of transit accessibility, and Alexander discusses NJTIPs mission of teaching all people–particularly seniors and the disabled–how they can gain independence and empowerment through the use of the public transit system. She explains that NJTIP’s hands-on training was challenged and had to change on the fly at the start of the pandemic. NJTIP expanded its programs, providing training not just in transit but also in the skills necessary to use the remote tools that have become so necessary over the past year. They conclude with how NJTIP became involved as an active partner in NJTRANSIT’s VAXRIDE program.

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School. And the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues in the fields of Policy, Planning and health are doing to make the world a better place and the country and New Jersey as well.

Today we have Karen Alexander, who is the managing director of the NJTIP program at our Voorhees Transportation Center. Welcome to the podcast, Karen.

Karen Alexander
Thanks, Stuart. Nice to be here.

Stuart Shapiro
So NJTIP, I know, works around issues of transportation accessibility, and I’m wondering how you became interested in these issues.

Karen Alexander
Sure. So NJTIP has been around for about 15 years and was initially started in partnership with New Jersey Transit. There were folks who thought that there were people on the ADA paratransit system, Access Link, that with training might be able to use the fixed-route transit system. And NJTIP first started as a pilot and then became a nonprofit, and came to Rutgers in 2013 with that mission of teaching people how to use the public transit system, people with disabilities, and seniors.

In terms of my own interest in this area, when I was in graduate school, I was interested in working with the people at New York City transit, who took care of the older people on the bus. I had had an experience living abroad, where although I’m a native Californian who learned to drive at 15, I had the opportunity to use public transportation in Israel, and successfully got myself to Haifa, to an art museum, and then back up to my kibbutz before nightfall. This was important because we were in a secured area, and you needed to be home by nightfall or it was a problem. And when I got to the top of the hill, and I was home, I felt invincible. I felt like Wonder Woman. And I had worked with older adults while I was in college. And I thought, if I can help older adults feel this way, this is something I want to do.

The ADA passed when I was in graduate school, and while there wasn’t a job at New York City transit, working with older people on the bus, the ADA had just passed in New York City was trying to figure out how it was going to comply with this new federal law. And I had the opportunity to work at the New York City Department of Transportation, and help be part of creating the first door-to-door transportation system in New York City.

So that’s my story in terms of transportation, and that feeling of empowerment, that feeling of independence was very emotional. But on a practical level, being able to use public transportation independently, lets people have opportunities in employment, education, quality of life, socialization, recreation, and particularly now, after a year into the pandemic, we know how important it is for people to be able to connect. And being able to get to the things that matter to you most, whether you have a disability or don’t have a disability, whether you’re young or old, that’s really an important life skill. And that’s what NJTIP does.

Stuart Shapiro
Excellent. So that’s fascinating work. For our audience not familiar with it, what is “training people to use transit” mean, actually?

Karen Alexander
Sure, well, there are 27 different skills that you actually need to have some fluency and to be able to use public transportation safely. And since COVID, we’ve added three more, which include community safety and masking and contactless fare payment so that you can use technology to pay. But things as basic as, how do you interact with the operator? How do you stay oriented on the bus? How do you pay the fare? How do you confirm that you’re going to the right place, particularly if you may not be able to read? So all of those different components, some of it social, some of it, safety, are part of what we teach people. And that list of 27 skills is something that is used by travel trainers all over the country.

Stuart Shapiro
So things that a lot of us like you and I, for example, take for granted almost?

Karen Alexander
Right. And I think the other pieces, you know, I grew up in California, so I learned to use public transportation as an adult, which meant that wasn’t something I was familiar with. Similarly, people who grow up in New York and learn how to use transit as a kid have to be taught to drive.

Stuart Shapiro
Right. Yeah, I’m a perfect example of that. I felt comfortable on subways, from the age of probably the age of six or seven, but, you know, put me in a car and it’s a different story.

Karen Alexander
Right. So we all have to learn how to do safe mobility, in whatever environment that we’re in.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s great. Now, you mentioned a couple of additions to the list of activities due to COVID-19. How else has your work changed because of the pandemic?

Karen Alexander
So our program had always been in person, real-time and individual in terms of that primary program that we do through our one on one training. And really in mid-March of last year, I sat down with my team and said, I’ve got to keep you safe. And we have to figure out a way to do this, that’s not going to put you out into the community, but that we can still teach people. And we basically moved our entire program on to online and virtual training. Took the material that we’ve been using for a long time, developed PowerPoints and other online tools that we could use and got tremendous support and flexibility from New Jersey Transit’s Office of local programs, which is our primary connection into transit to do that work and move things virtually so that we could continue to do training.

And we were by late April, able to provide individual instruction and started working specifically with school groups working with transition-age young adults. They were doing remote instruction in their school settings, and we became part of their curriculum. And specifically, groups of students that otherwise would be on Access link. So we got to work with them in a group mode. And we created virtual field trips and travel training that complemented the coursework their teachers were working with. So when they learned about American history, we took them on a virtual trip to Philadelphia.

Stuart Shapiro
Wow, that’s great.

Karen Alexander
But only to places that were transit accessible. We had somebody, they wanted us to take them to Hawaii.

Stuart Shapiro
Hawaii.. no! ((laughing)). I’m fascinated by this sort of training people on technology pieces. I mean, I would imagine some of your audiences for your clientele, particularly older folks, this is a challenge with? How do you manage that? Because it’s not an environment that’s necessarily friendly to people that didn’t grow up with it…. we didn’t grow up with it, but we were still young when the internet emerged. And so how do you handle that?

Karen Alexander
So we did a couple of different things. One is early in the pandemic, we were using WebEx as a primary platform because that was what the university provided. And that was a little bit more challenging for folks. But we also would use FaceTime. In turn, we would use Google meet. There were people that we train just over the phone and sent them material by mail. And for some of our older adults, some of the training was: This is how you use zoom. This is how you log on. This is how you can use a phone to connect with us via audio.

And a lot of times we were working with established partners and community-based organizations and schools that were also figuring this out. So rather than us creating the zoom, convening, they would convene the group, and we would come in as a presenter, and provide video material, or virtual links to the New Jersey Transit trip planner, as part of what we were doing online. And we all got better at it as we went along. Some of the older adults that we trained complimented us later saying, “you know, you were sort of our first introduction to using some of this stuff”. ((laughing)) We just didn’t tell them that we were figuring it out too.

Stuart Shapiro
Sure.

Karen Alexander
Yes, it is a barrier. But I think if you look at the statistics in terms of adoption of internet and web technologies, it’s dramatically increased in the last year among everybody, but including older adults.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, that’s great. I mean, it strikes me in having dealt with my parents as they adapted to technology and my in-laws as well, your big problems often come when something goes wrong. When the Wi-Fi goes out or when the computer gives you an error message. Do you train people on dealing with the unexpected, as well as sort of the basics of how to use things like zoom and New Jersey Transit scheduling and such?

Karen Alexander
So it’s funny, one of the 27 skills is teaching people how to deal with the unexpected. You’re waiting for the bus and the bus doesn’t come and what do you do? Or you get on the bus and it’s going to the wrong place? What do you do? You have to be able to recover from being in an environment that’s a real-world environment. And yeah, to some degree, when we’re doing stuff, virtually, we’re doing the same thing. You’ll always have a phone number in addition to a web link in terms of being able to reach somebody. We use text, all of our travel trainers have smartphones. So regardless of … and they’ve had smartphones for a while. So regardless of where they are in the world, they’re able to get access to the internet. You can text them, you can call them and we’ve had to use those technologies. We’re all at the behest of whatever happens in the technological world, in terms of things going up or going down. But we’ve taught people, you can just call us on our cell phones. And we can at least continue the conversation that way, it’s not just going to evaporate into the ether.

Stuart Shapiro
Right. I see that’s very helpful. Now another change, I know has been the VAXRIDE program from NJ TRANSIT. Can you describe that for us?

Karen Alexander
Sure, I’d be happy to. So I just want to backtrack half a sec, which is to say, although we’ve been doing virtual and remote travel training, since April of last year, in September, we were one of the first community-based programs at Rutgers that went back out into the field. And since September 29, we’ve been able to provide infield instruction for essential trips. So if somebody is going to school, if somebody is going to a job, we will do much of their training virtually, but then we’ll finish with that in-person piece to make sure they can safely go in the community.

So, when we came back from winter break, and the vaccinations were just beginning to start, we had a conversation as a team about how could NJTIP be helpful? What could we do in helping people connect to vaccines? And we decided, with the blessing of New Jersey Transit, that we would start to gather information about vaccine access, and how you could get there via transit. We started with the initial lists that were coming out from the state. And it was 100 sites, 150 sites. And very quickly, those lists began to grow. And also, New Jersey Transit’s own GIS team began to also look at… they were going to start to take all the information they had and get it online so that people could have a resource to use transit to get to vaccine sites.

So our little program became connected with this much bigger program that New Jersey Transit was doing called VAXRIDE, and our web page created a link to VAXRIDE. And what we did is we figured out in terms of how we could be collaborating. The GIS team in New Jersey Transit had all of the information on all the fixed-route services. But there’s a lot of services that happen in New Jersey that are outside of that frame; the county paratransit systems provide or private operator bus companies provide. And so we have been helping them by researching those options, so they can incorporate them into VAXRIDE.

And so if you’re going to take the Somerset County, SCOOT, we’re helping you figure out that that’s something you can take to Raritan Valley Community College, to give a specific example. And they give us lists every couple of weeks of things that are vaccination sites that aren’t showing up with a match on their GIS. And then we research if there’s another way of getting there that’s augmentative to what New Jersey Transit provides directly. They also support many of those services in terms of their local programs, it’s just not in their GIS database.

Stuart Shapiro
Fantastic. Let me end with sort of the big picture question here. It’s common to say that everything’s changed because of the pandemic. And for the most part, I think we just don’t know how everything has changed yet. But in your specific world of transportation, accessibility, and, internet use and all of those things for seniors and the disabled, what do you see as the sort of long-lasting permanent changes of the experience that we’ve gone through over the past year?

Karen Alexander
I think the biggest change is this awareness that you can use technology to be argumentative, and in some cases, substitute for physical mobility. And we see that with telemedicine, we see that with online shopping, we see that with zoom use in terms of holidays and family events. It doesn’t take the place of it, but it definitely creates another layer of opportunity. And we’re anticipating going forward continuing to use this technology because it is cost-effective. And it does expand our reach with a very limited staff. We’ve more than doubled the number of training sessions that we can provide in 2020 because we were doing them virtually as opposed to physically traveling to places to work with people one on one. So we want to continue that. But I think our program and many other entities will place a premium on the in-person real-time opportunity. And we will continue to do that because we need to make sure that people are safe in the community. So I think we’ll see that businesses will adopt some of these efficiencies, but they’ll also put a premium on some of this in-person piece.

I think the other thing that I’m anticipating is that as fewer workers go in large numbers to central business districts, transit providers are rethinking who’s their core ridership, and how do they need to serve them best. When you look at how transit evolved during the pandemic in New Jersey, a significant number of essential workers that were using local buses to get to work, continue to use transit throughout the pandemic. And I think that’s created a new awareness of, who are these people who really depend on transit, And how do we make sure that our transit systems are tuned into them. Which is different than the large numbers going in and out of Manhattan every day on the rail system.

So I think we’re thinking about how do you attract new riders? How do you make transit really relevant for a whole range of potential users? And I think the last piece is, and it’s sort of interesting, the older adults who’ve been stuck at home, that are now vaccinated are potentially a new ridership cohort, in terms of the origins and destinations and trips. We joked earlier about the museum, but they may have places that they would like to go to. And transit can help them.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s great. Public transit, as a whole, has these big questions to answer certainly. I mean, will it remain economically viable, which, of course, we want it to, from a climate change perspective, from an equity perspective, from all sorts of perspectives. But it did rely on those people going into work for a lot of its riders. It’ll be interesting to see how that evolves in light of what you just said.

Karen Alexander
Yeah, but there’s a core group of people who may not have access to private transportation or may have limitations that prevent them from driving their own car that we need to go get to the jobs that they go to. These are many of our essential workers. And I think just to sort of close out the thought, what we’ve also seen, and certainly in terms of the FCC stuff, and the most recent American Jobs Plan proposition about broadband access, and seeing that as an analog to rural electrification, that there’s been this understanding that we need to make sure people have connectivity. They need to physically be able to get there, and increasingly, they need to virtually be able to get there if they’re going to really participate. And that’s, I think what we’re also seeing from a policy perspective is that amalgamation of both of those things.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, for all the controversy over what’s infrastructure and what’s not, it strikes me that broadband should be a core form of infrastructure at this point, as well as of course, transit and roads and tunnels and such.

Karen Alexander
And to your point earlier, Stuart, you know, part of broadband is having access to it, having fluency using it, and being able to afford the technology that allows you to connect to it. And so we’re seeing that come together as… this is really all of these pieces coming into play. And that it not just be similar to other social goods, only in the for-profit arena, but particularly now in this more cooperative, nonprofit oriented, how do we make sure everybody gets this kind of orientation?

Stuart Shapiro
Right. Karen, thank you so much for all of this great discussion. Great information.

Karen Alexander
My pleasure. And thank you so much for having me.

Stuart Shapiro
It was our pleasure. And also a big thank you as always, to Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen. We’ll be back next week with another talk from another expert at the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.