Communicating with the public is an important element of multiple aspects of managing a public transit system.  This section of the toolkit is intended to provide guidance on each of the ways a rural transit agency gives information to and engages with the community it serves.  The section summarizes the various parts of public communications and introduces requirements and recommendations that are detailed in other sections of this toolkit, as well as other National RTAP resources. This section of the toolkit is organized into the following subsections:

A key resource referenced throughout this section of the toolkit is the National RTAP Marketing Toolkit.

Keeping the Public Informed about Services

An essential characteristic of a public transit system is ongoing publicly available information about the transit agency’s services and how to use them.  Promoting the service as open to the public is an important aspect of providing public transportation.  Informational materials typically used by rural public transit agencies include:

  • Rider’s Guide – As noted in the Fundamental Communications section of the Marketing Toolkit, whatever type of service the transit agency operates — fixed route, demand response, or any other type— a rider’s guide is one of the most basic and important information tools.  A rider’s guide is also commonly referred to as a “how to ride” guide or a passenger guide.  Rider’s guides will vary with the type of service(s) operated; common elements include:
    • Information on geographic coverage as well as days and hours of service (for fixed routes, this would include route maps and schedules)
    • Fare information, including payment methods, how to qualify for reduced fares, and fare transfers between routes
    • How to access the service (which could include how to identify a bus stop, how to request a deviation, how to make a demand response trip reservation, and how to apply for eligibility for services with eligibility requirements)
    • Passenger code of conduct (including rules/policies about prohibited behaviors, such as smoking or eating on the bus)
    • Information about accessibility of the service to riders with disabilities
    • Contact information, including a website address and reference to Google Transit trip planning, if available

For more detailed suggestions, refer to the Fundamental Communications section of the Marketing Toolkit.  For examples, the Marketing Templates section of the Marketing Toolkit includes templates for passenger guides for fixed route and demand response services.

  • Route Maps and Schedules – Transit agencies that operate fixed routes and route deviation service should publish route maps and schedules of key timepoints for each route.  A system map is also helpful, so that riders can more easily identify where the routes intersect and what routes they can use to complete their trip.  Each map should indicate key bus stop locations (at a minimum, each timepoint listed in the schedule), landmarks, and key destinations clearly noted on the map.  The Marketing Templates section of the Marketing Toolkit includes templates for route maps and schedules as part of a rider guide.
  • Fare Policy – It is important to notify the public of the costs to ride the service, including the regular general public fare, reduced fares for groups such as seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and students, as well as eligibility criteria for reduced fares, options for multi-ride tickets/passes (and where to purchase them), and other details about paying to ride the transit system.
  • Passenger Policies – Policies about passenger code of conduct on board the bus, consequences for prohibited behavior, policies for accommodating people with disabilities on all services, eligibility requirements for services that are only open to a limited population, and other important policies should be documented in writing and made available to the public.
  • Notices of Service Changes -- It is important to alert passengers and the public of service changes so that they know to alter their personal travel plans to adjust for the transit system changes.  Service changes can occur now or in the future, be unexpected or planned, and temporary or permanent.  The transit agency should have a system in place for preparing and posting notices quickly and with as much notice as possible to passengers and potential passengers.

Typical strategies for sharing public information include:

  • Printed materials – Printed materials are an important means to share information with members of the community who may not have access to the Internet.  Transit agencies should consider stocking rider guides, route maps, and schedule brochures at community information centers such as public libraries, government service buildings, social services buildings, and visitors’ centers within the transit service area.  Templates for brochure designs, as well as stock photos and graphics, can be found in the Marketing Tools section of the Marketing Toolkit.
  • Website – At a minimum, the transit agency’s website should detail each of the services operated and provide contact information.  It should also include a Title VI notice (as discussed in the Civil Rights section of this toolkit, and contact information for requesting any materials in a different format (discussed later in this section of the toolkit under Ensuring Information Is Understandable and Accessible).  National RTAP’s Website Builder app is a free resource that rural and Tribal transit agencies can use to create and maintain their websites. 
  • General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data – National RTAP offers the GTFS Builder web app that rural and Tribal transit agencies can use to develop and generate schedule and geographic data (route alignment and bus stops) for uploading.  GTFS files can then be used in Google Transit, Apple Maps, and other apps that provide transit information from GTFS data.  Many transit agencies use Google maps created with their GTFS data to serve as route maps on their website.
  • Social media – Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are good strategies for getting time sensitive information out quickly and in a format that can easily be shared.  National RTAP provides several resources on using social media to share information on rural transit services, including a Best Practices Spotlight Article on Social Media and the Leveraging Social Media: Spreading the Word and Enhancing Community Participation Technical Brief.
  • Emailed service announcements and alerts – Transit agencies can build an email list of subscribers to which they can send electronic newsletters and service change alerts.  This is a way of quickly reaching all riders who have chosen to subscribe, including those who do not regularly use social media.  National RTAP’s Website Builder web app includes a contact form that can be used to develop an email list.  Transit agencies that are part of government organizations may be able to be part of the government organization’s electronic subscription service.
  • Notices posted onboard buses – Onboard notices help share important information with passengers who are able to read the notices.  This means of communication will not be useful for informing riders with vision disabilities or those who are unable to read the language(s) the information is posted in.
  • Signage posted at transit facilities (including bus stops at fixed stops) – If a transit facility has a bulletin board or passenger shelter -- route, schedule, and fare information can be posted.  It can also be helpful to post notices and signs at transfer centers and bus stops that are served for routes that have or will be changed.  As noted in the Marketing Toolkit, posting up-to-date information at the bus stop is particularly important on low frequency routes.
  • Telephone support – As stated in the Marketing Toolkit, one of the most basic and essential means of communicating passenger information is the telephone. For example, seniors and people with low literacy may prefer and better understand telephone calls and messages.  Options offered on an automated phone answering system should be very clear and include an option for speaking with a real person during office hours.   
  • Real-time information – The Marketing Toolkit explains real-time information as “how long until the bus gets here.”  Transit agencies with automatic vehicle locator (AVL) technology can provide real-time information to riders through smart phone or tablet apps, the agency’s website, text message, or an automated phone system.

The Marketing Toolkit provides more information, recommendations, and templates for keeping the public informed about transit services.

Public Notice and Engagement as Part of Planning

As discussed in the Planning and Evaluation section of the toolkit, there are several types of planning efforts conducted by rural transit agencies that need and sometimes require public involvement.  These include:

  • When planning changes in services and fares – Public input on what services are needed and what fare levels riders are willing and able to pay can help a transit agency plan new and changed services and fares that are designed to meet the needs of the community.  Some State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) require their Section 5311 subrecipients to conduct a public hearing before implementing service and fare changes.
  • When developing local coordinated plans – Some State DOTS require rural transit grant projects to be included in locally developed, coordinated public transit-human services transportation plans. Local coordinated transit planning typically includes a public involvement process.
  • When applying for grants – Under FTA’s Title VI requirements (discussed in the Civil Rights section of the toolkit), all recipients of federal funding are required to include public participation as part of the development of the program of projects for an FTA grant.  This requirement is discussed under Public Involvement and Title VI Requirements in the Planning and Evaluation section of the toolkit.  State DOTs typically require a public participation process, including consultation with private transportation providers and a public hearing (or opportunity for one upon request) about the proposed grant application.
  • For projects that require an Environmental Impact Statement – Under the U.S. DOT Environmental Justice requirements and corresponding FTA guidance (discussed in the Civil Rights section of the toolkit), FTA recipients are required to engage minority and/or low income populations during the transportation decision making process for projects that require an Environmental Impact Statement (such as construction and rehabilitation of certain types of facilities).  This includes public outreach and engagement in the planning process to ensure that community members have an opportunity to express their concerns about the proposed project. 

The above list of planning activities that necessitate public notice and/or engagement is not exhaustive, and does not notices that may be required for other types of state or federal requirements discussed in other sections of the toolkit. 

National RTAP developed a checklist called What Transit Agencies Need to Inform the Public About Before Making Changes that lists these planning efforts and other transit agency policies and programs that necessitate notifying the public. 

Examples of public notice and engagement strategies include passenger surveys, community surveys, focus groups, and public meetings. Email or postal letters can be used to provide notice of surveys and meetings to stakeholders such as municipalities, tribes, private providers, social service agencies, advocacy organizations, major employers, educational facilities, and other organizations.

Hosting public and stakeholder meetings is discussed later in this section of the toolkit. Other resources on conducting public notice and engagement activities include:

Ensuring Information Is Understandable and Accessible

It is very important that the public information provided by transit agencies is understandable and accessible by as many members of the public as possible.  There are federal requirements for translating essential information into languages other than English in communities with concentrations of people who speak another language.  There are also federal requirements to make information accessible to individuals with disabilities.

  • Language assistance for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) populations -- As discussed in the Civil Rights section of the toolkit, FTA-funded transit agencies are required to take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access to information, services and the benefits of their programs for LEP persons.  This can include, but is not limited to, translating service information into commonly spoken languages or using images to convey information instead of words. Commonly spoken languages are determined through a required analysis conducted by each transit agency.  National RTAP developed the Essential Spanish for Rural Transit training module and related resources for transit agencies that serve Spanish speakers.
  • Information accessibility for people with disabilities – Transit agencies must make service information available to people with disabilities, including those with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.  The Rider Information section of the ADA Toolkit discusses this requirement and approaches to providing accessible information. Examples include accessible websites, accessible electronic documents, large print, audio recordings, text telephone (TTY) (including TTY relay services (available nationwide by dialing 711), and more.

When preparing written communications, it is a good idea to use plain language so that it is easily understandable by as many readers as possible.  For tips on writing clearly using principles of plain language, see National RTAP’s Plain Language for Rural Transit: Writing for Readability and Clarity Technical Brief.

Communicating in a Crisis

During critical incidents, what is said to the public is extremely important.  National RTAP’s Emergency Information Dissemination Technical Brief guides transit managers to develop and deliver emergency information to the public, community leaders, and the media, in an appropriate manner that will aid everyone involved.

Communications are also discussed in the Mission and Leadership section of the toolkit under Leading During a Crisis, as well as the Safety, Security and Emergency Management section of the toolkit under Lessons Learned from The COVID-19 Pandemic.

Providing Customer Service

Communication is a critical element of customer service.  All frontline transit employees – drivers, schedulers, dispatchers, transfer center staff, front desk staff, supervisors, staff and management who respond to customer inquiries by phone or email, and anyone else who may interact with transit passengers during the course of their work day should be trained in providing excellent customer service. 

National RTAP offers resources for use in training, including the Customer-Driven Service training module and 2 the Point - Customer Service training card for drivers (available in English and Spanish). 

In addition to providing day-to-day customer service as a good business practice, transit managers and staff need to be aware of additional customer service considerations for:

  • Serving individuals with disabilities – Under the U.S. DOT ADA regulations, which are introduced in the ADA section of this toolkit, drivers and other staff must be trained to properly assist and treat individuals with disabilities who use the service in a respectful and courteous way, with appropriate attention to the difference among individuals with disabilities.  An in-depth discussion on this requirement, along with communication and customer service tips for passengers with different types of disabilities, can be found in the Passenger Assistance and Customer Service section of ADA Toolkit.  Also, as discussed earlier in this section under Ensuring Information Is Accessible to All, transit agencies need to ensure communication methods with disabilities are accessible.
  • Customers making complaints – From time to time, even the best managed transit systems will receive complaints from passengers and members of the public.  Transit agencies need to have policies and procedures in place for receiving and investigating complaints, solving identified problems, responding to complaints, and documenting how each complaint was handled and resolved.  As mentioned in the ADA and Civil Rights sections of the toolkit, federal regulations require complaint procedures for complaints related to discrimination. 
  • Difficult situations – Drivers and other frontline transit agency staff may routinely face difficult passengers and situations.  Successfully managing such situations requires effective communications.  The Customer Service Breakdowns chapter of the Customer-Driven Service training module and National RTAP’s Problem Passengers: Managing Difficult Passengers & Situations training module focus specifically on defusing these types of situations.  Tips for handling potentially volatile situations that could escalate to violence are provided in the Safety, Security and Emergency Management section of the toolkit under Handling Conflict and Driver De-escalation Skills – Preventing Driver Assaults and Conflict Resulting from Pandemic Stress.

Education and Outreach

Another important facet of communication is educating the public about the transit agency and its services.  This involves reaching out to the community to ensure the information is easy to obtain, as well as offering the community opportunities to ask questions and share feedback.

Educating the community about the rural transit agency can be conducted using various approaches.  Common approaches and reasons include:

  • Speaking to community leaders, stakeholders, and decision-makers to help them understand the importance of transit services to the local community—for example, the role of transit in:
    • helping residents who cannot drive or cannot afford to drive to connect to essential needs and employment.
    • helping senior residents stay active and maintain their independence.
    • helping employers attract and retain employees who otherwise would not have the means to travel to work.
    • bringing customers and visitors to local businesses and tourist destinations.
    • reducing traffic congestion by reducing the need for residents and visitors to drive to their destination.
  • Speaking to organizations that support people in need to educate them on which transit services their clients may find helpful.
  • Speaking in community settings to potential passengers, caregivers, and others who may know people who need transportation.  Examples of community settings include: 
    • Hosting public meetings at local government buildings, public library branches, and the transit agency facility.
    • Staffing a booth or table at community events, such as the county fair and fairs/informational events for seniors, job seekers, etc.
    • Staffing a table or speaking to specific groups who gather at food banks, community meals, cultural centers, senior centers, etc.
  • Written approaches to distribute information through news media and social media.  This includes issuing press releases and public service announcements, and helping social media users learn about the availability of transit services through frequent posts.  The transit agency’s website can be another important educational platform.
  • Educating new and future passengers on how to use transit services:
    • One-on-one travel training and/or coaching, which can be helpful for anyone who needs someone to “show them the ropes” on how to ride before they feel confident traveling independently, as well as riders with disabilities who may need practice on riding specific routes.
    • Bus familiarization training for groups, such as school classes or seniors.  Educating schoolchildren about the transit system not only prepares them to ride the bus, it can also help raise awareness of the value of transit to the next generation of community leaders.
    • Distributing a rider’s guide, discussed earlier in this section of the toolkit under Keeping the Public Informed about Services.
    • Helpful resources and information on travel training and bus familiarization training include:

In smaller rural transit agencies, the transit manager may be responsible for most of these educational activities.  In other organizations, the mobility manager or marketing manager may be responsible for some or all of these activities.  Even in larger organizations, one of the many hats typically worn by the transit manager involves speaking to community leaders, stakeholders, and decision makers.

National RTAP’s Marketing Toolkit provides more information with links to additional resources and templates in its section on Strategies for Building Awareness, Image, and Support.

Hosting Public and Stakeholder Meetings

As noted earlier under the Public Notice and Engagement as Part of Planning section, public meetings are a strategy for getting input from the public when developing plans.  They are also an important means for sharing information with the public and with stakeholders about the transit agency and its plans and projects.  

To ensure transit agency’s riders are able to attend, public meetings should be held at locations served by the transit agency during times when it is possible to arrive and depart using transit.  The facility needs to be accessible to people with disabilities, and the information that is provided at the meeting should be available in accessible formats as well as languages determined by the transit agency’s LEP plan.  The meeting should be announced several weeks in advance, and the notice should provide instructions for requesting a sign language interpreter and other accommodations that would not be provided automatically.  Notices about and invitations to the meeting should be sent to stakeholders and news organizations, as well as posted to the transit agency’s website and social media platforms.  Formal public hearings may require placing a legal notice in the local newspaper.  The transit agency should document all notices about the meeting, ask attendees to sign a sign-in sheet upon arrival, and document comments made by meeting attendees.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual online meetings became an alternative to in-person meetings.  Even after the pandemic subsides, transit agencies may wish to continue hosting online meetings in addition to in-person meetings to facilitate public involvement opportunities.

For discussion on making public meetings accessible to people with disabilities, refer to the Public Meetings and Outreach section of the ADA Toolkit.

Section Sources

Updated November 30, 2020