While the Minneapolis-St. Paul’s transit system is working to be more accessible to riders with limited English, volunteers are filling the gaps with a Bus Buddies program.
On a crisp, sunny February morning, a small bus pulls into a sleepy transit center in Bloomington, a suburb south of Minneapolis.
The bus, assigned to the route due to relatively low ridership, was overflowing with newly arrived Afghan refugees. They were on a weekly trip to the Mall of America — accompanied by attendants, some with the nonprofit Minnesota International Institute, as part of an exercise to help them navigate their newly adopted public transit system.
The Metro Transit system communicates mainly in English, which most refugees do not understand. However, the IIMN has worked over the past few years to help new Americans navigate it, as the transit system itself struggles to figure out how best to make information accessible to them.
The origins of the IIMN date back to the First World War. In 2015, he launched the Bus Buddies program, where volunteers help new Americans navigate the area’s public transit system. Although it encountered a pandemic hiatus, they are now restarting the program and currently have five volunteers who volunteer up to 10 hours a week.
Historically, the organization has taken groups of immigrants and refugees on trips to familiarize them with the region’s public transit system, such as these weekly trips to the Mall of America for Afghan refugees, run in partnership with organizations local.
But in recent years they have begun to pair volunteers with immigrants to provide individual services.
“If a customer needs the transit system, whether it’s to get to school or to work, we’ll match them with a volunteer, and a volunteer will show them [the] the exact route to get where they are going,” says Hayat Mohamed, Volunteer and Community Partnerships Manager. “And we usually ask them to do the itinerary, maybe two or three days before the day they actually need the itinerary.”
One of the IIMN clients who has received help from Bus Buddies is Muhammad Ali, who immigrated from Sudan with his family to Minneapolis in February. With the help of the IIMN, he feels comfortable taking the bus to go shopping and manage his file at the institute. “All I know is that I just use the card and scan it. I get on the bus, I sit down and whenever my stop comes, I get off the bus,” Ali said through an interpreter.
Sado Ahmed, who works with participants in the Bus Buddies program, took Ali on his first bus ride. It is difficult given the language barriers: Ali only speaks Sudanese Arabic, while Ahmed speaks English and Somali. “It’s a very fun experience,” says Ahmed. “It’s kind of a guessing game even though we have no idea what the other is thinking.”
But other than taking public transit to get groceries or get to the IIMN to settle his case, Ali doesn’t take the bus to work. He works at a paper mill in Fridley, a suburb of Minneapolis, which can take an hour or more to get there by public transit and on foot from his home he shares with his family near the University of Minnesota. So he takes Ubers instead.
“Combined, all the money we spend every day is about $800 a month for transportation,” Ali said through an interpreter. Her family faces a number of financial obstacles; they will also be moving soon and will no longer receive assistance with rent payments next month. “If I can get a car, it would be easier for me.”
Perhaps the solution to making transit service accessible to those who don’t understand English is simply to have more frequent service that goes where people need to go. Indeed, Mohamed, the volunteer and community partnerships manager, has heard from customers that transit service in the Twin Cities is vastly different from door-to-door service.
“[A client told me] their buses always arrived in five to ten minute increments no matter where they were going,” says Mohamed. “And they were kind of able to look at it and go with the flow. Whereas here, it is very structured. And if they miss a bus, depending on where they are, they may have to wait up to 25 or 30 minutes for the next one to arrive.
The agency has been slow to restore and expand service suspended due to the pandemic, in part because it has long struggled with a chronic driver shortage. In August they had 300 fewer drivers than three years ago, which forced them to cut service on some of its busiest routes. Traffic remains another factor in whether or not service increases; ridership since the beginning of the year in June remains at 49% of ridership since the beginning of the year in June 2019.
In the meantime, Metro Transit has made progress in making the system accessible to those who don’t understand English. This year, they began to restructure the dialing prompts of their customer service line. Those who speak Spanish, Somali, Russian, Hmong, Vietnamese or Karen (pronounced kah-rin) can dial an option to be connected instantly with an interpreter provided by LanguageLine, based in Monterey, California, who speaks their language before being connected to the client. Service Agent.
The restructured dial prompts are not yet live as of this writing. Until then, the agency’s customer service agents determine what language assistance they need before connecting them with an interpreter.
But Mohamed wonders whether or not the service is put to good use. “When they get on the bus, they don’t really know how to contact the main Metro Transit number for someone to help them with any questions they might have,” says Mohamed.
According to data provided by Metro Transit, 948 people called last year to request interpretation. That’s less than one percent of those who called customer service and eight thousandths of one percent of those who used the system. About 75% of them requested interpretation into Spanish. And while its customer service agents are trained in when and how to use LanguageLine, it’s unclear whether they – or any Metro Transit employee, for that matter – receive a bonus for providing the services of the languageline. agency in the language desired by the passenger.
Even though the agency has translated schedules in the past, it has phased out those translations over the past five years. “We found that people literate in the first language or in another language, [such as] those who could read Somali, Spanish, Karen, etc. could understand the content of the schedule, especially in the shelter panels [and] program the displays,” explains Laura Baenen, spokesperson for the agency. “There was more benefit in making the font as large and legible as possible.”
They also learned that those who don’t understand English may not necessarily have understood the translated content in their native language, in part because they may not be fluent in their native language, which makes useless the efforts of the agency.
A significant portion of those who don’t understand English lack literacy in their first language because their languages are primarily spoken, Baenen notes. “Translating the documents did not help make the information accessible to these people,” she says, adding that Metro Transit is reluctant to record translated audio announcements, fearing they are already playing too many announcements and people don’t listen to them completely.
For now, the Bus Buddies program – which needs more volunteers – will continue to work to fulfill the needs of the region’s transit agency and its desire to serve a growing number of new Americans.
Henry Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/their) is an introverted Minneapolis-based freelance journalist who primarily reports on his lifelong passion: transportation issues. Journalism aside, they like to roam cities and nature by bike, on foot and by public transport, whatever the season.