Mobility is simultaneously one of the great benefits and great challenges worldwide, no matter the location or the population in need. It uplifts our spirits by connecting us with our friends and family; it gets us to work so we can provide for ourselves; and it helps provide us access to food, health, and nature. This could not be truer for veterans, one of our most venerated and yet vulnerable populations.
Several daunting issues arise when we consider how to tackle the challenges our veterans face when they return to our communities after years of service. How do we provide truly meaningful and useful assistance as transit services? How do we fund such endeavors to ensure we are able to help? How do we earn the trust of the people who risked life and limb to support and protect us?
Rogue Valley Transportation District (RVTD) has seen remarkable success in its veteran transit programs and helped us dig further into this topic to discover some answers to these key questions.
Rogue Valley is a region situated in southwestern Oregon that welcomes a constant influx of veterans from all around the country, which provides its own unique set of challenges. Importantly, RVTD received funding in 2017 to create a Veterans Individualized Marketing and Outreach Program, aptly named Go Vets.
Go Vets has been an astounding success, and a post-launch survey of their veteran program revealed incredible results when compared to pre-launch survey results. The survey showed a 39% decrease in missed medical appointments due to a lack of transportation, as well as a 26% decrease in missed work/employment programs, and a 41% decrease in missed social or recreational opportunities.
Bryan Simpson, US veteran and Veteran Travel Trainer at RVTD, was kind enough to talk with us recently about how the Go Vets program has grown to become an integral part of the southwestern Oregon veteran community and RVTD’s transit ecosystem.
I want to thank you very much for all your help. Your kit and the bus pass is currently helping me tremendously to get to and from unemployment office and job opportunities while I seek work. Thank you sincerely.– Anonymous Go Vets Rider
How Can Transit Agencies Assist Veterans?
Simply put, Bryan suggests that we engage with our community and earn their trust. This may already be on your radar; perhaps you have a customer advisory board in place, regular public engagement forums, and/or employ ridership surveys regularly. It is no secret that genuine community engagement is the foundational pillar for improving your services and creating useful programs that encourage ridership.
Continuing to find multimodal approaches (new or established) when seeking feedback is integral to understanding the needs of your riders. For example, Bryan mentions that some veterans may not be open to using digital technology (e.g., in-app surveys, texts, or emails) as a communication medium. Though these are still valid methods of outreach, it is important you meet veterans where they are and make it easy for them to speak openly with you.
Bryan also emphasizes the need to gain veterans’ trust. While this is no easy feat, you must start somewhere, and make sure you continue to keep the lines of communication open.
Build trust with [veterans] and have conversations with them to figure out what they need versus what you can give them. That’s key.– Bryan Simpson, Veteran Travel Trainer, RVTD
Start by making connections with your local case workers and veterans’ organizations, such as Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans, and speak with them frequently to understand what veterans’ needs are in your region. Work with them to put on meaningful free events that will help our veterans in small ways, such as a cookout with free access to a barber or a free fare day. This offers you an ability to meet the veterans, discover their needs, and talk with them about what you offer.
Bryan has put on a free bike tune-up event for local veterans and as he got their bikes road ready, he spoke with them about how they’re doing, what they are needing, and shared information about RVTD’s bus passes and what veteran’s support resources Oregon offers. If you already have a program in place, he advises you create and bring rack cards or pamphlets that include information, external resources, maps, and the like.
Through consistent outreach and open conversations about not only transit needs, but other everyday needs as well, Bryan has earned the trust of local veterans and found novel ways to help them and encourage ridership beyond reduced or free fares.
We particularly loved hearing about the free “go bags” Go Vets puts together for their veterans who want access to local buses. They were offered options about what they would receive and given a resource map with info on local veteran’s organizations (including locations, addresses, and phone numbers), as well as bus routes to these organizations. One item in the go bag that has been a big hit is earbuds; they allow recipients to cut out surrounding noise and help to prevent strangers from striking up a conversation, something that can trigger anxiety and PTSD.
By consistently having conversations and making connections, your agency will not only find out how to best support your local veterans, but also where and how you can obtain grant funding to create opportunities to assist.
Bryan found the veterans his agency supported were outspoken about how much help the service truly was, and were de facto ambassadors for the program, encouraging its use throughout their networks:
The Go Vets pass has enabled me to get out of my home and helped me greatly with my depression. Thank you, this program has changed my world.– Anonymous Go Vets Rider
Supporting our veterans in any way we can is only part of a larger effort to improve and grow ourselves and our communities for the greater good. By providing them with local transit information and other helpful resources, you gain their trust and their ridership – and grow from there.
It’s not about the individual organization, [it’s about partnerships], right? They all have [resources to] offer. Want to drive, or have a bus that you’re willing to donate to a nonprofit organization? We do that here all the time. You don’t know who needs it or who’s able to use it the most. Making those partners with [organizations like] the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) [is vital]. Sometimes it’s not about money. Sometimes it’s legitimately about a van or finding a volunteer driver for a one-off ride.– Bryan Simpson, Veteran Travel Trainer, RVTD
To all the veterans out there: Thank you. We honor your service to our country.