Leveraging community voices and a new perspective to further change within The Rapid

“I’m not trying to come in pre-identifying any problems. I’m trying to identify opportunities. What I’m doing is trying to identify common themes,” says Deb Prato, The Rapid’s newest and first female chief executive officer. Bringing her East Coast experience, including with New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), Prato is eager to get involved with the community and build upon the organization’s existing foundation. “I’m not new to transportation but I am new to Grand Rapids. I’m listening,” she says.

In April 2021, The Rapid hosted a confidential community listening session to allow Prato and other members of The Rapid team to do just that — listen. The session provided riders, individuals from community organizations as well as community members at large an open forum and opportunity to share their perspectives on local transit.

“We’re always working to be more responsive and action-oriented as an agency. Feedback like this is critical for us to understand our blind spots and improve as a community partner,” Prato says.

Courtesy Bree Girard at The Rapid

Several topics emerged from the conversation including: normalizing the perception of public transit usage, improving ease of access for disabled individuals, assisting the senior population with navigating the transit system, and improving The Rapid’s communication speed and overall agility.

While community organizations are working to help segments of the community with accessibility and mobility, there are still gaps that exist. Some of these challenges have been furthered by COVID-19. For some community members, having a more approachable, convenient and accommodating paratransit system would be beneficial.

Other attendees shared challenges related to the ability to access current information related to routes and offerings as well as the delays that can occur as information is disseminated.

One common concern was how to reduce the stigma around leveraging public transportation and ensure community members see the overall value it provides for all residents, not just certain subsets within the population.

It is because of takeaways like these that community engagement is so valuable. “My hope is that this [information-gathering] approach will create strategies to more frequently and meaningfully engage our riders and six-city residents to better understand their transportation needs now and in the future,” Prato says. “Our team is currently working internally and with community partners to create new feedback and survey mechanisms that can complement the tools that we utilize now. The more we understand the everyday needs of our customers, the better we can serve them.”

Over the past decade, including in response to COVID-19, The Rapid has taken numerous steps to improve its operations, communications and convenience for riders. By integrating with Google Maps, The Rapid has been able to enhance its transit planning and efficiency. The addition of the bus rapid transit (BRT) lines assist with not only convenient transportation but, according to The Rapid’s website, their “longer, compressed, natural-gas vehicles lower operating costs and...environmental footprint.” Another enhancement has been the rollout of new contactless payment methods, such as the Wave card. Additionally, to improve accessibility, The Rapid is currently working to expand its language services and translation of materials.

From The Rapid Facebook page

For Prato, there is an opportunity to continue what has been started both internally and through community partnerships.

“The pandemic has forced innovation and adaptation everywhere. For The Rapid, it has created the necessity to work more closely and efficiently with partners in the community to solve problems together,” she says. 

Looking ahead, these partnerships will become even more important.

“Over the coming year, I hope this approach continues and grows,” Prato says. “To me that means that community partners invite us to the table at the beginning of conversations and planning efforts that intersect with public transportation. As an agency, it means that we need to always be available and extremely responsive to our partners’ and the community’s needs. Overall, I hope that anyone who wants to partner with us will involve us early, and I know our team will work to be as helpful as possible.”

“I remain committed to listening and learning, and I’m encouraging our entire team to constantly do the same,” she adds. “If we remain committed to doing that, I know that our service, relationships, and agility will continue to improve.”

Voices for Transit is a nine-part series highlighting public transportation in Greater Grand Rapids by exploring the issues that diverse communities face, lifting up the voices of residents, employers, and stakeholders.

This series is underwritten by The Rapid and is editorially independent in our exploration of these themes.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]
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