One sunny and brisk February morning, a small bus pulls up to a sleepy transit center in Bloomington, a suburb south of Minneapolis.
The bus, assigned to the route because of relatively low ridership, was brimming with newly-arrived Afghan refugees. They were on a weekly trip to the Mall of America – accompanied by chaperones, some with the nonprofit International Institute of Minnesota, as part of an exercise to help them navigate their newly-adopted transit system.
The Metro Transit system primarily communicates in English, which most of the refugees do not understand. However, the IIMN has worked over the past several years to help new Americans navigate it, as the transit system itself struggles how best to make information accessible to them.
The IIMN’s origins date back to World War I. In 2015, it started the Bus Buddies program, where volunteers help new Americans navigate the region’s transit system. Although it encountered a pandemic hiatus, they are now restarting the program, and currently have five volunteers volunteering 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 transit system, such as these weekly Mall of America trips for Afghan refugees, organized in partnership with local organizations.
But in recent years, they’ve begun partnering volunteers with immigrants to provide one-on-one services.
“If a client does have a need for the transit system, whether it be going to school or going to work, we pair them up with a volunteer, and a volunteer would show them [the] exact route to get to where they’re going,” says volunteer and community partnerships manager Hayat Mohamed. “And we usually have them do the route, maybe two or three days prior to the day they actually need the route.”
One of the IIMN’s clients who received Bus Buddies assistance is Muhammad Ali, who immigrated from Sudan with his family to Minneapolis in February. With the IIMN’s help, he feels comfortable riding the bus to get groceries and to manage his casework at the institute. “All I know is that I just use the card and I scan it. I enter the bus, and I sit down, and whenever my stop comes, I just get off the bus,” said Ali through an interpreter.
Sado Ahmed, who works with those participating in the Bus Buddies program, took Ali on his first bus ride. It’s challenging given the language barriers: Ali only speaks Sudanese Arabic, while Ahmed speaks English and Somali. “It’s a very funny experience,” Ahmed says. “It’s kind of a guessing game even though we have zero idea of what the other is thinking.”
But aside from taking transit to get groceries or to the IIMN to handle his case, Ali does not ride the bus to work. He works at a paper mill in Fridley, a Minneapolis suburb, which can take an hour or more to get to by transit and walking from his home he shares with his family near the University of Minnesota campus. So he takes Ubers instead.
“Combined, all the money that we spent every day, it’s about $800 in a month for transportation,” Ali said through an interpreter. His family is facing a number of financial hurdles; they will also be moving soon and will stop receiving help with rent payments next month. “If I’m able to get a car, then that would be easier for me.”
Perhaps the answer to making transit service accessible to those who do not understand English is to simply have more frequent service that goes where people need to go. Indeed, Mohamed, the volunteer and community partnerships manager, has heard from clients that transit service in the Twin Cities is extremely different from service back home.
“[A client told me] their buses would always come in five-to-ten-minute increments, no matter where they’re going,” says Mohamed. “And they were just kind of able to eyeball it and just go with the flow. Whereas here, it’s very structured. And if they miss a bus, depending on where they’re at, they might have to wait up to 25 or 30 minutes for the next one to come.”
The agency has been slow to restore and expand service suspended because of the pandemic, in part because they long struggled with a chronic driver shortage. As of August they have 300 fewer drivers compared to three years ago, which resulted in them cutting service on some of its busiest routes. Ridership remains another factor in whether or not they increase service; year-to-date ridership as of June remains at 49% of year-to-date ridership in June 2019.
In the meantime, Metro Transit has made some headway with making the system accessible to those who do not understand English. This year, they began restructuring the dial prompts for 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 Monterey, California-based LanguageLine who speaks their language before being connected to the customer service agent.
The restructured dial prompts aren’t yet live as of this writing. Until then, the agency’s customer service agents determine what language help they need before they connect them with an interpreter.
But Mohamed questions whether or not the service is being put to good use. “When they’re riding the bus, they don’t really know how to contact the main Metro Transit number to have somebody help them figure out any questions that they may have,” Mohamed says.
According to data provided by Metro Transit, 948 people called in last year requiring interpretation. That’s less than one percent of those who called the customer service line, and eight-thousandths of one percent those who rode the system. About 75% of them requested Spanish interpretation. And although its customer service agents are trained on when and how to use LanguageLine, it is unclear if they — or any Metro Transit workers, for that matter — receive premium pay for providing the agency’s services in the rider’s desired language.
Even though the agency has translated schedules in the past, it has phased out those translations over the last five years. “We found that people with first or other language literacy, [such as] those who could read Somali, Spanish, Karen, etc., could understand the schedule content, especially in the shelter signs [and] schedule displays,” says agency spokesperson Laura Baenen. “There was more benefit to making the font as large and legible as possible.”
They also learned those who do not understand English might not have necessarily understood the content being translated in their native language – in part because they may not be fully literate in their primary language, rendering the agency’s efforts moot.
A significant portion of those who do not understand English don’t have first language literacy, because their languages are primarily spoken, Baenen notes. “Translating the materials didn’t help make the information available to those people,” she says, adding that Metro Transit is hesitant to record translated audio announcements, fearing they play too many announcements already and people may stop listening to them altogether.
For now, the Bus Buddies program – which is in need of more volunteers – will continue working to fill the need for the region’s transit agency and its desire to offer its services to a growing number of new Americans.
H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/佢/他) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues. Find them on a bus of all types, the sidewalk, bike lane, hiking trail or perhaps the occasional carshare vehicle, camera and perhaps watercolor set or mushroom brush in tow, in your community or state or regional park regardless of season. If you can’t find them, they’re probably cooking, writing, curating an archive of wall art or brochures, playing board games, sewing or cuddling with their cat.