Ackemann: Restoring light rail service may just be step one
VTA light rail. File photo.

    It’s been six weeks since a mass shooter turned on his VTA coworkers early in the morning on May 26, but there’s no end to the ways in which the tragedy is still being felt.

    I worked at VTA for a few years in the early 2000s—but I spent most of my career working in Bay Area public transportation and have many years of personal and professional friendships with VTA employees.

    I can’t imagine the grief and trauma that employees across the organization must feel as they work to address the widespread fallout from this senseless violence both as it impacts their customers and their colleagues.

    My appeal to VTA customers frustrated by the delayed return of light rail is that, while they are entitled to ask appropriate questions about how and when light rail will return, they also try to assume good faith on the part of the many people throughout the organization working to restore the operation.

    There’s no real blueprint for how to handle the aftermath of a mass workplace shooting. We do a lot of training for how to respond to one in the moment—we saw that in the first responders who were so quickly and bravely on scene once the violence began.

    But there aren’t drills and training for how to bring traumatized employees back to work, or quickly fill sensitive or technical positions, or address the fears of the larger organization as they try to understand “why” this senseless violence occurred.

    If we accept that violence is likely enough to occur that we ought to “drill” for it in schools and with police and fire departments, perhaps we ought to train for how to address that trauma in its aftermath.

    Transit agencies across the country are watching and taking note. If they are smart, this event will start a national conversation about how services can be more efficiently restored following a mass casualty event.

    There’s clearly an appetite for the return of light rail service in Santa Clara County.

    Rebuilding and Recovering 

    A prolonged light rail shutdown won’t make it easier for VTA to rebuild its ridership post-pandemic as other agencies are beginning to slowly reintroduce service.

    That may not be the only challenge to rebuilding ridership. There’s a bigger question about what the post-pandemic workplace looks like. Some employers—like Apple and VTA—are recalling employees to the office, but there’s pushback. Far more employers are embracing broader flexibility in their remote work policies.

    It’s reasonable to expect that as the Bay Area settles into whatever the “new normal” looks like, it will mean different commuting patterns.

    Setting aside all the splashy stories about wealthy families “escaping the suburbs” or millennials working from remote destinations around the world, there are more practical ways remote working will change our society.

    Parents are likely to expect more flexibility to work from home as their childcare demands change. Smaller businesses are more likely to limit their brick-and-mortar office space to reduce costs. A tight labor market means many employers are having to consider distance-based employees who can’t relocate. Over time, these changes may be reflected in our commute patterns.

    There will still be demand for public transportation, but the demand may look different—schedules, bus routing, “span of service”—these are some of the factors that may look different.

    Public transportation has typically been designed to maximize frequency and flexibility around the “peak commute periods.” But a greater degree of individualization in work schedules will make those peak periods far more difficult to predict. That will affect how bus and rail planners think about how to schedule their service and their own labor pool.

    One of the biggest lessons the pandemic taught me is that society needs to bring a more empathetic, human-centered approach to problem solving. This definitely means taking the humans on both sides of the light rail shutdown into consideration as VTA seeks short term solutions. It might mean rethinking the pursuit of the “choice” rider and centering transit planning around equity and need long term.

    San José Spotlight columnist Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges, including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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