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Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns addresses the audience.
Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns addresses the audience.

Erie County clerk, Columbia Law School students, WNY Law Center present report on public transportation in Erie, Niagara counties


Thu, Dec 7th 2023 10:10 am

Kearns asking NFTA to respond to 730 customer comments made on year-long ‘Rate Your Ride’ survey

Students from the Columbia University School of Law, the Western New York Law Center, Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, and representatives of the local disability community presented results from more than 2,300 respondents to a year-long “Rate Your Ride” survey.

The multimedia press conference was held Tuesday afternoon in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library’s Dr. Eva M. Doyle Auditorium, which is where Kearns announced the launch of the survey on Nov. 16, 2022. The Columbia Law School students, participating in a “Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic,” following Kearns’ lead, created the survey, analyzed the data, and presented the results. They operated under the direction of Conrad A. Johnson, the Edward Ross Arnow Clinical Professor of Law, whose students have previously worked with the WNY Law Center and Kearns on the Erie County Clerk’s “ZOMBIES” initiative.

Nine years ago, when Kearns was a member of the New York State Assembly, he introduced a bill to increase the distances that paratransit services can travel beyond a bus stop with the goal of improving access for persons with disabilities. He was working on behalf of long-time PAL customer Stephanie Speaker of Depew, a self-advocate for the disabled community. As the Erie County clerk, his office has transferred more than $102 million to the NFTA from mortgage taxes since 2018.

“A goal of this survey was to ensure individuals and families who use public transportation and the Paratransit Access Line service have reliable, safe and easily accessible transportation,” Kearns said. “I am very happy with the survey results, from the number of responses we received, to the positive and negative comments made. I look forward to sharing these results with NFTA officials, along with members of the Buffalo Common Council and the Erie County Legislature.”

Also speaking at the press conference, moderated by Kearns, was Paulette Campbell, interim executive director of the WNY Law Center; the Columbia Law School students who participated via Zoom; and Todd Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy at the WNY Independent Living.

The students who worked on this project and presented the findings were Jean Choi and Brandon Rosenberg.

“Our goal in this project, which was not funded by any taxpayer money, was to shed light on how riders in Erie and Niagara counties truly feel about their public transportation system,” the students said in the report. “As such, we offer this report as a free, public service. We do so in the belief that the NFTA truly intends to live up to its goal of providing the highest level of service to its customers. The importance of an effective public transportation system cannot be overstated, given its impact on the employment, health, safety, and enjoyment of the community.”

A total of 2,305 responses were collected from 78 ZIP codes in Erie and Niagara counties. The surveys asked questions about satisfaction levels on both the public transportation and paratransit service. In total, 98.24% of respondents have used public transportation in the past six months, and 12% responded they or someone they knew used paratransit.

Survey results are included in the attached 26-page “Transportation Equity Project – A Report on Public Transportation in Erie and Niagara Counties.”

Kearns was most interested in the 730 written narrative responses from respondents to the survey, which were administered throughout the year at many local events, including the Erie County Fair, summer food truck lunches around Niagara Square, outside schools, and at Canalside.

“The customers of public transportation who took the time to tell us of their bus, rail or paratransit experiences – and, again, they were both positive and negative – deserve an answer to their concerns, and I will request the NFTA to provide that response to us,” Kearns said.

The students summarized the written narrative responses expressed by the survey respondents under nine issues: safety and cleanliness; detours, lack of available routes; winter/dangers caused by lack of snow removal; bus drivers; accessibility; reliability and information availability; customer service; and the effect on employment.

Many respondents expressed frustration and concern about adequate public transportation for city residents to jobs in the northern and southern suburbs. The report quotes Dr. Carolyn Storms-Stoltman, vice president of enrollment and organizational advancement at the Northland Workforce Training Center. Stating most of the jobs the center places workers at are in the suburbs, she pointed out, “These locations can be particularly difficult to reach without a car. This drastically cuts workers’ options for employment, as manufacturing and energy jobs have been historically located outside of public transportation.”

Kearns said the issue of transportation to jobs will be at the top of his agenda when he meets with NFTA officials, along with the Buffalo Common Council and the Erie County Legislature.

Vaarwerk, of WNY Independent Living, said, “This report highlights the NFTA success needs to be based on more than just on-time performance. I look forward to joining Clerk Kearns in an upcoming meeting with NFTA officials to create workable, immediate solutions for all who use public transportation.”

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