For immigrants who speak little or no English, riding public buses to jobs in unfamiliar territory can be a confusing experience -- especially if bus drivers don't announce the stops.
"Calling out stops is a national issue. Years ago, that's what drivers did," county transportation board member Sharonlee Vogel said during a discussion this week of immigrants' problems using the bright green Howard Transit buses. Now, drivers often don't call out stops, she said.
With about 22 percent of Howard Transit riders immigrants who mostly speak Spanish or Korean, county transportation planners are starting a campaign to help them use the service more easily. County transit officials also see immigrants as a growing source of riders for the system as immigrant populations increase, especially in neighboring counties, while Howard's low unemployment rate draws workers from other places.
Ridership on Howard's bus system has grown by 131 percent since 2001, but revenue from bus fares lag behind state-mandated standards, forcing greater efforts to find more riders.
With energy prices and bus replacement and maintenance costs rising, a 10.4 percent budget increase will be needed for the next fiscal year just to keep service where it is, Howard Transit officials estimate.
Sharon Smith, bus service marketing specialist, said Corridor Transportation Corp., the company that operates the buses, is planning training for bus drivers in foreign languages and cultural awareness. The company also will conduct surveys and distribute information to immigrants in their communities and on the job.
Surveys for potential riders and information about the bus system are scheduled to appear this week in weekly newspapers and be distributed to employers, she said.
System informational materials will be translated. Spanish and Korean are the two most frequently heard languages, though a few speak other languages such as Urdu, Farsi, French, German and Chinese. Smith also said the company wants to get information directly from riders and others with limited English skills.
"We want this to be an interactive exchange," Smith said.
Murray Simon, president of Conexiones, the county's oldest advocacy group for Hispanics, said having signs and route maps in Spanish would be an improvement. "I think that would be a very big help," he said.
Simon said that in Los Angeles, where he recently traveled, automated recordings call out stops in Spanish and English, which also would be good.
County transportation planner Carl Balser said the county also is seeking a grant to buy automated equipment to announce the stops.
JoAnn Hawkins, associate vice president of Howard Community College, said the college has job-specific training programs that can help drivers learn enough phrases to communicate with most non-English-speaking riders.
"It's not language training in it's purest form," she said. "You don't learn grammar."
Ray Ambrose, the bus system's director, was appreciative.
"We are actively looking for assistance to develop training for drivers," he said.
One problem in reaching non-English-speaking riders is that many don't live in Howard County, entering the county via the bus system every day to go to work.
"They come here to work in the lowest-paying jobs that others can't or won't fill," said Brian Muldoon, a county planner who attended the Tuesday night meeting in Ellicott City.
Many immigrants come to Howard from western Anne Arundel County on the system Red Line and from Laurel, where they can get a bus to The Mall in Columbia, Muldoon said.
Not announcing stops is just one problem, though, said John Eberhard, representing the county's Office on Aging Advisory Board. He said he has visited several lesser-used stops along Route 108 and found only outdated schedules or none available.
Smith vowed to correct that.
Roy Appletree, director of FIRN, formerly known as the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network, said he is glad that the bus system is acting.
"I think it's wonderful that you're doing it -- reaching out," Appletree said.