#376 Designing the Future of Transit Work

Principal Investigator
Sarah Fox
Overdue Project
Start Date
July 1, 2021
End Date
June 30, 2022
Research Type
Grant Type
Grant Program
FAST Act - Mobility National (2016 - 2022)
Grant Cycle
2021 Mobility UTC


This project examines how transit work will transform as autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is applied to the complex operating environment of public transit. We will conduct interviews and diary studies with transit workers to document current functions they perform beyond driving. We will then facilitate a series of participatory workshops to explore the future of transit work and develop a strategic roadmap on transit operations with AVs, with both design proposals and policy recommendations.    
Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is advancing quickly and has the potential to automate aspects of public transit operation. While there is a legacy of autonomous transport in controlled settings such as airport “people movers,” new technological advancements target both constrained busways and unconstrained street routes. Many municipalities are already piloting or planning to deploy buses with a range of autonomous systems, from driver assistance to fully autonomous routes (Wanek-Libamn 2019; American Public Transportation Association). Though there is enthusiasm for these developments with regard to potential enhanced safety and efficiency, decades of human-computer interaction (HCI) research shows that the introduction of automated technologies into workplaces is not an easy transition; instead it often displaces and transforms existing work practices (Suchman 2007; Orr 1996).  As new autonomous vehicle technologies are implemented over time, there is a need to consider how the nature of transit operation may shift in parallel. This leads our research team to ask: 

- In the complex operating environment of public transit, what roles and core functions do operators perform, or have to be qualified to perform? 
- How will these roles and core functions shift as  AV applications emerge? 
- How will AV technologies work alongside trained operators who handle tasks autonomous systems cannot perform (e.g., managing emergencies, mitigating on-board threats)?
- How might transit workers influence the design and decisions on whether to deploy emergent AV technologies? 

Through the proposed research, we will explore these questions with our partner Edward Wytkind who will facilitate a collaboration with transit workers unions such as the Transport Workers Union (TWU) whose 150,000 members are on the frontlines of transportation operations including public transit in several large cities, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, Columbus, San Francisco, Akron, and Ann Arbor. Through this collaboration we will 1) hold a series of interviews across stakeholder groups (e.g., transit organization representatives, bus operators), 2) conduct a diary study to examine operators’ everyday work experiences, and 3) develop a series of collaborative design workshops with transit operators, union representatives, technologists, and policy experts where we will explore the potential for future AV applications in public transit and their impact on the workforce.

Our research will produce two reports driven by the views and real life experiences of transit operators:
1) A white paper on potential impacts of autonomous technology on transit operators’ roles, given the state of the industry and emergent innovations (organized by level of vehicle autonomy over time)
2) A strategic roadmap with a set of design proposals for AV technologies that center on the future transit work, as well as corresponding policy recommendations 

Because technology cannot be designed in a way that is pragmatic, purposeful, and ethical to workers without their involvement (Fox et al. 2020), we will also contribute a guidebook for collaborative design sessions that can serve as a model for future conversations that give workers and their unions a seat at the table during the design of new autonomous technology. This research will build concrete knowledge about the multiple roles that transit operators have, how these roles might change given new autonomous technologies, the powerful role that collective bargaining can play in any collaborative initiative, and provide recommendations on policy and guidance on worker training programs.

Research Plan
Transit work is not merely typical fixed-route driving, but includes myriad responsibilities as relayed to us in conversations with our partner. These responsibilities include:
- Navigating hazardous road conditions and unforeseen situations (i.e., accidents, road construction, emergencies)
- Serving as a first responder on the bus or on the route just outside the bus
- Interacting with and assisting passengers, from giving directions of where to get off to helping wheelchair users secure themselves in the bus carriage
- Refereeing fee evasion situations
- Managing and diffusing altercations and assaults between passengers or against themselves
- Generally maintaining situational awareness and attending to unforeseen situations with good real-time judgement

It is by developing professional skills in all these areas that individuals become licensed transit operators. Even if a bus could drive itself safely and without much need for intervention, there are many aspects of bus service that will require human labor from trained professionals for the foreseeable future. With this project, we aim to better understand the various service tasks bus operators fulfill today, while collaboratively evaluating the role of operators as AV technologies are introduced to transit. Building an understanding of current work that transit vehicle operators perform helps technologists make more informed design decisions around AV innovations and consider their influence on the future of transit work. It also allows for the development of enhanced training requirements for operators, for transit system executives and government officials to make informed decisions about technological change, and for an improved overall experience for public transit passengers.

Phase 1: Understanding the real-world work of bus operators
We will begin our research by conducting a series of orienting interviews with bus operators, union officials, and public transit policy advocates about the real-world work that transit operators do, as well as skills needed to become licensed operators (varies across municipalities and states). We will then conduct a video diary study to uncover the more mundane or invisible aspects of transit work that are not surfaced during interviews and capture workers’ accounts of their daily experiences as they happen.

Interviews with bus operators, union officials, and public transit policy advocates
Interviews will document the various roles that operators have, and will help us to generate a concrete set of tasks that are done across bus operations. These interviews will shed light on the skills that bus operators use on a daily basis, helping us to determine what activities are most likely to be disrupted by automation, what activities cannot be performed by automated transit vehicles, and what activities may be supported by the introduction of automation. To enrich the interviews, we will craft a casebook with different challenging or unique situations that appear in transit operation incident reports. We will present these cases to interviewees to help elicit their own similar experiences. For example, the casebook may contain stories and images of drivers helping a sick rider or video clips of “close call” moments where drivers managed to avoid an accident or avert an on-board altercation. By grounding our empirical engagement in real-world events, we intend to capture more realistic and specific stories from operators, rather than generalizations. We will record our semi-structured interviews and analyze transcribed data using a grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2006). 

Diary study with bus operators
Extending our interviews, we will invite current transit operators to participate in a diary study. Diary studies are a qualitative approach that explores real- or near-real-time experiences captured by participants via handwritten notes, audio, or video recording (Bolger et al. 2003). Partnering with the union, we will recruit a number of transit operators to voluntarily participate. These operators will be provided a video diary application for their phone where they will receive instructions to record themselves discussing prompts as they relate to aspects of their daily experience. We will plan for operators to capture moments at least once a day (outside of work hours) for approximately 2 - 4 weeks. Capturing participants’ experiences over a longer time period will allow us to see more variety in operators’ work. 

Before deploying our diary study, we will draw on insights from our interviews and work with our partner to develop a protocol and set of prompts that will be acceptable to operators and likely to surface relevant stories. Drawing on a multi-dimensional approach involving thematic analysis, we will analyze text, audio, and visual elements of the diary study data to draw out insights on the more routinized or invisible facets of daily work that workers and managers might consider remarkable enough to describe in interviews (Star and Strauss 1999). 

The outcomes of this phase will include a white paper documenting the findings from both our interviews and diary study on the varied real-world work roles of transit operators. These findings will inform our explorations on the future of transit work with various forms of autonomous public transit technology.

Phase 2: Informing the Future of Transit Work
The second phase of our project will focus on developing a strategic roadmap of AV technology applications and policy recommendations, focusing on the needs of transit operators. Drawing on our initial findings, we will facilitate a series of participatory design workshops with transit workers, union members and leaders, technologists, and members of transit advocacy groups. This approach will allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the concerns of bus operators around the development of AVs, collaboratively generate concepts for the design of technology and transit policy, and re-imagine future roles such that bus operators’ experiences and expertise are centered.

Landscape Analysis
To inform the development of our workshop materials, we will advise a team of CMU students in conducting a landscape analysis of autonomous vehicle technologies in relation to public transit. The goal of this analysis is to capture a practical snapshot of likely AV applications such as advanced driver assistance systems, bus rapid transit (BRT) in dedicated motorways, on-demand transit services, and people movers along transit corridors. We will collect and document current and pending AV transit pilot programs or development plans (e.g., Automated Bus Consortium’s (2020) automated performance specification) and will conduct a technology readiness assessment (Mankins 1995) to estimate the reality and timeline for the deployment of different technologies. This landscape analysis will provide a concrete set of example technologies and services across various levels of automation that we draw on in our participatory workshops on designing the future of transit work.

Workshops with Transit Workers, Technologists, and Members of Transportation Organizations
To bring the voice of workers into the conversation on AV technologies in public transit and the future of transit work, we will conduct a series of collaborative design workshops. Our workshops will build upon traditions of participatory design, intended to include workers' concerns and expertise in the design of new technologies and work systems (Muller & Kuhn 1993). We will organize our conversations according to the temporal and interventional scale of emergent AV technologies, with a focus on the degree of impact such innovations could have on workers and their practices and the span of time workers are likely to be most acutely affected. These workshops will generate a series of design artifacts such as sketches, storyboards, user journeys, and stakeholder maps. We will also create a facilitator guidebook for running such participatory workshops that our partners can use to include workers in future discussions in the fast moving AV technology space. Based on our discussions and the generated artifacts, we will work with our partners to prepare a strategic roadmap of emergent transit roles in light of near- and long-term AV developments. 

We anticipate that this strategic roadmap will be useful to union leaders and members in helping negotiate future technology introductions and shifting workers roles. We also anticipate that municipal transit providers and policy makers will find the roadmap useful in considering new transit policies. Our team will also use the outcomes and relationships from these workshops to motivate new research on and apply for funding to prototype new worker-centered technologies for transit systems using AV technologies.

Qualifications of the Research Team
Sarah Fox is an expert on the effects of AI and automation technologies on work practices, participatory design methods, and worker-centered approaches to innovation (Fox et al. 2020; 2019). Nik Martelaro has expertise in supporting designers in understanding the needs of people in relation to new autonomous technologies and user-centered automotive interaction design with interactive technologies (Martelaro 2017; Semmens 2019). Jodi Forlizzi is a leading authority on service design and the development of strategies to prepare organizations for robotics and automation (Forlizzi and Zimmerman 2013). Patrick Carrington possesses expertise on accessibility, co-design, and the use of automation in interactive technologies for people with disabilities (Carrington et al., 2014). 

Edward Wytkind is the labor partner on the research team. For more than 25 years, Wytkind was the leader of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, a national umbrella organization of more than 30 international and national unions including the transit unions that represent most of the nation’s frontline transit operators. Currently, Wytkind is playing a lead role in several future of work and automation initiatives in transit, hospitality, and other sectors. He is also a senior advisor on innovation to the national AFL-CIO. Wytkind will facilitate the research team’s collaboration with the Transport Workers Union, potentially other transit unions, and frontline operators.    
Our 12-month timeline is as follows. During the Summer and Fall, we will conduct interviews and a diary study to understand the real-world work of bus operators beyond driving. We will then begin a series of future-focused workshops with various stakeholders to develop a strategic roadmap on automation and transit work, as well as a series of design ideas that we develop in future work. 

Please see the project proposal document for a visual timeline.    
Deployment Plan
Our deployment will focus on a series of empirical studies with transit workers, union leaders, technologists, and policy experts. We will work with our partner Edward Wytkind, along with potential collaborators such as TWU and other transport unions, to conduct interviews, deploy a diary study, and facilitate participatory design workshop sessions.

For our interview study, we will recruit 25 - 50 frontline workers and union representatives for 1-hour semi-structured interviews on the current roles and responsibilities of transit workers. We will work with our partner to identify relevant participants across different municipalities. We will plan to conduct all of our interviews over video chat or phone, in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With interviewees’ permission, we will record and transcribe our conversations for later analysis. All interview data will be anonymized in order to protect participants’ identities.

For our diary studies, we will recruit 25 - 35 frontline transit operators to download a custom mobile-phone based diary study application to aid in capturing details about their day-to-day experiences for approximately 3 - 4 weeks. We will deploy our study over multiple weeks to capture a variety of experiences. Participants will use the diary study app to check in at least once per working day and will be guided through creating a video recording or written entry about their experiences, challenges, and triumphs during the day. As with our interview studies, we will work with our partner to identify and recruit relevant workers from different municipalities. All diary entries will be anonymized before analysis.

After our interview and diary studies, we will plan and deploy our collaborative design workshops. These workshops will bring various stakeholders including transit workers, union representatives, technologists, and policy advocates to discuss and develop visions for the future of transit work. We will host our workshops online using a video chat application and a suite of collaborative online whiteboard tools such as Miro.com (online sticky notes), EasyRetro.io (easy to use idea board), and Google Docs (shared written documents and presentations). Our team has experience using these tools in online meetings that we have been running with members of the accessibility community in a related project. We will develop a conversation and facilitator guide to run the workshops and will train a set of facilitators who can help guide the conversation and support participants in contributing to the shared documents.

Starting in mid-fall 2021 we will begin developing the workshop procedures and facilitator guides. We will work with our partners to determine an appropriate number of workshops to host. Our current plan is to host 8 workshops between January 2022 - May 2022. We intend to have 10 - 15 people participate in each workshop so that there is a diversity of voice in the room but also few enough people that all participate can make a significant contribution. We will plan our workshops around varying levels of automation and technologies, determined during our landscape analysis. We will host two workshops each: a pair on the future of work under Level 2, 3, and 4 automation. This will allow us to explore future operator roles under different autonomy limitations and requirements for human interaction. Running two workshops per level will also allow us to interact with more of our stakeholders in the sessions. We will then host two synthesis workshops where we will focus on developing and documenting the group’s design ideas through shard artifacts such as user journey maps, stakeholder maps and service design blueprints. We will then share out these artifacts to all participants for asynchronous commenting, and further refine the designs based on their input.    
Expected Accomplishments and Metrics
Through the proposed research, we will produce a series of outcomes and deliverables: 

- By month 6, we will produce a white paper outlining the potential impacts of autonomous technology on transit operators’ roles, given the state of the industry and emergent innovations. The audience for this publication will be transit workers, union leadership, regional and municipal transit providers, policy makers, technologists, academics, and the popular press. 

- By month 12, we will publish a strategic roadmap featuring a set of design proposals for AV technologies that center on the future of transit work, as well as corresponding policy recommendations. We will circulate this report to AV companies, transit research centers, union leaders and membership, regional and municipal transit providers, and state and federal policy makers. 

- At the conclusion of the project, we will also produce a facilitation guidebook for collaborative design sessions, which can serve as a model for future conversations focused on giving workers a seat at the table during the design of new autonomous technologies. We will develop the public-facing materials such that they may be taken up in a variety of different settings and domains.

- Finally, drawing from across our empirical work, we will submit articles for academic publication (e.g., CHI or CSCW) and public facing outlets (e.g., The Atlantic, Harvard Tech Review). 

We also see this work contributing model design and policy development methods that could transfer to other domains of transit operations and labor. We will connect with the American Public Transportation Association, transit agencies, transit unions, the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Center for Advanced Automotive Research, and Intelligent Transportation Society of America to share insights and resources. We will also share a report of our findings with local and national policymakers to help inform the legislative debate around transportation policy. For example, we will reach out to Congress Members such as Representative Peter DeFazio, Senator Mike Crapo, and Senator Sherrod Brown who often sponsor legislation related to public transportation and autonomous vehicles.

Plans for Ongoing Research and Funding
The work conducted as a part of this Mobility21 University Transportation Center grant will directly inform the proposal of a longer-term project under a NSF Future of Work at this Human-Technology Frontier or Cyber-Human Systems Research Grant. 

Through this research, we will also strengthen relationships with additional transit partners and municipalities interested in collecting real-world data from buses through live video from the cab for modeling the actual work of drivers and to allow their teams to further understand how potential interventions might impact the roles of drivers. These partnerships will be important as we build and test the prototype technologies envisioned during the co-design sessions of Phase 2.    

Individuals Involved

Email Name Affiliation Role Position
pcarrington@cmu.edu Carrington, Patrick Carnegie Mellon University Co-PI Faculty - Untenured, Tenure Track
forlizzi@cs.cmu.edu Forlizzi, Jodi SCS Co-PI Faculty - Tenured
sarahfox@cmu.edu Fox, Sarah Human-Computer Interaction Institute PI Faculty - Untenured, Tenure Track
nikmart@cmu.edu Martelaro, Nikolas Human-Computer Interaction Institute Co-PI Faculty - Untenured, Tenure Track


Amount of UTC Funds Awarded
Total Project Budget (from all funding sources)


Type Name Uploaded
Data Management Plan 376-Designing_the_Future_of_Transit_Work-_Data_Management_Plan.docx March 22, 2021, 7:24 a.m.
Publication How to Make Sense of Bus Transit Automation? Considerations for policy makers on the future of human-automation teaming in the transit workforce March 30, 2022, 7:47 a.m.
Presentation Landscape Analysis: Transit and Autonomy March 30, 2022, 7:47 a.m.
Progress Report 376_Progress_Report_2021-09-30 Sept. 30, 2021, 6:44 p.m.
Presentation Centering Operators’ Perspectives in Designing the Future of Transit Work March 30, 2022, 7:47 a.m.
Progress Report 376_Progress_Report_2022-03-30 March 30, 2022, 11:39 a.m.
Publication Infrastructural speculations: Tactics for designing and interrogating lifeworlds May 2, 2022, 9:17 a.m.
Publication Worker-centered design: Expanding HCI methods for supporting labor May 2, 2022, 9:18 a.m.
Publication Discarded Labor: Countervisualities for Representing AI Integration in Essential Work May 2, 2022, 9:19 a.m.
Publication AI and essential labor: representing the invisible work of integration May 2, 2022, 9:20 a.m.

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