Commentary: The Transportation Sector Has a Responsibility to Lead on Equity. Here’s How.

Nov. 7, 2021
Transit management should be reflective of the communities served through initiatives that deliver measurable impact to both business and community.

As the transportation industry faces an increasingly diverse ridership landscape, it requires a nuanced rethinking of how transit authorities and operators are reflective of the communities they serve. The data shows that organizations with diverse teams focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) perform better, with higher profits and lower employee turnover. Racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to perform better and enjoy 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee.

At Keolis, keeping DEI at the forefront of our initiatives isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s also having a real and demonstrable impact on our business goals and on the communities we serve. More than 60 percent of America’s public transportation users hail from communities of color and our new initiatives are the first steps toward renewed buy-in from community stakeholders, riders and local transit officials.

Here at Keolis, it starts with fostering an inclusive environment for all staff at each level throughout the company. We’re implementing a variety of DEI initiatives that promote personal and professional development opportunities. For example, our employee mentorship program will partner senior executives with frontline and middle management employees to create pathways to additional opportunities within the company, increase employee engagement, enhance the sense of belonging and further promote a company culture that values learning and development.

Such programs quickly prompt recognition surrounding varying employee value systems. This is why we’ve implemented and encouraged the adoption of preferred pronouns to be displayed where appropriate, with senior leaders and executives among the first to make this change — a signal to the rest of the organization that no one should ever be made to feel like they cannot be their authentic self within the workplace. Creating a culture that embraces and promotes inclusivity and a sense of belonging is a priority.

Historically a male-dominated environment, opportunities in the transportation industry are slowly beginning to reflect greater gender diversity. Keolis is working to accelerate that change by de-gendering many of the titles of available job positions. For example, “foreman” or “journeyman” could have an immediate chilling effect on the pool of prospective applicants. Working with federal regulators and union partners, some Keolis operations were the first in their industry to implement new, gender-neutral job titles.

Part and parcel of fostering a sense of belonging amongst existing employees is ensuring a sustainable and diverse pipeline of talent for Keolis and the entire industry. We took a long look at our recruitment efforts, identifying ways to implement blind candidate screenings to minimize unconscious biases in candidate selection. We’ve created an internally visible scorecard to measure our progress across recruiting, turnover and promotion and made significant investments in building a diverse talent pipeline for the future of transportation. This includes launching a diversity internship program and fostering relationships with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard University, in addition to forging partnerships with national advocates for employment diversity such as the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) and the Professional Diversity Network.

None of these initiatives are any good without accountability mechanisms that encourage internal reflection and feedback and allow for adjustment when necessary. That accountability comes from many sources – our employees, our partners and our allies. We’ll soon be launching our Keolis DEI microsite, a critical way for the company to report on its progress, acknowledge areas for growth and serve as a beacon for the industry when it comes to making sure our efforts are replicated elsewhere. And to further spur our own improvement, we’re planning to sign the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge, one of the largest CEO-driven business commitment dedicated to advancing these goals and policies.

Finally, we look externally. The overwhelming result of these internal programs and policies is that they emanate out into the communities and clients we serve, and to reinforce that we forge partnerships with community organizations to create new relationships and touchpoints within the community and provide volunteer opportunities for local employees when possible. We’re committed to ensuring these programs and policies are implemented by our peers in the industry, as well. These efforts reflect a key precept that’s baked into the Keolis DNA: that transit, while being a way to physically move people around, is also a key socioeconomic mobility enabler. Safe, reliable transportation is critical for residents looking to unlock job prospects, educational opportunities and access housing and recreation — at the end of the day, that’s what our job is all about.

Implementing DEI policies that have real impact isn’t an overnight process. But it’s a crucial way of ensuring that the end goals — a values-driven, productive workforce and responsive and valuable services for frontline communities — are within reach. At Keolis, we’re making sure the status quo is never blindly accepted and continually examining our people and processes in order to create lasting, equitable solutions for employees and passengers.


Nichole Gladney is vice president of Inclusion and Engagement at Keolis North America Inc.