No More Mr. Nice Guy: Transit Advocates Get Organized

Members of the L.A. Bus Riders Union march to a MTA board meeting. Americans for Transit wants to help seed transit rider groups like this one across the country. Photo: Organizing Transit Riders: A How-To Manual

What do you do if your bus service is cut by a third? If you’re Metropolitan Congregations United in St. Louis, you hold a ballot initiative – and win. What if your transit system neglects less affluent areas compared to the wealthy part of town? If you’re the L.A. Bus Riders’ Union, you bring a civil rights lawsuit – and win. And what if a regressive tax system starves your transit service? If you’re the Seattle area’s Transportation Choices, you organize an unprecedented coalition to pressure the County Council – and win.

But what do you do if there’s no transit rider organization in your area? You can just live with service cuts and fare increases – or you can organize.

That’s the idea behind Americans for Transit, a brand-new nonprofit dedicated to building grassroots support for quality, affordable transit service around the country. “There’s no national organization doing this,” said Andrew Austin, the organization’s new executive director.

“[The American Public Transportation Association] is a trade association that represents transit agencies,” Austin told Streetsblog in an interview yesterday. “But right now there’s no prominent voice for transit riders.”

A4T won’t spend much time on Capitol Hill, putting white papers in front of lawmakers. It plans to help create transit rider organizations where there aren’t any, strengthen them where they do exist, and unify those groups around the country. They want to help mobilize people around legislation and service issues from the local level all the way up to the national level.

While federal legislation won’t be a primary focus, Austin said “there should be a national outcry” against legislation like H.R.7, the House transportation bill that ultimately imploded. APTA strongly objected when the bill would have stripped away dedicated funding streams for transit, but once that language was dropped, APTA was on board, publicly supporting the bill’s advancement even though it would have reduced transit funding compared to current levels.

Austin sees A4T as an opportunity for advocates to speak more freely without worrying about “staying on the invite list.”

“Almost no one who does lobbying on the Hill will talk openly about changing the 80/20 split, because it’s not going to happen anytime soon,” Austin said, referring to share of federal funding that goes to highways and transit. “But transit riders should be talking about it. Because it’s crazy, considering where we’re going demographically as a country; we should be looking at a more equitable balance for transportation funding.”

A4T is a joint venture of the Amalgamated Transit Union and Good Jobs First, a nonprofit linking economic development and smart growth. The two groups have organized two transit organizer “boot camps” and have published a how-to manual on organizing transit riders. One of A4T’s first tasks will be to turn the manual, now a PDF, into a more user-friendly web tool.

The new group plans to start in cities with medium-to-large transit systems and no rider organization. Austin hopes they’ll be able to name their pilot cities within the next three months. They’re not looking to franchise or open Americans for Transit chapters in these cities, but to help fertilize homegrown transit efforts.

Regardless of the cities A4T starts with, their trainings will be available to anyone. They can teach an intro course on how to talk to transit riders about the way funding and politics affects their daily life, i.e. “How to Organize on the Bus.” They’ve got another training that could be called “How to Organize on Twitter,” about social media. They can help ragtag groups formalize into a 501(c)3 that can accept tax-deductible contributions.

Transit rider groups are often made up of low-income “transit-dependents,” but as young people turn in droves toward transit and away from cars, the makeup of these groups could become more diverse. Still, Austin said, transit-dependent people will likely always be more vocal and passionate than “choice riders.” When bus service in Tacoma, Washington was cut by 40 percent, meaning that buses that used to run until 12:30 now stopped at 9:30, Austin said, “It doesn’t hurt me to take a cab home from the bar as much as it hurts a janitor who gets off work at 11 o’clock at night.”

The challenge, Austin said, is to get transit riders — especially choice riders — to identify as such, and not just think of transit as a way to get from point A to point B. When faced with rising fares and sinking service, many riders feel more antagonism and annoyance at transit than support for it. Austin says it’s natural for that anger to be directed toward the transit agency at first, but then you have to get people to transition to a more complex understanding of how political factors and funding pressures affect the agency. Then riders can work to change those underlying issues.