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: ##http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/sites/default/files/docs/pdf/transitmanual.pdf##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.

  • PaulCJr

    I wouldn’t highlight the BRU as being a great transit advocacy group. The BRU has done a lot to damage transit in LA, by claiming transit racism. One of their main claims was that money going to rail takes away from the poor. If you look at were rail goes in LA, it’s mainly lower middle class and poor communities. Just recently has rail started reaching more affluent communities. May I also bring to you attention you will always find BRU members on the rail lines as well. Rail has brought a lot of good to LA. If you want to highlight a good transit advocacy group in LA, highlight the Transit Coalition. 

  • JK

    The terms transit  “choice” vs transit “dependent” is terrible terminology, and creates a very negative political frame, and should not be used by anyone who supports transit. Many, probably most, transit riders have other options, including walking, biking or car pooling. Transit just makes the most sense from a cost and time saving perspective. For most transit riders — including those that own cars — it probably makes sense to “choose” transit for some trips and not others.

  • Anonymous

    Seems like there is always billions to throw at glitzy rail projects like HSR, Central Subway in SF, but bus riders are faced with service cuts and ailing and poorly maintained rolling stock. Rail is great, and together buses and rail vastly expand transit options, but buses can go more places than rail can.

    I live in San Francisco.  I don’t drive a car or ride a bike, but I can take a cab most places if buses or rail don’t go there.  For poor people that’s not an option. Maybe the BRU’s left-wing organizing tactics leave something to be desired, but they do shed a light on facts that are uncomfortable but true.

  • anonymouse

    The BRU is a terrible example to use. Among other things, during the month-long transit strike in 2003, they were on the side of the bus drivers, rather than the riders who were stranded with no transit service for a month. It almost seems like they oppose rail (and articulated buses and Metro Rapid) because it allows more service with fewer employees.

  • Engineerscotty

    Another organization that deserves a nationwide shout-out is OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon (http://www.opalpdx.org/) which has had some success organizing TriMet riders in opposition to service cuts here in the Portland aread.
     

  • Guest

    The 80/20 split doesn’t have to be an absolute disadvantage for transit.  Continue to pressure DOTs to use their funds on bus-priority highway treatments.

  • Nathanael

    The BRU lawsuit was insane — seriously, the Blue Line, the first rail line opened, goes through the absolute poorest and most troubled areas of the whole county.  So, you know, some organizations are better than others.

  • Anonymous

    This sounds wonderful but when you realize it’s just a front group for a union, you realize who’s really calling the shots.

  • david vartanoff

    BRU nay have painted all rail with an overly broad brush, but the demand for adequate buses to reduce overcrowding on trunk lines should have been MTA policy without a Federal hammer.    The huge capital cost of the commuter rail and subway lines DID decrease funds available both for bus fleet acquisition and operations.    One should also remember that LACMTA repeatedly violated the consent decree it had signed.     

  • Guest

    Shouting “racism” about this is a sure-fire way to make sure anybody who might have been willing to listen to your position tunes you out.

  • Anonymous

    I echo the other commentators that the Bus Riders Union is a horrible example to use. It is an organization that basically shouts “Gimmie gimmie gimmie” no matter the context. They refuse to acknowledge the broader economic issues associated with transit, such as farebox recovery, taxes, etc. They are stubborn in the sense that if they don’t get their unlimited bus service at near-zero levels of farebox recovery, they’ll go starve themselves like a bunch of dramatic teenagers.

    They once won a consent decree because they screamed racism in a politically correct society.  Today, economic reality does not afford us such maudlin considerations and they have become largely irrelevant. The bottom line must be considered and in transit the bottom line is in really bad shape. We cannot afford to piss off taxpaying voters with whiny stunts lest we lose broad support for transit in Southern California that so many worked so hard to build.

    Metro has learned to deal with them quite handily, causing their outdated tactics to fall short of success in the past few years. Several other transit advocacy groups have led the way in Southern California with much less funding than the BRU, and have achieved a lot more, and they don’t do it by throwing tantrums.

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