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Transit Union and Sierra Club Join Forces for Earth Day and Beyond

Earth Day is a week from tomorrow. How many people will drive to their local environmental festival without even a second thought to how they got there?

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: ## News China##

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: Car News China

The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Sierra Club will announce tomorrow that they are joining forces to highlight the connection between transportation and climate change.

Transit is important, “not only to people who ride it but also to everybody who breathes oxygen in the world,” said ATU President Larry Hanley. That’s why the union is strengthening its coordination with the Sierra Club.

“They completely get the importance of mass transit,” he said. “It’s just that we haven’t found ways to formalize our public relationship in the past. That’s what we’re going to do now.”

Transit advocates, including the ATU, have been working to advance the full range of arguments for transit with the Transit Is Greater campaign. The ATU’s new “Transit > Pollution” leaflet [PDF] is all ready to be rolled out at bus stops and train stations around the U.S. and Canada, where the union will be encouraging riders to become more active in the push for better transit. They’ll also be doing climate-themed events with the Sierra Club in May, and beyond that with events they’re calling “Transit Tuesdays.

“We’re working with elected officials and candidates for public office to get out and ride transit with us, to organize riders to contact Congress for a better transit bill,” Hanley said, referring to the pending reauthorization of the MAP-21 transportation bill. They’re also planning a rally May 20 on Capitol Hill, after which members of the ATU and the Transport Workers Union will visit Congressional offices. Sierra Club locals and other community groups from around the country will support that event with phone calls to their representatives.

While initially timed around Earth Day, the partnership launch also coincides with a spike of interest in climate change following the release of a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that issued a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. “Climate change, to those of us who don’t believe in voodoo but believe in science, is a real serious concern,” Hanley said. “We’re watching polar ice caps melt at the same time that our Congress has turned its back on the things that could slow that down — like mass transit.”

Even many lawmakers concerned about environmental issues don’t pay enough attention to the power of transit to allay climate change, said Hanley. “That’s really the whole point of what we’re doing in May and throughout 2014,” he said. “We’re going to remind the ones who should know and alert the ones who don’t about the value of mass transit.”

According to the IPCC report, emissions from transportation could rise by 71 percent from 2010 levels by 2050, while the scientific consensus holds that the world needs to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by then. The transportation sector is projected to be the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

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Transit Advocates Target High-Profile Congressional Race in South Carolina

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has an answer for everything. He can explain why he lied about hiking the Appalachian Trail when in fact he was in Buenos Aires with his mistress. He can explain why he trespassed into his ex-wife’s house, violating the terms of their divorce. But here’s one thing he doesn’t have an answer for: a questionnaire about transit.

Welcome to Bosnia -- er, Charleston. The city's Amtrak station could use a facelift. Photo: Hungryneck Straphangers

The Hungryneck Straphangers, a grassroots transit advocacy group based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, issued a questionnaire to both candidates in the special Congressional election for Rep. Tim Scott’s seat (which he vacated to take Sen. Jim DeMint’s seat, which he vacated to be the frontman for the Heritage Foundation). They only received one response – from Sanford’s Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

That was after the group invited all the primary candidates to ride the buses with them and discuss the challenges facing transit riders. The majority of candidates took them up on it. Sanford didn’t.

Americans for Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union have teamed up with the local straphanger group to push public transportation into the forefront of this high-profile campaign. Last week, they canvassed voters at five express bus stops around Charleston [PDF] and ran a training session for “transit voter empowerment.” They’re also going outside the urban core to “where transit is scarce or nonexistent.”

For the ATU, it’s the continuation of an effort they started last fall, distributing more than a million pieces of literature in the month leading up to Election Day and holding 56 events around the country where candidates rode the bus and talked with riders. In the absence of a national election day, they’re focusing on special races in Nebraska and South Carolina.

While Colbert Busch – yes, Stephen Colbert’s sister – did answer the Charleston transit questionnaire, her answers were less than inspiring. Her message to transit riders? “I will listen and make careful choices.” Will she fight for federal support to complete their intermodal transit center? “There are logistics to work out” but she supports “improvements to bus and rail connections.” Would she fight for a bigger share for transit at the federal level? “I see the value of improving and maintaining our roads… Transit should be part of the full infrastructure portfolio.”

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Transit Funding Cuts Are Putting Bus Drivers in Danger

Attacks on transit drivers are not a new problem. But it seems to be getting worse.

A spike in violence has compelled Seattle area buses to carry this PSA. Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

A bus driver now gets assaulted every three days in the United States, estimates the Amalgated Transit Union. Headlines abound of drivers getting kicked, punched, stabbed and shot, while the lower-profile offenses – spitting and verbal harassment – have almost become part of the job description.

For many transit workers, it’s plain to see how the recession has inflated a trend that already existed. Working alone and dealing with money, drivers have always been vulnerable. Mix in a more frustrated, downtrodden population of passengers with a host of service cuts and fare increases, and you get combustion.

“People who are poorer than they were, … who rely more on transit than they did, who are waiting longer at bus stops for the bus to come because the service has been cut,” said Larry Hanley, president of the ATU. When they board the bus, “the driver’s sitting there in a uniform, representing the government, telling them, you got to pay a higher tax for this service,” he said.

Nationwide statistics are lacking, but many jurisdictions have reported recent increases in driver attacks. The Philadelphia Transport Workers Union local reports that assaults there more than doubled in 2011 compared to 2010. New York City has seen a 30 percent increase in 2012. There’s also not a lot of hard data linking an uptick in assaults to fare increases or service cuts, said Robin Gillespie, program director of safety and health at the Transportation Learning Center. But “people feel that way,” she said.

And attacks occur most commonly during fare collection. “The conflict is over money,” said Hanley. “It’s people who have a pocket full of empty and have to get to a place.”

As the problem gets more prevalent, transit unions are getting more organized in their efforts to deal with it.

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Advocates: Mobilizing Transit Riders a Challenge, Even in Transit-Rich Cities

With fewer Americans driving and transit ridership breaking records, you might think transit has plenty of muscle behind it. But while the numbers speak for themselves, the riders often don’t.

A pro-transit rally in Honolulu last year. Photo: Rebuilding Place in Urban Space

That’s why local efforts to establish grassroots transit advocacy organizations are so important, said a panel of experts convened by the Center for Transportation Excellence this Wednesday. The presenters described successes and failures in engaging different segments of the transit universe, including riders, labor unions and students.

Greg LeRoy, head of economic development watchdog Good Jobs First, said that in many cities — even transit-rich ones — there’s not always a long history of rider groups organizing themselves, and of those, some have little capacity to advocate.

“Certainly large systems like SEPTA [in Philadelphia] have so many riders there is raw community-organizing capacity, but that doesn’t mean there is any sustained organizing,” said LeRoy.

Enter Americans for Transit, a partnership that combines the organizing power of the labor movement with the number-crunching expertise of economic development wonks. LeRoy said Americans for Transit aims to create a “four-legged stool” of transit riders, labor, manufacturers, and pro-transit employers who can craft and target an advocacy message that’s currently lacking in many cities.

Giving a sudden jolt to the movement is ATU president Larry Hanley, who LeRoy says is sending strong signals to his local presidents to take on a more vocal role.

Not that broad-based transit advocacy is unheard of. When the House looked like it was about to hang transit out to dry a few months ago, a coalition of organizations rose up to defend it. But while Congress’s plan to pull the plug on transit galvanized people around the country to help avert a high-profile national crisis, Americans for Transit aims to strengthen and sustain transit advocacy over the long term, starting at the local level.

One common obstacle to engaging people is that many of the public’s most frequent complaints about transit — timeliness, reliability — boil down to a shortage of operations and maintenance funds. But the riding public often doesn’t know why these problems exist, or who can actually do something about it. So Americans for Transit and similar groups would create and educate a nationwide network of advocates who could put pressure on any level of government — city, region, state, or federal — no matter how low down or high up the funding tree.

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Communities Urge Congress: “Don’t X Out Transit”

Yesterday, transit advocates in more than two dozen cities around the country held rallies to urge Congress to maintain funding for public transportation. The “Don’t X Out Transit” events brought attention to the massive cuts in service and fare hikes that have besieged U.S. transit agencies, and made it clear that the 30 percent funding cut in the House transportation bill would be a death blow to many systems.

Yesterday's "Don't X Out Transit" rally in Los Angeles. Photo: Crystal McMillan / Bus Riders Union

The American Public Transportation Association collected testimonials from a variety of transit organizations nationwide, explaining what such a deep cut would mean to their service:

A 30 percent cut would probably eliminate our service. Under the present political environment a 30 percent loss in federal support is just another nail in the coffin.

– Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority, Hammond, IN

If our 5307 funding were cut by 30 percent, it would amount to a loss of about $360,000. About the only way this can be made up without additional revenues is to eliminate all holiday service and Saturday service (we have never operated on Sundays). Our paratransit service would also no longer operate on holidays and Saturdays… Of course, with these cuts we would also have to lay off operators and other staff.

– City of Las Cruces RoadRUNNER Transit, Las Cruces, NM

A 30 percent cut in federal funding would mean that we would have to cut up to five of our 17 community routes. Our funding situation is already so precarious that our “neighborhood” routes only run four or five trips a day, Monday through Friday, so any further cutbacks would mean elimination of all service on these routes.

– Centre Area Transportation Authority, State College, PA

We have been able to… boost the frequency of service to no more than 15 minutes between buses from 6am to 9pm Monday thru Friday on our most popular routes resulting in the first 4 months a 15 percent increase in ridership and similar results beginning to occur on the routes feeding those two. Cut funding and we will become a system of hour headways.

– Transit Authority of River City, Louisville, KY

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Larry Hanley: Part-Time Labor Won’t Save American Transit

Streetsblog sat down last week with Larry Hanley, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union and member of the AFL-CIO executive council. Yesterday, we published the first part of our interview, focusing on movement-building around transit. Here, we had a vigorous discussion about union rules and Buy America provisions that are the subject of some debate among transit advocates.

Tanya Snyder: There are some union rules that some transit advocates say are harmful, like the mandatory eight-hour workday and the restriction on part-time work, when transit especially has such peaks and valleys – you’ve got a rush hour in the morning and a rush hour in the evening, and all this dead time in between.

ATU President Larry Hanley says diminishing worker protections is not the way to a stronger transit network. Photo: Workday Minnesota

Larry Hanley: In most urban transit, you have a large number of bus drivers who work what are known as swing shifts, where they work in the morning rush hour, they work in the evening rush hour, they handle the question of peak service, and they essentially do the work of two people. It’s not their fault that demand for service falls off in the middle of the day; it’s just the reality of the business.

In Staten Island, in my local, the percentage of people in Staten Island transit who operate swing shifts, I think it’s 62 or 63 percent of all the work is swing shifts. And these are people working – driving – eight or more hours on almost every shift. They have time off in the middle, but they’re putting in a full day. Their day starts at 6 o’clock in the morning and ends at 6 or 7 o’clock at night. So, these are long days with hardworking people.

I think it’s really a cheap shot. I’d like to have people go down and hang out at a bank or a brokerage house and see how much time the executives really put in at their desk. But anyway, that’s my class war argument.

TS: Was “class war” off the record?

LH: No, class war is on the record! I agree with Warren Buffet. There’s a class war going on and his class is winning.

And as for what to do with these workers in the middle of the day, Congress, pandering to a small group of private bus companies – and this is an absolute obscenity – restricts public agencies from doing charter bus work. And this is nothing but pandering to private bus companies who have an inordinate amount of political influence. So, all over the United States, there are probably 100,000 buses that lay idle on weekends, lay idle in the middle of the day, when they could be used productively in the communities. They could be providing charter service to people all over our cities and providing better-rounded schedules, so that a bus driver who works the morning shift could actually do some charter work and have a full eight-hour day.

They are literally scraping bodies off highways because we have bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel, because proponents of bad labor policy were successful in the 1980s in deregulating that industry.

The charter restriction is on the level of the bridge to nowhere in terms of how much of a crazy rule it is, that is really responsive to the needs of a handful of people and harmful to the systems all over the country.

TS: What about just hiring workers part-time to handle either the morning or evening rush?

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ATU President Larry Hanley on How to Build a Strong Coalition for Transit

Streetsblog sat down last week with Larry Hanley, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union and member of the AFL-CIO executive council. Hanley started his career in New York as a bus driver in Brooklyn and then Staten Island, from 1978 to 1987. He became active in the local transit union and worked his way up the ranks until winning election last fall as its youngest president ever. He is known for his creative responses to attacks on the union, including attempts to privatize express bus service, and his ability to build coalitions across many sectors.

President Larry Hanley is considering ways to broaden the ATU to include passengers and other transit supporters as members. Photo courtesy of the ATU

Hanley started as president of the ATU the same week I started at Streetsblog. I remember that first week, hearing excited chatter about this transit firebrand taking the helm of the union.

Below is the first installment of Streetsblog’s edited interview with Hanley.

Tanya Snyder: Starting with the reauthorization: nothing is going to happen until after the recess, they’ve got this battle between two years and six years, the funding levels are miserable in either version – how do you organize your way out of this? How do you respond?

Larry Hanley: The only thing that can actually straighten out the problem is if the people – huge numbers of people – start to articulate a different vision. We need leaders to articulate a different vision and we need people to understand that were heading into a dead end financially, and we’re destroying all the things that made America a great country. And I think that we’ve been sold out by corporate interests that control the politicians.

And the only antidote to that is to try to figure out a way to mobilize the public, and we’re doing that. We’re actively ramping up our communications and trainings, and we’re providing a roadmap to our local leaders and members for how they can organize their communities around transit.

We were able to persuade the unpersuadable — people like Giuliani — because we built broad-based community support, including traditional Republican strongholds.

We don’t think that there is a short-term solution. We think Congress is so out of touch with the needs of the people who live in this country that the only remedy is to convince large numbers of people in districts to go after their members of Congress and straighten them out.

TS: You’ve been involved in coalitions at the local, regional, and national levels for a long time around transit. How have you seen them evolve? How do those coalitions compare now to when you started?

LH: The coalitions that work are the ones that can really get buy-in from non-traditional partners. There are very few places where labor unions partner, for example, with the real estate community and the Chamber of Commerce. But I found that to be a really successful formula back in New York. We were able to persuade the unpersuadable — people like [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, a guy who was on his own mission — because we built broad-based community support, including traditional Republican strongholds. And we persuaded them that it was in our collective interest, that there was such a thing as a collective interest — that’s really been taken out of the debate publicly. But when we convinced them that there was a collective interest in having better mass transit and cheaper mass transit, they pretty quickly persuaded Giuliani and [Gov. George] Pataki to support it, despite the fact that they had internal pressure in their own political circles not to.

Our goals are really mainstream, but they’re not treated that way.

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