Does Your Transit Agency Board Look Like Its Riders?

Photo: Angie Schmitt
Photo: Angie Schmitt

The politics of public transit vary a lot from city to city, but a major player in every agency is the board of directors.

These powerful boards don’t tend to feature prominently in advocacy campaigns. But they’re important, making key decisions about fares and service and senior staff that affect every rider.

Unfortunately, these boards often aren’t very representative of the people who ride transit in the regions they serve. Julia Ehrman at TransitCenter scanned some the boards of the biggest agencies and found they are generally much more white and male than the riding population.

Check out Boston, for example.

Graph: TransitCenter (FMCB = Fiscal and Management Control Board)
Graph: TransitCenter (FMCB = Fiscal and Management Control Board)

Or Portland’s TriMet:

Graph: TransitCenter
Graph: TransitCenter

And Atlanta:

Graph: TransitCenter
Graph: TransitCenter

Ehrman says this is something that advocates, and those responsible for appointing transit board members, should be conscious of, because it can impact service quality:

What would change if more diverse voices were at transit decision making tables, shaping policy and investment? If more women were at the table, we might hear more about the need for service in off-peak hours to accommodate service and domestic work. We might learn that free transfers are completely essential for the multi-leg trips that work, school commuting, and errands require. We might prioritize lighting, visibility, and real-time information at bus stops to help improve safety. If more people of color were at the table, we might hear stronger challenges to expensive new rail projects that tilt the scales away from investment in bus service and amenities in communities of color where riders live. We might have a more comprehensive conversation about policing on transit, and what “safety” means in practice. If more people from the disabled community were on transit boards, their colleagues might grasp the gravity of inaccessibility and prioritize requisite changes.

Personal experience is not the only path to empathy. However, transit policy should be based on facts about rider experience and needs.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ehrman writes, has been a leader in this regard, using his appointments to triple representation by women and people of color on the board of the state-run MTA since taking office.

13 thoughts on Does Your Transit Agency Board Look Like Its Riders?

  1. Few things… 1st: diversity is good; quotas are not particularly good. Diversity is best when it happens organically.

    2nd: it’s just as important to reflect the demographics of resident/voters as bus (or train) riders specifically but certainly personal experience is one important trait.

    Lastly, it’s the male dominated field of planners that may be more of an issue in overlooking the needs of our better halves. 🙂

  2. I wonder what the background is of folks that can hang around, sip coffee, read legal documents, and volunteer 20 hours/week between 9 and 5 Mon-Fri??

    It’s not just transit. If we’re ever going to make meaningful strides in equitability in organizational governance, we need a way to fund people while they serve on boards.

  3. Yep – this is an issue across almost all organizations. These boards are volunteer, no benefits, meet during the day, and are a huge commitment. As is, these various advisory board seats are predominantly occupied by 60-something year olds taking victory laps after prestigious white collar careers. That’s a population niche that doesn’t ride the bus with me.

  4. Birmingham’s board is very diversified – – and we have one of the most shit transportation systems in the country. Just google news the problems they have (BJCTA Board). Nice try, but what transportation needs is a commitment from the community in the form of funding. Acting like adding diversity to a board solves all the problems is naive.

  5. Why are we focusing on demographics and diversity quota, another irrelevant waste of time.

  6. As a statistic, 2 of the 7 directors of AC Transit in Oakland CA (which is an elected position) are people I run into while using the bus. Staffers, not so much.

  7. In Rhode Island, the statewide transit agency board has 8 members, 4 are female, 2 are African-American, but to my knowledge the only one who rides frequently is a white male.

  8. Spot on. If she’s not scaring the bejezus out of people with YOU’RE GOING TO GET HIT BY A CAR AND DIE articles, it’s blame the white guy with Mizz Schmidt.

  9. Exactly, and your experience is not all that unique. Even in lily white Utah, UTA board members ride the trains and buses. This is just an ongoing narrative in search of even more outrage because heaven knows we don’t have enough already.

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