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Want Better Transit? Unionize!
Erica Barnett, 9 Nov 07
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For reasons that are more practical and financial than environmental, I use Seattle's public transportation system. But like many fellow riders, I don't exactly enjoy using it. The problems with Seattle's buses (the system consists entirely of buses until the first light rail line opens in 2009) are the stuff of legend: people who drink and deal drugs openly; people who haven't seen the inside of a shower in weeks; overcrowding; buses that arrive late or not at all; and harassment are all routine.

Recently, I asked readers at The Stranger what they would do to improve our city's transportation system. Although many folks responded that I should just "learn to deal with it," most had constructive, even inspiring, suggestions, including:

  • More, and more frequent buses;
  • Better enforcement of existing anti-harassment, fare, substance-abuse, and hygiene rules
  • Loading platforms with ticketing kiosks to reduce delays
  • Eliminating stops
  • Eliminating the downtown ride-free zone
  • Issuing tickets to riders who don't pay
  • Providing information at stops about what buses are coming next and when

All of these ideas are in place in various cities around the world, and many would be a vast improvement over Seattle's current system. My favorite proposal, however, unites all those ideas under one umbrella: forming a transit riders union, a group that advocates for transit users and lobbies elected officials for more transit money.

Government increasingly demands that citizens view it as a business. Transit riders' unions tell government, "Okay. Then treat us like consumers."

Transit riders' unions have done some amazing things:

  • In Los Angeles, California, the Bus Riders Union fought throughout the early 90's against a proposal that would have eliminated monthly bus passes. It won that battle, and managed to get the L.A. transit authority to reduce prices, link price increases to inflation, and provide new services to connect low-income and minority riders to job and medical sites.
  • In Vancouver, British Columbia, the Bus Riders Union convinced Translink, the regional transit agency, to restore night bus service critical to the transportation needs of late-night workers.
  • The Santa Clara, California VTA Riders Union has a detailed, step-by-step DIY guide to filing a complaint or compliment with the regional transit agency -- complete with addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail contact information for every conceivable type of feedback.
  • In Atlanta, Georgia, the Atlanta Transit Riders Union has protected transit service for the disabled, restored service on several threatened bus routes, and halted fare increases on the city's regional rail system, MARTA.
  • And in New York City, the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign has created an awesome online resource that combines information about various transit lines; "Pokey and Schleppie Awards" for the worst bus lines; complaint forms and tips on how to file effective complaints; maps, polls, and reports; and rider diaries, forums, and much more.

Other cities with transit riders unions in various stages of organizational strength include Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; the Bay Area of California; Boston, Massachusetts; and Edmonton, Alberta.

The Straphangers Campaign is perhaps the best model for the kind of resources transit riders unions can provide. But with advances in mobile technology, it's easy to envision a role for riders unions that goes much farther than online resource clearinghouses and communities. Imagine if it were possible to text complaints to a central online forum that automatically forwarded them to your transportation agency; let other riders know through a mobile network when there were problems on certain transit lines; upload a photo of someone who's harassing you on the bus automatically to a dedicated Flickr page, à la Hollaback (a place where women can post photos of their street harassers); or, contribute to interactive, user-generated maps of problem spots in the system that could help make the case for improvements.

Part of the reason transit agencies seem so monolithic and all-powerful is that they have all the knowledge: where the buses are; which routes work and which ones don't, and why; which trains and buses are most in need of repair, and which routes they're on. Riders by contrast, have almost none. Transit unions that connect members via networked technologies could be one way to close that gap.

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The LA Bus Riders Union sued the MTA and prevented the Green Line (Light Rail) from reaching LAX. They are also fighting every rail project in the city on grounds that rail is for rich people, therefore building more rail is racist. As a mass transit user in Los Angeles, the Bus Riders Union does nothing but serve its own self interest while delaying projects that could bring real relief to our traffic mess.

Posted by: tobias on 9 Nov 07

I've long fantasized about a web site where I could report delays and no-shows for the MT120 that I ride out of West Seattle all the time. If enough of us reported in, we'd get a picture of which routes (all of them?) are most unreliable, and when.

Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 10 Nov 07

I am afraid I have to concur about the BRU's anti-rail campaign. To call the Blue Line, let alone the upcoming Gold Line extension to East L.A. and the new line being built along the old Exposition Bl. Right-of-Way as transit for White People is terribly irrational and shortsighted.

A Reccomendation to them is to ask where they would place a Light Rail system to serve them better.


Posted by: H. Torrance Griffin on 12 Nov 07

"Transit riders' unions tell government, "Okay. Then treat us like consumers.""

Um, no. In almost all US city/county transit districts the bus/rail riders aren't consumers. They are charity cases.

Sounds blunt, yes, but it is true. Even your choice of the world "consumer" itself tells the story... Why not call yourself a "customer"?

Are you willing to pay a fare that covers the true capital and operational costs? Or, do you expect the federal, state, or county to support the system with tax money?

Therein lay the problem - transit in the US really is a charity, run on tax money to help those too poor to own a car or somehow unfortunately unable to drive. Perhaps in a couple of cities (NY, DC) the transit could actually survive on paying customers, but in the rest of the country - no.

So, if you want better bus/train service, how much more are you willing to pay?

Posted by: WasInJapan on 13 Nov 07

@ WasInJapan

dude, the personal transportation device known as the automobile is also heavily subsidized by many levels of government in more ways then I care to count.

Posted by: hswerdfe on 13 Nov 07

Hey. You should add Hamilton, Ontario (pop. 500,000) to your list of cities with transit unions. The Hamilton Transit Users' Group ("HTUG" - we were briefly toying with "THUG") kept transit fares down through three city budgets by flyering fellow riders.

Posted by: Campbell on 13 Nov 07

I live in Los Angeles as well. The BRU does do some good things, but they extend beyond the issue of public transportation too often. I would love to help reform the city's public transport system, which is probably the country's worst and most direly needed, which is why it saddens me all the more that I'd have to subscribe to a ton of other viewpoints if I wished to support the BRU. Like somebody else commented, they accuse everything of being racist. They also protest the "American Empire". Regardless of my opinions on these issues, I think it's unfair for the BRU to be spending so much time on them.

Posted by: L M on 13 Nov 07

Thank you for the informative article!

I'm writing from Seattle's northern sister, Vancouver, BC.

We are blessed with a passable transit system and a city council that recognizes (and occasionally prioritizes!) cyclists and pedestrians. But it'll be awhile before it dawns on the public that it is the transit users that are subsidizing the car commuters, not the other way around.

And you have a nice blog, too, though perhaps you have gone beyond the healthy limit of posts on Hillary Cilton.

Posted by: Peter Carbonetto on 14 Nov 07



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