Rise of the Rider Rebellion

If you ride a bus or subway, 2010 just isn’t your year. Service is disappearing. Reliability is on the decline. And fares? Don’t even ask what January has in store. Transit is taking such a hit, in part, because the people who control the purse strings and make the big decisions don’t serve the riding public. But that’s all about to change because T.A. is fighting to give riders something they have never had in proportion to their numbers: political power.

When the city woke up on the morning of June 27th, New Yorkers began coping with the reality of a vastly diminished public transportation system. The W and V trains had been eliminated, and the off-peak frequency of the subway system took a big hit. Bus riders had it even worse. Thirteen entire lines were discontinued. And the cuts to dozens more meant that the city’s 2.5 million bus riders met with unprecedented delays and crowds.

It didn’t have to be this way. The past three years have witnessed two of the biggest public transit campaigns in New York City’s history. Had either one ended in a victory for transit riders, the MTA would be on much firmer financial footing right now and the current cycle of back-to-back fare hikes and system cuts would be mitigated, if not rendered altogether unnecessary.

But transit riders didn’t win. In 2008, the forces of inertia in the State Legislature blocked a vote on congestion pricing, even after the City Council had approved the measure. And one year later, a broad-based and widely-supported trifecta of East River bridge tolls, a downstate payroll tax and a modest 25-cent fare hike ran into a brick wall—a handful of State Senate holdouts more concerned with flexing their political muscle than saving their transit-riding constituents from disaster. They finally came on board, but only after scuttling the Ravitch Plan’s bridge toll component, leaving a gap in the budget the MTA hasn’t been able to fill since. As a final insult to injury, the State Legislature voted to raid $143 million id dedicated MTA monies this winter to plug gaps in their own pork-filled budget.

Why does this keep happening? Why aren’t elected officials terrified to anger 5 million daily subway riders and 2.5 million bus riders? Why don’t cuts to the transit system prompt the same public outcry as closing schools or hospitals? The answer is that the powers that be in Albany feel immured from the consequences of their actions—or inactions—that affect riders. They think, with good reason, that the MTA will take the beating on their behalf, and that their votes in the State Legislature won’t translate into constituents voting on transit come November.

Who Serves the Rider?

There are plenty of groups working on behalf of the transit system. The Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 wields the biggest clout by virtue of its numbers and resources. But its concern is preserving the jobs and working conditions of its members. The same goes for heavyweights like the General Contractors Association, whose members rely on the construction jobs that come with maintaining and expanding the transit system. The real estate and business communities carry force and political clout, but it’s economic development they’re seeking when they go to bat. The groups concerned with the rider experience are far fewer; you could count them on one hand. The NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Pratt Center for Community Development, and Transportation Alternatives—these are the groups that care whether overnight buses come every 20 minutes rather than every 25 minutes, whether a subway station has a fresh coat of paint, or whether trains have eight cars or ten.

But rider advocacy groups have traditionally had the slimmest resources within the pro-transit coalitions like the Empire State Transportation Alliance. And the staff and budgets necessary to mobilize and educate straphangers on the scale necessary to shift the political winds have always been out of reach. Until now.

With the support of the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Sherman Foundation, T.A. is gearing up for the largest community organizing campaign in its history—an effort to activate transit riders to demand a better and more affordable system in the same way we’ve mobilized cyclists to win bike lanes. We call it the Rider Rebellion.

The Riders Strike Back

The Rider Rebellion aims to focus the dull rage of transit riders and convert that anger into meaningful action. At bus stops where service has been curtailed and in subway stations with fewer trains, Rider Rebellion field organizers will greet straphangers, connect them with the campaign’s list of activists, and solicit letters, phone calls, e-mails and petition signatures to targeted elected officials in Albany. Its goal: 30,000 actions taken by riders between July 2010 and December 2011—more than ten times the number of actions generated in the last three years of T.A. transit campaigns. When those e-mails, phone calls and letters start hitting district offices, State Senators will realize that their bus- and subway-riding constituents mean business.

The Rider Rebellion builds on what T.A. does well—organizing in the field and generating actions. We do it successfully for bike lanes and pedestrian safety measures on a day-to-day basis. T.A.’s letter-writing campaigns for congestion pricing, the phone-a-thons for the Ravitch Plan, and the rallies and media spots in between all demonstrated the effectiveness of our tactics on transit. What was missing were the resources to organize simultaneously in multiple parts of the city for a sustained period of time.

Under the leadership of T.A.’s first full-time staff member dedicated solely to public transit work, the Rider Rebellion will deploy activists to parts of the city we’ve never been able to reach effectively in past transit work. From Soundview in the Bronx, to Harlem in Manhattan, to Bayside in Queens, to Midwood in Brooklyn, the campaign will hit the ground in earnest this summer to let straphangers know they aren’t powerless. They’ll generate grassroots support for Bus Rapid Transit projects on corridors like Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island, and help win bread-and-butter system improvements around the city like bus bulbs, lighting at bus stops and accurate information to riders on service changes.

Remember in November

All this has a purpose. The worst service cuts in memory may have just happened in June, but worse is coming down the tracks. The MTA is still grappling to bridge an $800 million budget shortfall. The next five-year capital plan, which begins in 2010, has only two years of funding; after 2012 the monies to maintain and expand the system dry up. And there’s a fare hike looming in January, which even optimists expect to exceed the 7.5% increase the MTA has predicted; regardless of the figure, it will be an unprecedented third fare hike in as many years. But increasing fare revenue alone will likely not be enough if taxes on payrolls and real estate continue to come up short, and if the State Legislature continues to slash its contributions to the MTA as it did in 2009 and 2010. New York City is facing the prospect of ever-declining, more expensive transit service—unless the riders themselves intervene.

T.A.’s own Caroline Samponaro, who directs all our bicycle advocacy efforts and blogs about biking for homemaking queen Martha Stewart, said this about getting women on the road: “We will have reached our goals for bicycle transportation in New York City when the gender, race, age and socio-economic breakdown of folks riding bikes is representative of the enormous diversity of New Yorkers. When invested in adequately by the city, bicycles can be the toasters of urban transportation − practical, cheap household fixtures that are completely non-discriminating in their utility. So absolutely, more women biking means we have a better city for biking and we have done the work it takes to bring the bicycle back into the realm of public transportation where it belongs.”

In November, every elected official in New York State is up for re-election, and while issues like crime, education and property taxes loom large on the political landscape, the Rider Rebellion will push voters to the polls with transit in mind. By reaching out to straphangers one at a time over the summer, and convincing them to contact their State Senators and State Assembly Members, the Rider Rebellion will focus the riding public’s fury at service cuts and fare hikes where it can actually make a difference. We will make sure the connection between legislative votes in Albany and transit service here in the city is understood, and press riders to consider the records of candidates before casting their ballots. For candidates who offer solutions, all this interest in transit will present an opportunity. For those who only offer more of the same, they’ll have an angry and activated ridership to mollify.

Partnering with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, T.A. will launch a survey of candidates for State office this summer focused on traffic safety and public transit. Voters will have a place to go to see candidate responses to our questions online, and in-district debates in a few key races will create forums for transit riders to show their numbers and passion in front of the people hoping to represent them in Albany. All the while, Rider Rebellion organizers will be dropping leaflets, speaking at community meetings and collecting correspondence to candidates that ensures transit issues—especially candidates’ solutions to the current freefall—are shaping the election.

A New Political Landscape

The 2010 election cycle will be an uncharacteristically rough one for incumbents here in New York State. A Sienna research poll of voters in June found 40% of New Yorkers ready to send a generic “someone” other than their current State Senator to Albany. In the suburbs those numbers top 50%. Transit has never been a voting issue in New York City before—elected officials are usually effective at deflecting blame onto the MTA. But this year, transit riders will have both the information and the outlets to vote with their MetroCards. The stakes couldn’t be higher. An activated riding public could break the never-ending cycle of service cuts and fare hikes, creating a new landscape where the favor of transit riders becomes too important for politicians to lose.