OPAL and BRU Convene National Transit Union Call

The BRU logo, a bus with people atop it. The bus reads "BRU" and the logo says "Bus Riders Unite!"

In early February, Bus Riders Unite (BRU) convened a conference call with bus rider unions from across the continent! This huge display of solidarity came in conjunction with our National Transit Equity Day planning, and connected riders’ unions in the US and Canada who are fighting for unique but aligned goals. Transit that works for ridership is a top priority everywhere we go. Below, learn more about national transit unions who are in the movement for transportation justice. 

List of Participants Include:

Angelique Johnson, Nashville Music City Riders United (MCRU)

Cat Carter, San Francisco Transit Riders Union; cat@sftransitriders.org

Sarah Kerber, Sacramento Transit riders Union

Stacey Wentling, Sacramento Transit Riders Union

Matthew Hendrickson, Ride New Orleans

Suzanne Schafer, Tucson Bus Riders Union

Allen, Bus Riders Union

Brian O’Malley, Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA)

Sigute Meilus, Americans for Transit

Caitlin, Invest Now

Shelagh, TTC Riders, Toronto, ON, CA

Janet Rogers, TransAction KC, Kansas City, MO

Henry Pan, Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN

Megan Owens, Detroit Transportation Riders United, Detroit, MI

David Bouchard, Bus Riders Unite, Portland, OR

Orlando Lopez, Bus Riders Unite, Portland, OR


Music City Riders United, Nashville, TN

The Music City Riders United, which represents transit riders in the Nashville metropolitan area, was founded in 2016. Riders are working to improve a transit system which is not adequately serving them. The Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority has a number of old buses in its fleet which are likely due for retirement. Furthermore, the agency’s mechanics are poorly trained to maintain the variety of vehicles the MTA deploys on the streets.

MCRU’s members meet every two weeks on Thursday. The union also engages in direct organizing. The union members who do the organizing are provided with outreach charts which they use to record their interactions with riders. Organizers are not always welcomed by the staff at Music City Center, Nashville’s downtown transit center.

Union leaders also meet with individuals one-on-one so that they can build deeper relationships. There are also opportunities for members to assist the union in its efforts by doing research work.

Currently, Nashville is in the process of approving a massive overhaul of its transit system. The citizens will vote on the measure in a matter of months. The approximately $6 billion plan calls for the construction of several light rail lines, bus rapid transit lines, and a myriad of other bus network changes. While this may sound promising on the surface, the possibility of gentrification and displacement along the new light rail lines is very real. Currently, MCRU is part of a coalition with Homes for All, ATU, and Democracy Nashville to help fight this gentrification.

On Transit Equity Day, MCRU held a large rally at the Music City Center to highlight the problems that the MTA still has. Check out news coverage here: https://www.newschannel5.com/news/protesters-demand-transit-equity

See MCRU’s video here: https://www.facebook.com/jwillinnashville/videos/10155445096826701/


San Francisco Transit Riders Union, San Francisco, CA

The San Francisco Transit Riders Union, (SFTRU) has been in existence for about eight years as a volunteer organization. Cat Carter is their community and membership manager. Recently, the organization hired a new Executive Director.

The union has spearheaded a number of initiatives to improve and promote transit in San Francisco. They are currently gearing up for the city’s mayoral election, and plan to highlight transit as an important issue during the election cycle. They are also dealing with a vocal minority of individuals who oppose parking restrictions to make way for human-oriented streets. However, SFTRU is working to counter the narrative promoted by these parking advocates.

The union also proactively engages with its members by performing ride audits, in which riders rate the quality of their transit experience. They do this through focus groups which are used to inform the service planners of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (MUNI). These focus groups help to inform service improvements for the future.

A city ordinance in San Francisco was passed over 20 years ago which directed elected leaders and department heads to ride transit to work several days out of the week. However, the ordinance went unenforced and was not followed for at least 22 years. To change this, SFTRU conducted a MUNI challenge to encourage officials to take transit to work. The challenge lasted for 22 days, symbolizing the 22 years in which the ordinance went unenforced. They even created a leaderboard so that participants in the challenge could compete with one another.


Sacramento Transit Riders Union, Sacramento, CA

The Sacramento Transit Riders Union is a project of Organize Sacramento, which was founded in April of 2017. Sarah Kerber and Stacie Wentling represented the TRU on the call.

Transit riders in Sacramento are facing a number of challenges. A fare increase was proposed in 2016, and a 1-way fare on the transit system costs $2.75, one of the highest in the country. Cuts have been proposed for ⅓ of the system’s bus lines, and the retiring General Manager received a disturbingly large retirement package. Additionally, some of the systems light rail stations could be closed for “safety reasons.” Also, a new ride hailing service is being introduced to fill first-mile and last-mile gaps using the Uber or Lyft platform.

Now that the transit agency has a new General Manager, the union has been working with this individual to ensure that bus lines are optimized to be equitable to riders. The TRU also conducted a rider satisfaction survey to counter the surveys that the transit agency was conducting.


Tucson Bus Riders Union, Tucson, AZ

The Tucson Bus Riders Union (BRU) was founded in 2011. The organization organized around SunTran’s proposed fare increases and service cuts.

Currently the agency is controlled by the city. However, there were efforts to turn control of Suntran over to the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The BRU fought this proposal, because it would have resulted in an agency controlled mostly by suburban interests. This prospect is especially problematic, because approximately 90% of SunTran’s riders are in the city of Tucson, and thus would be grossly underrepresented under the proposed MPO governance structure.

The union is also dealing with funding disparities between streetcar operations and bus service. The streetcar, which was launched about three and a half years ago thanks to TIGER grant funding, costs a significant chunk of money to operate and maintain. Transit advocates are concerned that monies are being diverted from bus service to streetcar operations, a common trend in the United States when new streetcar lines are built. It also did not help that the availability of federal funds incentivized the construction. The problem with this model, according to Suzanne Schaefer of the BRU, is that the federal dollars just make it easier for transit agencies to pursue capital projects which will cost a large amount to maintain.

It should also be noted that Tucson has had a low-income fare since 1972, but there has been pressure to raise that fare, or eliminate it altogether. Of course, the BRU is opposing such efforts. As of now, the low-income fare is 45% of the standard base fare.

The union also supported SunTran bus operators when they went on strike for 42 days in the summer of 2015. Teamsters 104 is the union which the operators belong to.

The BRU, in its efforts to bring visibility to the operators’ struggle, acquired red baseball caps which had the message “Make SunTran great again,” on the back. They distributed these caps to elected officials. They also had bright yellow t-shirts which have a quote on the back from the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, which states that a great city is one where not only the poor ride transit, but also the rich.

The bus rider’s union also maintains a presence on both the Transit Taskforce and Transit Workgroup, the latter of which is regional.

Currently, the BRU is not very active, but Suzanne and others are working to rejuvenate it.


Transit Action Network, Kansas City, MO

TransAction KC is an all volunteer organization of riders which split off from a larger community organization which was comprised mostly of rail advocates, business owners and consultants. The original organization focused more on building rail infrastructure, with much less focus on the needs of bus riders.

Transit riders in Kansas City suffer from inadequate bus service. Service does not run 24 hours a day, many routes end their service early, and there is limited service to the suburbs, especially to Johnson County, Kansas.

There are also serious problems with the agency’s paratransit service, especially in Johnson County. However, a smartphone based paratransit option is being tested, and one of TransAction’s members, who is blind, is testing it.

Kansas City, Missouri residents, especially those who live along the MAX BRT corridors and the streetcar line, enjoy frequent service for most of the day. Meanwhile, job access rates are around 5%. A 2012 Brookings Institute Report skewed those numbers upwards to 18%, but they failed to include off-peak service in their analysis.

TransAction has met with some success in its efforts to steer the focus of the regional transit conversation to job access, rather than just rail expansion. They also filed a Title VI environmental justice complaint against the local authorities, challenging them to invest more of their transit dollars in lower-income areas. This lawsuit stemmed from a Supreme Court decision, which dictated how federal funds should be allocated. When they filed this complaint, they were on their own, because no other community organization was willing to risk their standing, especially those who relied on funding from the local authorities.

Several years ago, a city sales tax was passed which was supposed to be used for transit. However, the city attempted to divert the money to automobile projects. In response, TransAction campaigned for 90% of the new tax dollars to go to transit. They have also been successful in building coalitions as needs. They were able to build an equity coalition of partner organizations, which helped them to advocate for better bus service and job access. They also built relationships with neighborhood associations, so that they would have access to their members when they wished to conduct presentations at neighborhood association meetings and get petitions signed and letters distributed. They also found support among people who did not ride the buses themselves, because those people often knew someone who did. TransAction also had the most success when they were able to engage people around a central issue.


Ride New Orleans, New Orleans, LA

Ride New Orleans is a small nonprofit organization which was established in 2009, four years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the transit system. It took years for bus lines to be restored. In 2014, 29% of bus service was restored. Now, that level is 40%. In contrast, streetcar service has seen a 103% increase.

Ride New Orleans has a full-time staff of three, including an executive director. They balance policy work with direct organizing and advocacy, and they hold membership meetings once a month.

The organization was successful in winning a better strategic plan which directs transit investments. The access to jobs piece is very important to this effort, according to Matthew Hendrickson. New Orleans has a huge service industry. Currently, about 11% of jobs are accessible by transit in 30 minutes or less, while 86% of jobs are accessible to drivers. The average driving time is 23 minutes. However, there is still work to do on the analysis of those job access figures; perhaps folks from TransAction KC can provide some insight into their research methods for measuring off-peak job access.

Ride New Orleans establishes a top ten community priorities list. They also do outreach to neighborhoods in which there is little union representation by holding forums, and conducting presentations. Last year, their top priority was to get more bus shelters installed. A large rally was held in support of the shelters, and one member even collected 500 signatures for a petition which was being circulated. The riders got at least one bus shelter installed.


Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN

The Twin Cities Transit Riders Union (TRU) is an all-volunteer organization. Henry Pan is a member of this union; he did previous transit advocacy work in San Francisco before moving to Minneapolis. The union is currently addressing several inequities on multiple fronts. Metro Transit raised fares recently, but the process was poorly communicated to riders. Some fare categories saw a 25% increase. There are constant threats to transit funding from the state legislature; the union opposed a 40% transit funding reduction proposed by the legislature. Furthermore, the service plan for the Super Bowl was poorly communicated. Light rail service was closed to the general ridership for almost a day, as it was reserved for Super Bowl ticket holders.

The TRU involves riders by conducting listening sessions to see what people would like to see improved on transit. They have also conducted surveys on the light rail, and they conducted a survey at the Mall of America on Thursday, February 15. They are planning to host a county commissioner forum to stress the importance of quality transit.


Detroit Transportation Riders United

Detroit Transportation Riders United was founded in 1999. The organization gained 501C3 status in 2001. While they are not specifically a transit riders union, they perform a number of activities to promote and advocate for transit. They have fought to improve the region’s dysfunctional bus system, and have focused on getting dedicated local transit funding. They are also trying to ensure that the regional transit plan enhances rapid service, and devotes more resources to the length or span of service. They also advocated for the new streetcar line to travel in a dedicated center lane, instead of curbside. A member of the group even put together a lego rap video demonstrating the effects of congestion. Unfortunately, the streetcar was constructed with curbside lanes.

They produced report card for the transit agency, giving them an F for their terrible bus service. They delivered this report card to the Mayor of Detroit, but were prevented from entering the office.

Yet they also do a number of positive feedback actions, which they have found to be successful. One time, they handed out Valentine’s Day stickers which said “we love great transit.” After a regional transit agency was created, they threw a birthday party to celebrate. They have also conducted bus driver appreciation activities.


Americans for Transit, Washington, D.C.

Americans for Transit is a national organization which was created by Good Jobs First and the Amalgamated Transit Union. They work to strengthen grassroots transit justice organizing across the country; they would like to build a loose network of transit riders unions. One of their top priorities is to build a sustainable transit riders union in D.C. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is in crisis; their rail system is suffering from years of deferred maintenance.

The agency is currently trying to rapidly make repairs, but this has resulted in drastically reduced rail service, especially on nights and weekends, and increased fares. Ridership has also decreased over 10%.

The focus of the union would be to advocate for a dedicated source of funding for WMATA; currently, funds come from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, but the funding levels are unpredictable, and officials representing the various jurisdictions are not always in agreement with each other.

Americans for Transit was successful in collecting 11,000 signatures on a petition calling for flat systemwide fares, as opposed to Metro’s expensive distance-based Metrorail fares. They are also interested in pushing for a low-income fare and year-round discounts for youth. They have also gained the support of about 38 small businesses who are feeling the impacts of Metro’s declining service.

On March 8-9, Americans for Transit will host a transit bootcamp in Silver Spring, MD. Room and board is free, thanks to assistance from ATU. Some financial assistance will be offered in the form of a $500 scholarship to cover travel expenses.


Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, Baltimore, MD

The CMTA is not a transit rider’s union, but works with a variety of organization to advocate for better transit in the Baltimore area. Currently, they are working to keep the Maryland Transit Administration accountable for measurable improvements to bus service following the agency’s massive bus network redesign. The new design, BaltimoreLink, was introduced under Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s administration, and has been met with much controversy; it was announced and implemented over the course of 18 months, and was launched shortly after the Governor cancelled the Red Line light rail project, which would have brought crosstown east-west light rail service across most of Baltimore City. A new administrator, Paul Comfort was appointed under Hogan in 2015, but he was replaced by Kevin Quinn in 2017. Quinn implemented new performance metrics, but the new metrics are so different from what was being used before, that it is impossible to determine how much improvement in service reliability was made over the past several years.

CMTA holds Transportation 101 classes every year to instruct participants across Maryland on how best to organize and take leadership to improve transit in their communities. Last year, they had 55 participants.


Invest Now, Boston, MA

Invest Now is a coalition of various small unions who wanted to develop a more public facing campaign. They also work with Community Environment and Community and Labor United.

There has been a lot of pressure for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to privatize various aspects of its transit service. Transit riders are also facing other problems, such as fare increases.

Right now, Invest Now is coming off of a very big win to prevent privatization of the bus garages. This is the first time that a proposed privatization has been blocked by labor and community groups.


TTC Rider’s Union, Toronto, ON, Canada

The TTC Riders Union, founded in 2011, has 150 dues paying members. They are currently campaigning for better transit service and lower fares. They are seeking to have a low-income fare, an accessibility committee, and a privatization committee established. They have a board of directors which is separate from their committee structure.


Bus Riders Unite, Portland, OR

Bus Riders Unite was organized to address serious systemic problems with transit service in Portland, especially the east side of the city. One major victory for the organization was around securing longer transfer times on a one-way ticket. TriMet, the transit agency for the Portland area, attempted to reduce the transfer time allotted on a one-way ticket, but the union successfully filed a Title VI complaint with the Federal Transit Administration, arguing that the change constituted a fare increase, and thus needed a Title VI analysis. The FTA sided with Bus Riders Unite, and riders were able to secure a 2 and a half hour transfer.

In 2016, TriMet began the process of launching its new electronic fare card system. BRU challenged the agency over its decision to charge $5 for the new card, as well as its originally sparse retail network where users could load cash on their card. The union was successful in getting the fee for new cards down to $3, and TriMet is distributing 200,000 cards free of charge.

The launch of the HOP Card was also a perfect opportunity for the union to push for a low-income fare. Bus Riders Unite’s Research and Advisory Committee produced a Low Income Fare Report in August, 2016, which outlined how TriMet could implement a low income fare. The committee investigated several low-income fare models in the U,S., and found that King County’s ORCA LIFT program made the most sense for the Portland region. The program allows an individual with an income at 200% or less of the Federal Poverty Level to obtain a low income fare card which provides a 50% discount for one way trips, and a $28 monthly pass. They were successful in getting the approximately $12 million a year program approved, and it is expected to be launched on July 1, 2018.

On May 26 2017, two men were murdered, and another man was seriously injured by a white supremacist aboard a light rail train in Portland, after they stepped in to defend two young women of color who were being verbally abused by the perpetrator. The attack sparked outrage in the community, and TriMet responded by adding additional security to the system. Bus Riders Unite is currently working on a campaign to address safety and security aboard TriMet trains and buses which does not involve armed officers. The concern among riders is that security officers routinely profile people of color and the homeless under the guise of fare inspection and code enforcement. BRU is developing an alternative plan; the plan is to train and deploy rider advocates on the system, which would serve as community ambassadors for riders. The advocates would be trained in de-escalation tactics, and would provide customer service to riders.


General Notes:

During the call, there was discussion around what challenges different organizations face; membership building was a common thread. When a specific event is planned in advance, such as a meeting with a transit or government official, turnout is generally higher. The event may be a one-time session, and thus, more people may make an effort to attend. In contrast, organizations have found that turnout is less at regularly occurring meetings. This situation is still the case even if an organization provides food and childcare. However, those provisions may make a difference to the level of turnout on a regular basis.

Another common tactic many organizations use is a one-on-one meeting with potential members and leaders. The one-on-one helps to create a rapport between the organizer and potential member, and thus, the organization. In fact, several leaders on the call were recruited in this manner.

Focusing on a specific campaign is another tactic many organizations use to retain members. This tactic is very important; ambitious and realistic campaigns that affect many people can be very successful. The campaigns provide people with something to focus on, and deadlines to meet.

There was discussion on the call about the pros and cons of coalition building and direct organizing. Some groups, such as TransAction KC, the CMTA, Invest Now, and Americans for Transit find coalition building to be effective. The benefits of coalitions are the ability to gain support rapidly from other organizations. This is particularly true in regards to campaigns. However, once a campaign is resolved, coalitions may be harder to maintain, as interest from organizations and their members may ebb. Also, many people belonging to the coalition’s other member organizations may not even ride the bus, thus diminishing long-term commitment further. That said, it is possible to maintain coalitions indefinitely, if an issue is ongoing. Another trick with coalitions is to bring member organizations in on the action as early as possible, so that they feel more ownership towards the outcome.

Direct organizing is best for recruiting people to join the organization as individual members. It is quite effective when there is a campaign to focus on, because the organizing can be more targeted. It also helps to be able to articulate how potential members could directly benefit from the work of the organization. There was also discussion around visibility and gimmicks. Transit advocacy organizations employ a variety of high-visibility actions to grab the attention of the public and officials. For example, Americans for Transit, the TTC Riders Union, and another organization publicly highlighted the issue of overcrowding on transit by dressing up in sardine costumes, and organizing at transit stops. In the case of Americans for transit, Siggy, who is a movement artist, designed the sardine costumes, and they circulated flyers asking people to email their reps to oppose transit headway cuts. Other examples of high-visibility actions are the Tucson Bus Riders Union’s red hats, Detroit TRU’s Valentine’s Day stickers, Portland BRU’s rally for the low-income fare, and Nashville MCRU’s rally on Transit Equity Day.

Transit Equity Day was also another point of discussion. Bus Riders Unite organized a day of bus organizing on February 5, just after Rosa Parks’ birthday. The highly focused effort yielded approximately 60 contacts. The Nashville MCRU also conducted a rally to highlight the troubles facing their transit system. There was agreement that a coordinated action for Transit Equity Day next year would be a good idea.

The group plans to keep in contact moving forward. At this point, a Dropbox and Facebook group have been established for people to share files and information about their work. Another call is anticipated in May. There was agreement to hold a call every few months, perhaps quarterly. Each call will focus on a different aspect of transit advocacy, providing an opportunity for organizations to learn from each other, and enhance their effectiveness.

For more information about joining the next continental Bus Riders Unite call, please contact Orlando Lopez at (503) 774-4504


Posted in Against Exploitation, Against White Supremacy, Build the New, Bus Riders Unite, Coalition Building, Transit Justice.