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February 07, 2007

Could Greater Seattle benefit from a transit riders union?

In a county and state where the fate of the transit system rests with elected officials apathetic towards transit funding, a transit riders union could make an difference in raising public awareness about the current and future funding and service needs of our transit systems.

For example, King County Metro is a transit system that serves the largest city and the largest county in the state, yet as a funding priority it gets little attention from the large delegation of state legislators representing King County in Olympia. At the downtown courthouse, county council members spend their time fighting each other over each crumb of new funding, while across the street city officials pretend that the transit needs in Seattle are somebody else's problem.

For transit riders to be effective, as a citizen lobby, there needs to be a strategy to increase all transit funding, one jurisdiction and one campaign at a time. Without this kind of unified strategy, as activists, we find ourselves in the same boat we’ve been in for years, with bus advocates bad mouthing rail supporters, rail supporters turning a blind eye to the funding needs of the bus system and monorail enthusiasts scratching their heads and wondering what happened.

In contrast to Seattle, Los Angeles is known for the largest and best organized transit riders union. For 14 years the Bus Riders Union (BRU) has fought for increased transit service, with a focus on improving bus service for urban communities, often low-income, dependent on inadequate transit service. Yet their battle for improved bus service has often hinged on opposition to light rail expansion, including a recently expired legal agreement between BRU and the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority). While the effort towards increased bus service is worthy, the effectiveness of BRU is questionable and controversial, in part because rather than fight for the maximum funding for all kinds of mass transit, with a focus on improved bus service, the union has fought against rail, to get funding for buses.

In Seattle and Washington State, I believe that if transit riders could unite together around the common political goal of improved transit service of all kinds, with a commitment to stop airing our dirty laundry in public, then we’d see the a dramatic increase in funding for transit from local, regional and state government.

Cross Posted on The Urban Environmentalist

Posted by EzraBasom on February 7, 2007 at 07:57 PM in Policy | Permalink


I don't recall if it was called a union, but the bus/street car riders organization in San Francisco is a big political force. They have a newsletter that is in the vehicles along with the transit/city flyers, they endorse in elections, lobby the legislature, etc. Sometimes they fight with transit management, other times they are big boosters. Membership (if Ir ecall correctly) was $24 a year ($ 2 a month, with a living light option for students and unemployed). Elections for the riders organization offices were often heated and seen as a political stepping stone. I think Seattle neeeds one. Or perhaps a regional public transportation advocacy organization.

Posted by: Danny | Feb 7, 2007 10:55:54 PM

I think this is a fabulous idea, and as a rank-and-file bus rider, I'd be greatly excited to work on establishing a group like this. My understanding is that the Bus Riders Union in LA has opposed rail funding because the funding smacks of racism: buses underfunded to devastating effect despite quite-high ridership by poor people of color, while rail lines serving whiter, richer, more suburban communities got a disproportionate share of the resources. Their issue wasn't with the mode of transit, I don't think, but with how resources were being deployed, and to serve who. Racism and distribution of resources ought to be part of our outlook here too. In any case, a transit union would be a wonderful development here in King County. We need to organize a transit system that treats mobility as a right, rather than a system that's built to reduce car traffic. Anyone else interested in making this happen? Get in touch: swilson@hailmail.net

Posted by: Sage Wilson | Feb 8, 2007 10:38:42 AM

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