Transit riders to gain a louder voice in new campaign

Updated August 24/27, 2011: Active Transportation Alliance launched the Riders for Better Transit campaign today. Read the full agenda, which talks about different funding sources and modernizing Union Station. Take their survey by Sept. 30 and be entered into a raffle to receive a $100 Visa gift card. Ron Burke and Jennifer Henry (see her statement below) write a letter to the editor about the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority’s toll increase. 

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The Wilson Red Line CTA station was recently voted the worst station “for the third year in a row” by Chicago RedEye readers. Photo by Jeff Zoline.

In the next couple of days, the Chicago-based (but Chicagoland-focused) advocacy organization, Active Transportation Alliance, will launch a new permanent campaign called Riders For Better Transit. This is the Alliance’s first large-scale endeavor into improving transit since they changed their name and mission in late 2008 from focusing solely on bicycling. Their other transit advocacy includes supporting transit-friendly legislation in Springfield.

I sat down with Lee Crandell, Director of Campaigns, at his office (9 W Hubbard) on August 1, 2011, to learn more about this effort.

What will the launch entail?

There will be a new website, where we’ll sign on supporters, to build a mailing list of people who want to speak out for better transit. We’ll also share more details about our advocacy agenda. The first thing we’ll be doing is take a survey of riders, to better understand what they want from an advocacy organization–what they want to see and how we can represent their voice.

What are the goals of the campaign?

The first is that we want to give riders a voice. We know that transit providers are struggling to maintain what they have. We know riders have all sorts of improvements that they want to see. Incl. restoring buses they’ve lost, eliminating slow zones, better reverse commutes.

Secondly, we want to increase investment in transit in our region (this includes procuring funding for maintenance).

Lastly, we want to explore projects and initiatives that will improve transit service and experience.

How will the campaign address education?

We plan to educate people on the basics, including that there’s insufficient funding, and that we need to be wary of taking from capital budgets to give to operating. [Transit agencies have two budgets: one for capital expenditures (new buses, station improvements, etc…), and one for day-to-day operations. Capital budgets are more stable because they are funded by grants awarded for specific projects that the transit agency has planned for years. They cannot be shared except under special circumstances.]

We will educate legislators, decision makers, and partners, on the fundamental things that need to change. More than knowing complexities of funding transit, we believe that riders are more concerned with “Why isn’t my bus on time?” or “Why can’t I get to the suburbs for my job?”. We’re advocates for the rider; it’s okay that we’re knowledgeable about these fundamentals but they might not be – that’s why there’s an advocacy organization like us to represent their interests.

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When you think it’s time for new buses, tell Riders for Better Transit. This is a Pullman trolley bus, from 1968, at Irving Park Road and Keeler Avenue. Photo by David Wilson. 

Who are your partners?

Our partners are those “transit players,” or other non-profit organizations that work on transit and transportation planning issues. We’ve also met with each transit agency, as well as the Regional  Transportation Authority, to better understand their challenges, and to understand what funding they’re seeking. We want to create an agenda that’s realistic. Other partners include:

  • Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT)
  • Transportation for America (T4A) – “This broad coalition pushing for reforms to the next federal transportation reauthorization (the current bill and the federal gas tax both expire September 30, 2011), will help provide information and opportunities for engagement to influence relevant federal policy.” K.W.
  • Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – “NRDC sees transit as crucial to environmental preservation–it reduces emissions and fuel use, and also enables more compact, walkable, sustainable land use patterns that preserve habitat, farmland, and watersheds.” J.H.
  • Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT)
  • Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC)
  • Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) – Local, federally required, metropolitan planning organization (MPO); every region with over 250,000 people has to have one.
  • Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MWHSRA)

In addition to your partners, who else will be involved?

We will be reaching out to organizations on the community level as well, like neighborhood organizations and chambers of commerce. We’ll organize transit supporters across the region in their communities. We’ll come to people where they are and help them organize to help them win improvements.

Is there a way for Grid Chicago readers to be involved in Riders for Better Transit?

We need volunteers, immediately, to conduct the survey. We’re going to collect survey responses at specific bus stops and train stations. When we issue “Action Alerts” we’ll need people to speak with their legislators, and get out on the street and spread the message. We’re also looking for people to help us connect to community organizations, help us take our message to their organizations.

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Riders for Better Transit is for all transit riders, whether you ride Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses or trains, Metra trains, or Pace buses. 

Why is Active Transportation Alliance doing this?

We’ve [transit riders] never had a sustained presence, seeking to represent transit riders long term. We anticipate there will be crises in the future. Much like Active Transportation Alliance has represented bikers, we want to do the same for transit riders.

8 thoughts on “Transit riders to gain a louder voice in new campaign”

  1. ATA has no real staff on board who know anything about the past battles of transit in Chicagoland. Without any knowledge of history, expect to see them fail in their endeavors.

    1. First person experience is not necessary to know, learn from, and understand history…at least I hope not or we are all in trouble! =)

      I am certain the ATA is not starting this endeavor with an expectation to fail. That would be an odd waste of time and resources. Even if they only succeed in achieving the first goal, that is something. But why not strive to achieve all the goals?

      Knowing history is an essential tool but not the only one to achieve success. The right partnerships/alliances/connections based on current mood and tides have to be a exceptionally useful tool.

    2. First person experience is not necessary to know, learn from, and understand history…at least I hope not or we are all in trouble! =)

      I am certain the ATA is not starting this endeavor with an expectation to fail. That would be an odd waste of time and resources. Even if they only succeed in achieving the first goal, that is something. But why not strive to achieve all the goals?

      Knowing history is an essential tool but not the only one to achieve success. The right partnerships/alliances/connections based on current mood and tides have to be a exceptionally useful tool.

  2. If anything, being uneducated on the past might help them avoid the political games and more objectively target what improvements need to happen.

    I think that having an organization that advocates specifically for the interests of riders is noble and crucial for the region. I’m definitely excited for ATA’s new initiative.

    I also think that the region badly needs an organization with enough technical knowledge of transit planning, design, and operations (including legal issues of union employees, etc) that it can carefully scrutinize and constructively critique local transit projects. There is plenty of policy-centric scrutiny, but little review and pushback related to specific technical elements of projects being carried out by the service boards (CTA, Metra, Pace) and RTA. Without that, inefficient/expensive and poorly executed projects will continue to go forward, undermining the transit system as a viable alternative to driving.

    It seems unlikely, however, that ATA is in a position to take on that type of a role, at least in the short term.

  3. Two thoughts:

    First, the bit about education evinces a lack of interest in educating the masses about the nitty-gritty of public transit. That seems like a shame; the more the public is educated about the basic principles behind public transportation, the better. The car and car accessories industries spend millions advertising and promoting drive-everywhere lifestyles. For this reason, it’s crucial that ATA aim its education efforts at the public as well. And why not encourage the formation of ATA student branches at local colleges and universities? Students seem like a demographic both highly likely to ride CTA and highly likely to be environmentally conscious.

    Second, I’ve always felt that organizations like ATA would have an interest in partnering with the transit workers union to achieve shared goals. It frustrates me that the transit union hasn’t, in defending the interests of workers, appealed more often to the long list of social and environmental goods that are fostered by public transit systems. Public transit workers unions have an interest in getting behind the environmentalist arguments for public transit, yet I’ve not seen them use such arguments when defending themselves from pay cuts and layoffs. Of course, this may not cohere with ATA’s strategy of playing nice with the forces responsible for laying off CTA workers. But its worth pointing out that transit riders, environmentalists and transit workers share basic interests in maintaining a comprehensive, well-staffed transit system.

  4. Seems like a great idea. Organizing riders to speak up on important decisions will yield better decisions. The team of partner organizations is most impressive.
    I like the notion of gathering a critical mass to speak up for the region’s transit. It is too important to leave to random political forces.
    History is always useful to know. The decision of today needs people of today to speak up, regardless how much history they know.
    Transit is too easy to assume it will be there. Like anything else, not tended, it will fade away.

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