Monday, February 8, 2010

What I want from transit advocates

Back in January 2009 I was feeling frustrated at the lack of action from transit advocacy groups, but then they came forward with an (ultimately unsuccessful) push in favor of the Ravitch plan. By July, though, other bloggers were feeling similar frustration. Chris O'Leary at On Transport and Ben Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas both wrote about their impatience at the lack of organization in response to the State Senate's blocking of bridge tolls.

Chris and Ben expressed particular disappointment with NYPIRG's Straphangers' Campaign, since they are the closest transit riders have to a real voice. They got a lot of defensive responses, including one from Gene Russianoff of Straphangers, laying out what Straphangers had done. They both backed off, but both expressed frustration that there was no easy opportunity to get involved in a meaningful way.

I've long felt similar frustrations, so let me make it clear what I want from a transit advocacy organization, and how Straphangers and the various other players are failing in that regard.
  1. Find real, long-term solutions, not short-term fixes. The MTA is facing an annual deficit of over $700 million, and all that NYPIRG can talk about is a one-time transfer of $140 million from the capital budget to the operating budget?

  2. Identify alternate cuts. Right now the Governor and the MTA look like responsible adults for refusing to spend more than they have. The meaningless "Save the Y77!" rallies that have been held around the city have made the politicians who speak at them - and by extension, the riders who show up for them - look like spoiled children who want it all and won't listen when told that there's no way to pay for it.

    Meanwhile, the state will spend $2.8 billion (up from $2.4 billion) to widen roads and bridges around the area, all of which are "free" for drivers - paid for out of our general taxes. Cutting back on these projects would free up a lot of money for transit. I mention it, Streetsblog occasionally mentions it, but not a peep out of our transit advocates.

  3. Discuss new revenue sources. This is being done to some degree. Straphangers did support congestion pricing and the Ravitch plan, and so did a lot of the other organizations, acting in coalition as the Campaign for New York's Future and the Empire State Transportation Alliance. But really, I don't think it's effective to protest any cut, ever, without indicating some place where the money can come from.

  4. Hold elected officials responsible for their actions. A number of people, particularly in the State Assembly and Senate, spoke out quite forcefully against first congestion pricing and then the Ravitch Plan. At the time, Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign were good about letting us know which segments of their constituencies they were supporting, and which ones they were hanging out to dry. Since then, though, Straphangers, the Empire State Transportation Alliance, and other groups have often been too willing to gloss over these actions. Straphangers, in particular, allowed the *ahem* Marty Markowitz to take the microphone at a "Save the Z" rally.

    I know that advocacy organizations sometimes have to make deals, but I really wish we had one organization that would be willing to organize pickets at some of these bogus protests with signs like, "Show us the money, Gianaris!"

  5. Help get transit out of debt - not into it. I was skeptical about the MTA's debt when we had to vote on the Bond Act in 2005. But after hearing Russianoff, I decided that it must be good and voted for it. I'd like to see a study, but I bet the MTA would be in better shape if it had failed. Debt is good when you think you'll have the money to pay it back. It's a bad idea when you're stuck with gigantic interest payments for the forseeable future.

  6. Don't get carried away by fads. A number of these organizations have gotten all starry-eyed over "BRT," but the worst in this regard has got to be the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, who have supported using rail infrastructure for buses in Rockland County and New Britain, and been way too inclined to overlook crappy road expansions because of the possibility of BRT.

  7. Focus on transit. Look at the organizations that make up the Empire State Transportation Alliance. There are trade groups and unions (General Contractors' Association), good government groups (Citizens' Union), environmental groups (NRDC) and bike groups. And it's great that they're involved. But they all have their own agendas, of which transit is only a small part.

    I've been a member of Transportation Alternatives for almost fifteen years now, and I keep thinking that someday they'll become a pure transit advocacy organization. But at heart they're a bike advocacy group, and bike advocacy groups can be frustrating to a transit activist. Every time you think you've got them focused on a transit goal, they go organizing a new bike tour, or spending all their time on a fight over a lane. Good ideas, maybe, but you can't depend on them to stay focused on transit.

    The Regional Plan association seems to be mostly pro-transit, but they have a questionable past, and they are more of a think tank than an in-the-streets group. It and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign are good allies, perhaps, but not the ones you want leading the charge.

  8. A simple, accessible structure. The Empire State Transportation Alliance, Tri-State and the Campaign for New York's Future are all coalitions. I don't know if they all even have official incorporation documents, but regardless, the member organizations are the ones who run the show, and there's a limited role for individuals. The Permanent Citizens' Advisory Committee to the MTA is an official body whose members are appointed by government officials and required to maintain a working relationship with the MTA.

    In fact, the MTA itself has been a pretty good advocate for its own needs lately, but under Pataki it was, um, lacking. And you would think that people elected to represent districts that are majority car-free would be good transit advocates, but a lot of the time you'd be disappointed.

    The structure of the Straphangers Campaign is the most frustrating. It's an arm of NYPIRG, which doesn't even list their leaders on their website. NYPIRG is mostly funded through donations from college students (many of which are automatically charged to the students based on controversial referenda), and as far as I know only student representatives have a say in the organization's governance. The Straphangers Campaign may be focused on transit, but it is only a small part of NYPIRG, which has a very broad agenda.

    One response to Ben's criticism of Straphangers came from Lindsay Lusher Shute of Transportation Alternatives, who highlighted the importance of funding and suggested that people advocate "with their pocketbooks." Let's say I have a hundred dollars, and I want to use that money to promote transit in New York in the most effective way possible. If I give it to the RPA, who's to say that it won't be spent on an anti-fracking campaign? If I give it to Transportation Alternatives, will it be spent on a car-free Prospect Park campaign? If I give it to NYPIRG, would it be used for a report on prescription drug prices? All of these causes may be worthwhile, but transit is my priority. How can I trust that it will be the priority of any of these organizations?
I want to make it clear that I like all these organizations and appreciate that they support transit. But they're good allies, not good leaders for transit. Simply put, we don't have a good leader.

I would like to see a very simple organization, not a coalition. It would be a membership non-profit 501(c)3, either governed by membership vote or by a self-perpetuating board of directors. Its focus would be New York City. Its mission would be twofold: to ensure access for all and to promote policies that shift people from cars to transit. It might work with other organizations, but its core mission would not involve bikes, not pedestrians, not "mobility," not planning, not the environment. We've needed an organization like this for years. Why don't we have one?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, and Amen.

Matt Fisher said...

I would not get carried away by BRT, but I have an unfortunate tendency to, especially from someone who lives in a city often brought up as a BRT model, Ottawa. They used rail infrastructure for buses to build part of the Transitway, which is a success, but not as good as rail.

Unknown said...

Hey Cap'n Transit,

Does this mean you are going to start your own group and do a better job than us? You better hurry up before one of us destroys the region!

You might be surprised to learn that we all have working phones in our offices. Sometimes we even answer them. You should call us sometime and we can explain why we make certain choices. You can also join us for Tuesday trips to Albany and meet us in person. Your perspective might change after spending one day actually doing what we do.

Kate Slevin
Tri-State Transportation Campaign

And for the record, Tri-State is an incorporated 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, not a coalition.

CityLights said...

I agree that what we need is a more "in your face" presence from transit advocates. But is the real reason an unavailability of funds at transit departments of the major organizations you mentioned, their institutional safety reflex, or their lack of understanding of who they are fighting for?

I would support a group that has a focus on transit and that would take the fight to the streets, the way unions do. But it also needs the participants unions have- those working in non-office jobs, who are used to risk, who have a lot to lose and know that they have a lot to lose. Where are you going to get people like that?

The truth of the matter is, the majority of your blog readers are probably college-educated professionals who can understand fairly complex arguments. Does the average bus rider know that there are $2.8 billion of new road investments done at the expense of transit investments? How would they find out?

In other words, the new transit advocate group needs not just a new focus, but a new constituency.

Christopher Parker said...

Kate has called your bluff. The movement needs leaders? Then yes, it *is* time to start your own organization. Did you mean what you wrote? Enough to put your life into it?

Furthermore, Kate's suggestion of getting to know people already working is a very good place to start. My bet is that if you take her up on it, you'll learn a lot. I also suspect you will retain your opinion of what is missing -- but you'll be down the road at righting it.

Cap'n Transit said...

One of the things about being anonymous is that Kate doesn't actually know what I've done and who I know. And CityLights is right that there are risks involved in taking strong stances. One reason I write anonymously is that my livelihood has been threatened in the past for particular positions I've taken. If I were going to start my own organization, I would have posted this under my real name. So I do understand that.

I also understand that sometimes advocates make deals and agree to support (or at least remain silent on), for example, a highway widening in exchange for a seat at the table. But I also think there should be at least one organization that's willing to tell it like it is and make the others look reasonable by comparison.

Kate, of course I don't think you're going to destroy the region. In fact, I do think that Tri-State is the closest thing we have to a true transit advocacy group. I've suggested donating to them in the past, and I encourage everyone to donate to them as soon as they get the donate link on their website fixed. And I may take Kate up on the offer to go to Albany one Tuesday.

That said, Tri-State's regional focus, while absolutely vital to transit advocacy in the area, and the limited budget they have to spread across the region, makes it difficult for them to be the "point person" for New York City transit issues, especially with their limited budget. The inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle issues in their mission (again, very important) also makes it difficult to stay focused on transit.

I'll say it again: I like all these organizations, and I know and like many of the people involved. I think they're great allies. I'm just pointing to a big gap in our forces.

Anonymous said...

Hey Cap: you don't even know what the 2005 Bond Act did, but you still have an opinion on it. The Bond Act allowed NYS to take out debt for the MTA capital plan. The MTA doesn't need voter approval to take out more debt.

You also refer to 2 groups (ESTA and Campaign for NY's Future) as if they were their own non-profit agencies.. which they're not. They're completely run by their member organizations. Granted, this isn't something most people could easily figure out -- but it's hard to take your criticisms seriously when you are so wrong on your facts.

Cap'n Transit said...

Anonymous, I said no such thing. It's hard to take your comment seriously when you misquote me so egregiously.