Mariluz Rangel takes the bus everywhere in Tucson, Arizona: to work, dentist’s appointments, grocery shopping. She’s been a bus rider for 25 years.
Rangel works at Wendy’s, where she makes $8.05 an hour, the state minimum wage. Her income qualifies her to buy a discounted bus pass that gives her unlimited rides for $15 a month.
“When you earn the minimum, it’s hard to afford a car. So it’s better to use the bus,” she said.
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Rangel is a member of Tucson Bus Riders Union, one ripple in a wave of grassroots activism based on the belief that affordable public transit should be available to all. By organizing a previously invisible constituency, transit riders unions have emerged as an unlikely source of political power.
The transit movement took off in Los Angeles in the 1990s, when bus riders, most of them Black and Latino, came together to protest what they said was a separate and unequal transit system that penalized riders from low-income neighborhoods.
This wave of activism is beginning to turn the tide. On March 1, King County, Washington made international headlines when it introduced a reduced fare for low-income people, a win for Seattle’s Transit Riders Union. On the same day, San Francisco’s Transit Riders celebrated as the city’s Municipal Transportation Association (MUNI) made transit free for disabled people and low-income seniors.
The transit movement is one response to the “affordability gap”—a growing chasm between what workers are paid and what it costs to get to work. In the mid‐1970s, a minimum-wage employee had to work for about 10 minutes to pay for bus fare to and from work, according to research by Seattle’s Transit Riders Union. To cover her commute today, the same employee must work almost 35 minutes.
At the same time, shifting demographics have increased the distance between workers and jobs. Between 2000 and 2012, the economy added jobs. But job proximity—the number of jobs near where a person lives—declined across the board. The trend was especially pronounced for low-income people and people of color, according to a study by researchers from Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.
Taking a Stand
In 2011, amid talk of fare hikes, bus riders and their advocates formed the Tucson Bus Riders Union, modeled after the one in Los Angeles. They printed membership cards and gave out yellow T-shirts, creating a striking presence at City Council meetings, said Brian Flagg, who helped organize the campaign. In a 2012 show of solidarity, members of the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles joined local organizers in challenging proposed fare hikes at a meeting of the Tucson City Council.
Supported by more than 50 clergy members, 30 community groups, Primavera Foundation and the Los Angeles activists, Tucson Bus Riders Union succeeded in halting fare hikes, preserving a longstanding low-income fare program and saving the downtown bus depot.
In the wake of these wins, momentum grew. Between January and May of 2014, 1,700 people joined the union, which has about 2,000 members today.
Now it is an election year, “so nobody is planning on raising the rates and messing with the routes,” Flagg said, underscoring the new constituency’s growing political clout.
The transit movement emerged from car-centric Los Angeles. In the 1990s, that county began looking at extending a light rail line to affluent, mostly-White Pasadena even as urban bus riders—who were predominately Black, Latino and Asian Pacific Islander—struggled with unreliable service on dilapidated buses.
To address this disparity, the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC) formed the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union and sued the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), charging the agency with violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by creating a separate, unequal mass transit system.
The resulting consent decree ordered MTA to make transit-dependent people the first priority when allocating money. MTA dropped its plan to hike bus fares and eliminate the monthly bus pass. Instead, the agency reduced the price of the pass from $49 a month to $42, expanded service and put new buses on the streets.
Organizers helping youth in Los Angeles sign up for discount passes discovered another issue. Students on their way to school were being ticketed by police for being “tardy” as they waited at bus stops, often after having been passed up by crowded buses. Students of color were ticketed at a much higher rate than were White students, LCSC found.
The Bus Riders Union worked with youth activists and in 2012 again won reforms—this time stopping police from citing students who were waiting for the bus.
Lessons learned in Los Angeles proved useful in San Francisco, where young activists were key to winning a battle for affordable transit and against criminalization of young riders.
In 2011, San Francisco Unified School District began scaling back school bus service due to a budget crunch. At the same time, youth fares on public transit went up.
Police officers boarded buses, seeking proof-of-payment stubs. If students could not produce the stubs, officers demanded identification in order to write tickets. Police detained students who lacked identification until their parents could come and get them.
Never before had MUNI enforced fares so aggressively, said Jaron Browne, an organizer at Causa Justa :: Just Cause who worked on the four-year campaign to curb the practice. “It made no sense to criminalize students because they didn’t have the 75-cent fare,” he said.
The ensuing campaign, Free MUNI for Youth, highlighted the need to create a new generation of transit riders to help San Francisco fight climate change, and emphasized public transportation as a source of green jobs offering a living wage to drivers, many of whom are African-American.
“The big pushback was, ‘Oh we can’t afford it,’” said Bob Allen, who leads the Transportation Justice program at Urban Habitat, a policy nonprofit that supported the effort. But even as youth fares were going up, San Francisco leaders approved new ferry service to serve South San Francisco, which would primarily benefit workers for biotech giant Genentech.
The region wasn’t too broke to afford free MUNI for youth, Allen said. It was simply a matter of priorities.
The youth-led effort to shift those priorities, championed by San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, won a two-year pilot of Free MUNI for Youth, which is available to low- and-moderate income young people.
In 2014, MUNI not only made the program permanent, it extended the free passes until riders turned 19. Meanwhile, a coalition led by Senior & Disability Action campaigned for a program to make MUNI free for low-income people and people with disabilities.
The movement to redefine transit as a public good, not a personal privilege, was on a roll.
On March 1, King County, Washington, home to Seattle and surrounding areas, launched a low-income fare program known as ORCA LIFT. The program, which came after four years of pressure from Seattle’s Transit Riders Union, enables people with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines to ride public transit for $1.50.
At the same time, King County raised all other fare categories by 25 cents, except for the fare for Access Paratransit, a curb-to-curb service for those who cannot use regular buses. That fare went up 50 cents.
Discount programs like the one in King County are helpful, transit advocates say, but can bring unintended consequences, especially when they accompany overall fare hikes. By creating a perceived divide between “choice” riders and the “transit-dependent,” they serve to stigmatize the very riders they are meant to help, said Jaron Browne of San Francisco’s Causa Justa :: Just Cause.
Jacob Struiksma, 35, is blind and relies on the bus. King County Metro has raised fares six times since 2008, he pointed out. He thinks it’s senseless for the agency to try to eke out another quarter from seniors and disabled people.
“I’m paying it, but I’m kind of annoyed that I have to try to scrape it” together, said Struiksma, who belongs to Seattle’s Transit Riders Union.
Jim Bush, 57, also a member of the union, has cerebral palsy and gets by on Social Security disability. When weather permits, he travels to the grocery store and back in his power wheelchair. But rain is frequent enough in Seattle that Bush loads $10 at a time on his ORCA card for the days when he needs to rely on public transit.
Bush pointed out that in King County, as in many places, public transit is funded largely by sales tax, which is both regressive (low-income people pay a relatively larger proportion of their income than those who make more money) and vulnerable to economic cycles. The recession years created a severe dollar shortfall in Seattle, which contributed to the latest round of fare hikes.
Instead of raising fares, members of Seattle’s Transit Riders Union want King County to find other ways to raise money, such as charging businesses a small per-employee tax or taxing commercial parking.
Bush, Struiksma and their allies are among a growing number of individuals and groups promoting the concept that public transportation should be viewed less like a business and more like a public necessity, akin to schools or libraries.
“Our vision truly is that we should make transportation free for everyone,” said Jaron Browne of San Francisco’s Causa Justa :: Just Cause.
A growing number of proponents believe free transit is more than a way to get individuals from one place to another. It is also a crucial tool in the fight against pollution and climate change. As this perspective takes hold across the country, local transit riders unions are evolving from an anti-poverty effort to a cross-class movement for the environment.
“Our fight is not just the transit system,” said Barbara Lott-Holland of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. “We’re calling ourselves climate warriors.”