Home MTA Politics In search of a louder voice advocating for riders

In search of a louder voice advocating for riders

by Benjamin Kabak

As I’ve delved into the politics of the MTA and New York City’s love-hate relationship with the subway system, I’ve often believed that transit riders are an untapped political constituency. Most New Yorkers can’t be bothered to learn the intricacies of the MTA’s bureaucratic structure or understand who in our city or state government has proper oversight over the authority. New Yorkers blame the MTA for its institutional, political or economic failings whether it deserves to bear the full brunt of the blame or not.

Part of the problem is one of numbers. The Straphangers Campaign is basically three people with limited money, and Transportation Alternatives doesn’t focus exclusively on transit. There’s just one subway rider advocate on the MTA Board, and somehow these organizations are supposed to represent the interests of five million commuters who just want to get home quickly, maybe have a seat and not pay more for less service.

The other problem is one of message. It’s hard to craft a tale that is both compelling and informative. Take, for instance, the recent Trans Alt survey that found riders unhappier with their commutes in 2011 than they were two years ago. That’s a very negative message, and while Transportation Alternatives leaders stressed Albany’s role in our declining service offerings, the headlines splashed across the front of the city’s newspapers concerned only the unhappiness and not the cause. We can talk, but nothing will change if no one is listening.

The third problem perhaps is one of scope. In a piece for City Room that highlights just how riders are left out of important MTA decisions, Clyde Haberman last week spoke with rider advocates. What should riders want, he asked. The answers:

Too bad that whenever the [union] negotiations resume, an important party will not be at the table. This would be the group of New Yorkers who are supposed to be the bosses of both other parties. We’re referring, of course, to those who ride the subways and buses. Oh, sure, the other sides will say they have nothing but the riders’ interests at heart, and maybe there is some truth to that. But, as ever, a passengers’ representative will not be present…

To fill the vacuum, we turned to a couple of people who have a good sense of what’s on the minds of many commuters. All we asked is that they skip demands like lower (or at least stagnant) fares and improved (or at least not worsened) service. Who doesn’t want those things? But fares are bound to rise, and more frequent trains and buses do not seem in our immediate future. “People are concerned about the cleanliness of stations — that’s a big thing,” said William A. Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, a branch of the transportation authority that is a voice for riders. There is “at least a perception” that stations have become dirtier, Mr. Henderson said.

Also, he said, riders want to see workers put back into vacant agent booths. “With the closing of the booths, people do remark on how lonely it is,” he said. “If something happens, you don’t know if anybody will be there to see it or do anything about it.” Those empty booths also troubled Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, a riders’ advocacy group.

Russianoff also spoke of quickening the pace of activation of the countdown clocks as well as streamlining the MetroCard bonus system. Haberman himself called for an end to the alarms on the oft-abused emergency exits and a tidier system for the free newspapers that often flood station entrances. These are little quality-of-life upgrades that could improve the experience of riding in the morning.

Still, I can’t help but think that these are small and incremental ideas. Facing with a recalcitrant Albany, few people with prominent platforms are calling for a reprioritization of how we spend transportation dollars and allocate street space in New York City. Few are highlighting which representatives have repeatedly voted to withdraw money for transit funding that has led to fare hikes and service cuts. No one is calling for massive infrastructure investment on such a scale that would expand subway service as city planners once envisioned with the IND Second System.

Ultimately, we need a mixture of big and little. We need proposals to fix the funding mechanisms, ensure sounder oversight and improve the riding experience. Right now, though, who’s listening? New Yorkers are content to hate the MTA, hate their commutes and vote, over and over again, for the politicians responsible for this mess. It’s a never-ending cycle.

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Larry Littlefield January 31, 2012 - 9:12 am

The Staphangers used to represent riders at the expense of future riders. Now they represent past riders at the expense of currnt riders.

At least they got a share, in the form of much lower effective fares, at the time that everyone else was grabbing, since they were bent on re-destroying the system in any event.

The only people who represent future riders are a small number of dedicated managers (among the many managers) who have lived and died to restore and preserve the transit system. The political class drives, and so do most memebers of the TWU.

Larry Littlefield January 31, 2012 - 9:14 am

Oh, and by the way, the riders’ advocate on the MTA Board is the equivalent of a company union. Otherwise, the riders’ advocate would have opposed much of what had gone on for the past 15 years, or whatever part of it they served before being fired.

Christopher January 31, 2012 - 10:24 am

If NYS state had a more robust citizen initiative (referendum) process (which I have mixed feelings about in terms of unintended consequences in Western states), it would be far easier to mobilize an effective campaign.

The group that helped to begin the reform of SF’s Muni was able to restructure the organization (and place Muni under the Department of Parking and Traffic) and push through other changes via referendum. So that gave the political will to organize.

Frankly, I’m not sure that having only 3 people is necessarily a bad thing in modern organizing but I’m not sure if the Straphangers Campaign has caught up to changes in the way that technology has changed outreach and advocacy.

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 11:37 am

NYS simply needs competitive elections, preferably without gerrymandered districts. A lot of our problems would go away if the #1 incentive for our politicians wasn’t to protect every ounce of the status quo at all costs. The quick fixes people suggest, like term limits and referenda, mostly just create new problems.

Hell, it could have a positive effect on American politics if NYS cleaned up, especially if it could produce pols that fall outside the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Hank January 31, 2012 - 10:25 am

I wonder why more counsel members don’t champion transit as opposed to just beating up on the MTA?

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 11:39 am

They’re chauvinists who regard transit users as lowly serfs.

Al D January 31, 2012 - 3:26 pm

They realize that it’s not in their control, so why bother with any political risk?

nycpat January 31, 2012 - 11:41 am

How come we don’t have a Police Authority? Sanitation Authority? Education Authority? Corrections Authority?

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 11:51 am

Because there is a political impetus to retain the illusion that at least some of those things are democratic. What we should have is a Department of Public Transportation, or at least a Department of Transportation that fills that function with as its priority.

Chris January 31, 2012 - 1:35 pm

Of course we did have that in the past (a city Board of Transportation that ran the subway system), and moved to the current setup with good reason.

The reality is that most people discount future concerns very strongly, especially when muddled together nearer-dated concerns. Our political system doubles down on that with the longest-termed official being a six-year US senator. So political control is very short-term focused and tends to fail in the management of systems that require focus on long-term planning and development, e.g. long-lived fixed infrastructure, unfunded pensions, etc.

Bolwerk January 31, 2012 - 1:58 pm

Even if I were inclined to agree with you that the stated reasons for the MTA were honest, and not a power grab by Rocky, they aren’t there anymore. The city isn’t perfect, but its fiscal management is better than Albany’s. If you want to be generous to Rocky, he moved the problem; he didn’t fix it.

I generally agree with your second paragraph, but the MTA seems to have worsened that problem, not improved it. At least the Moses-era or even IND-era planners could work long-term – often with/around mayors and governors who were corrupt enough to make the current crop seem downright angelic. The MTA more or less put a stop to that.

Al D January 31, 2012 - 3:29 pm

Now that it is the state that is in trouble, and inept, control of at least city-specific transit, i.e subways and buses, should be returned to the city. Before that it was the city, and yes, it was a power grab, too.

ddartley January 31, 2012 - 11:48 am

I enthusiastically agree that transit riders are an untapped political constituency. Below is an email exchange between me and an MTA rep after I rode a downtown M15 bus for the first time in years (this was before both SBS and the subway construction), and was astounded by the delays and abuses that the Avenue’s traffic subjected the bus to, and was equally astounded at how all the passengers just sat there without batting an eye at taking four minutes to travel one block:

> Hi,
> I am interested in handing out flyers to bus riders on
> board NYCT buses that encourages those passengers to contact
> public officials and demand that bus-only lanes be kept
> clear so that bus riders are not subjected to unfair
> delays.
> Is there any rule or law against my handing out such flyers
> while riding on NYCT buses?
> How about on subway platforms and on board subway trains?
> Thanks very much.

> Response (Art Kelly) – 08/21/2009 02:17 PM
> Dear Mr. Dartley,
> You may engage in this activity, as long as you do not
> solicit monetary contributions, in any way interfere with
> passenger traffic, or in any way constitute a danger or
> hazard to other persons on the bus.
> For information regarding such activity on subway platforms
> or in subway cars, please call 718-330-3322.
> We hope that this information is helpful to you.
> Sincerely,
> Art Kelly
> Manager, Customer Relations

As far as whether Straphangers and/or TA are getting the right job done: I don’t know much about Straphangers Campaign’s work, but I do feel strongly that TA should keep at it. I don’t think their other efforts on other modes get in the way, and they’re smart and effective. Perhaps they’re not getting the message out the most effective way. Perhaps they could spend more time doing what you allude to up top, and what I emailed the MTA about: directly engaging people who are actually on the buses and trains. I know they’ve done that at least once, but I suspect they could do it more. They should have the information they distribute focus on very immediate steps to address the obvious, immediate nuisances, such as whom to complain to about delays–rather than try to do a lot of educating. People who choose to get involved after receiving a simple flyer while sitting on an intolerably delayed bus will then choose to learn the more arcane stuff on their own, to varying degrees. TA may be much more on the ball about this stuff than I realize, but this is my observation.

Subutay Musluoglu January 31, 2012 - 4:10 pm

At a minimum, the rider’s rep on the MTA Board needs to have a vote. Of course, if you did that then the union rep is going to ask for one as well. I say give it to them. It’s not like they will be able to filibuster anyway, but at least they will have an increased voice which other board members and elected officials will take heed of.

Anon January 31, 2012 - 7:13 pm

I SAS (blog) were to merge w/Straphangers (advocacy) that would be your answer.

e.g. Consumerist (blog)merged w/Consumer Reports (advocacy)

Anon January 31, 2012 - 7:13 pm


Ian February 1, 2012 - 12:19 pm

Surprised no one here has mentioned Tri-State Transportation Campaign. RPA can also supply some advocacy/political muscle for straphangers from a higher, MTA-region wide level.

Straphangers and TransAlt have partnered on projects.

The Will Of The People – Part 1 | Sheepshead Bay News Blog February 6, 2012 - 12:01 pm

[…] week, Ben Kabak of SecondAvenueSagas.com asked why the public is not more active in fighting for improved transit. He […]

The Will of the People – Part 2 | Sheepshead Bay News Blog February 7, 2012 - 12:02 pm

[…] Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas says that we need a mix of incremental and big ideas. “No one is calling for massive infrastructure […]


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