Occupy Activist Earns a Seat on the Memphis Transit Board

The Occupy movement may be over, but some of its activists are still gaining influence in local government.
by | November 2014
The Memphis Bus Riders Union, which was born out of the Occupy movement, believes access to transit is a civil right. Thomas R. Machnitzki

The Memphis Bus Riders Union isn’t really a union. It’s not a group of employees; it doesn’t engage in collective bargaining; there aren’t any dues. But the group of grassroots volunteers has nonetheless begun to influence Memphis transit policy in a very real way.

Born out of the Occupy movement, the organization first started showing up at Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) board meetings nearly three years ago. The agency was caught off guard. “When we got to the board meeting, they didn’t know how to accommodate us,” says Bennett Foster, one of the group’s organizers. The activists initially had to email the agency ahead of time to get an agenda; then they had to send another message to let officials know they wanted to speak. And they were only allowed to speak at the conclusion of the meeting, too late to influence any votes taken.

But the relationship has since improved. Earlier this year, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton appointed one of the group’s leaders, Shelia Williams, to the MATA board. Williams is a college student and a single parent who relies on the bus to get around the city. Her appointment signals how far the Memphis Bus Riders Union has come, from an outside group of agitators to an accepted political player that has found common ground with city officials, environmentalists, bus drivers and even MATA itself.

Memphis, the nation’s poorest large urban area, has a very long way to go to achieve the union’s vision of access to transit as a civil right. The transit system in particular has suffered years of hard times. Decades of white flight and suburban sprawl have left poor neighborhoods cut off from the parts of the city that are bringing in new jobs. “Neighborhoods spread out more and more, and transit couldn’t keep up,” Foster says. “The trend has been cutting routes, not building new routes.”

Many of the major employment centers are in the suburbs east of the city, but most of MATA’s bus routes go to and from downtown. That means passengers in north and south Memphis -- where most of the union’s members live -- must switch buses downtown. But some buses stop running as early as 6 p.m., leaving workers stranded downtown after a late shift, or preventing them from going to work in the first place.

The union has spent its first few years trying to stave off further service cuts. MATA has lost $3 million a year in government funding over the last two years. Meanwhile pension payments and other expenses have continued to rise. Since the start of the recession, the agency has cut 30 percent of its service and reduced its number of employees by one-fifth. This year, Wharton proposed restoring some funding for the agency, but it’s not enough to prevent fare hikes or even more service cuts.

So the union and the transit agency are looking for other sources of income. One idea is to have college and university students pay for bus passes as part of their student fees. They would get an individual discount, but the overall funding for the agency would go up because it would get so many new passholders. A harder sell would be to get funding from the Tennessee communities that surround Memphis but don’t currently help pay for transit.

In the meantime, the union is working with local employers to encourage them to locate more jobs on existing transit routes. “We can create jobs, but if people can’t get to them, it’s really only helping a certain percentage of the population,” Foster says. “It’s not going to address the problems of poverty and joblessness in Memphis if we don’t create an infrastructure for people to get to those jobs, the ones who need them the most.”