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There’s a Big Difference Between Transit Boards and Riders

A new study finds that many transit boardmembers are not representative of their constituents who ride bus, subway or rail. Too often members are old, white and male and don’t use transit much or at all.

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(Sophie James/Shutterstock)
When Cam Hardy began attending board meetings of the Cincinnati-area Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, he quickly noticed that the people in charge of the agency did not use transit.

“They were extremely out of touch,” says Hardy, president of the Better Bus Coalition. “Very white, very corporate and very resistant to change. Just cutting this and that [transit service] without really analyzing why a route might not be working.”

This is not an unusual dynamic, a new study from TransitCenter shows. The advocacy and research group studied transit agencies across 11 cities — Cincinnati not among them — and found that their boards were not representative in terms of gender, race or geography.

Across the cities studied, an average of 75 percent of riders lived in the central city while those jurisdictions only received 40 percent of board appointments. In some of the nation’s biggest cities disparities were far greater. In New York, 88 percent of riders live in the city but only 18 percent of board seats go to their representatives. In Philadelphia, 71 percent of riders are urban residents but they only get 13 percent of board seats.

In some of the smaller cities studied — New Orleans, Richmond and Savannah — suburban areas enjoy board representation even though they either don’t pay into the system or receive service.

“The people who are riding the system the most don't have the highest representation on the system,” says Jessica Cruz, lead author of the TransitCenter report. “You have people [in charge] who are not using the system every day or speaking for the needs of suburban folks versus the [majority of] transit riders.”

TransitCenter also studied racial and gender representation and found that transit boards were unrepresentative in these categories as well. Of the 11 cities covered, nonwhite residents comprised 63 percent of ridership but only 36 percent of boardmembers. Women were just 30 percent of boardmembership while making up a little over half of ridership.

Cruz notes that while board leadership are not usually overseeing granular decisions, they do set broader policy for their agencies. They oversee budgets, labor agreements, fare standards and the hiring of the CEO.

For Hardy, Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority’s board was obviously out of touch with the average rider. For one thing, all their meetings took place on weekday mornings. Hardy isn’t a full-time transit advocate; he has a day job as a paralegal too. Most of his comrades were also working when the meetings were held, so they could rarely attend.

After years of advocacy and organizing, Hardy and other members of the Better Bus Coalition have won changes. They got half of the meetings changed to evening hours, so work-a-day residents can attend. There are now regular bus riders on the board, who can speak to their lived experiences on the system.

They pushed for benches at bus stops, even raising funds for the infrastructure themselves when the board balked. The Better Bus Coalition also helped push a transit levy in 2020, something that policymakers had been unable to secure since 1972.

“We were able to successfully get it passed through a lot of being on the ground, a lot of relentlessness, and a lot of shaming and holding people accountable, particularly on that board,” says Hardy.

Cruz and her co-authors argue that it is essential for advocates to both pressure the board and to build relationships with them, just as the Better Bus Coalition has. They cite an early 2021 campaign in Los Angeles where advocates successfully convinced the L.A. Metro’s board to restore pre-pandemic service at a faster rate than originally planned. Cruz attributes their victory to a tight relationship with Los Angeles councilmember and boardmember Mike Bonin, who championed their cause.

Winning allies and securing friendly appointments may be an easier lift than changing the jurisdictional composition of transit boards, as governance norms can be rooted in laws and agreements established decades ago. As Hardy and his colleagues found, making the board more of a known quantity for riders is a strong start.

“The first step towards making boards more accountable is making them more visible,” says Gian Claudia Sciara, assistant professor of community and regional planning at the University of Texas, Austin. “Having riders understand what the board is, who's on it, what kinds of decisions they're impacting. Changing the structures will involve legislation: first you have to build momentum.”

Advocates acknowledge that having suburban and ideologically diverse representation on transit boards is important. In an era of partisan polarization around transportation policy, it can be important to have boardmembers who can speak on transit’s behalf in spaces like state legislatures that tend to be dominated by conservative, white and non-urban political forces.

In Philadelphia, for example, Republican power broker Pasquale “Pat” Deon has been the head of the board for almost a quarter century. Although he doesn’t live in Philadelphia, his ability to maneuver on SEPTA’s behalf in the GOP-dominated state capitol is widely praised.

“It’s necessary to have more conservative-leaning board members to have tougher conversations in Harrisburg,” says Yasha Zarrinkelk, with Transit Forward Philadelphia. “When I say diversity, I mean a spectrum of individuals who bring different voices to the table. Unfortunately, right now SEPTA’s board skews heavily one way.”

In Cincinnati, the transit agency board by some measures grew less representative since Hardy began his advocacy. After winning the long-sought transit levy, Hamilton County got a majority of seats on the board and the city’s representation was reduced from seven to five. But the board today is in other ways more representative: It includes bus riders for the first time, and is more responsive to advocate pressure.

“When I say a bus rider, I'm saying somebody that depends on the service, not someone who can just snap a selfie or two on the bus,” says Hardy, about the transit-using appointees. “Someone who needs it to work, just like thousands of riders across the city. We're experts at this. This is something that we know. This is our system. And we still have a long way to go.”

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Mass Transit
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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