Image credit: Investing in Place
Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Metro board voted to restore bus and train service to pre-pandemic levels. The decision marked a significant change from the agency’s previous hesitance to bring back service, and it didn’t happen by accident. It’s a story with implications for transit advocates across the country.
On January 28th, the board voted for full restoration of bus service by the start of the new fiscal year in July (agency staff later set this date at December, before advocates pushed back and secured a September timetable).
This win was the result of a concerted effort by transit advocates, grassroots organizers, and local residents working in coalition to center the voices of bus riders and gain political power at the LA Metro Board. Thanks to long-term organizing and coalition-building, advocates were able to intervene effectively when the opportunity presented itself at the January board meeting.
“For the past several years, there has been growing power among diverse groups, voices, and perspectives challenging why bus service is so poor in the Los Angeles region, an effort centered around community organizers and people who ride the bus,” said Jessica Meaney, executive director of the advocacy organization Investing in Place. “It emerged from a growing desire to build community led power.”
A formative moment for this coalition came in response to LA Metro’s NextGen Bus Plan, an initiative launched in 2018 to redesign the agency’s bus network.
To organize riders and engage them in this process, Alliance for Community Transit-LA (ACT-LA) held town halls and a Transit Justice Summit. Investing in Place brought together other organizations in a Better Buses Working Group to convey rider priorities for the NextGen plan to the agency. And Move LA mobilized dozens of local organizations to support a network redesign that increases Metro bus operating budget.
Transit advocates knew that the bus network redesign would have far-reaching implications affecting different constituencies. So they forged partnerships with labor, environmental, social justice, and business groups to influence the NextGen plans. The relationships that advocates built for the NextGen campaign carried over to the campaign to restore service during the pandemic.
In the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic, advocates expected to channel their energy into LA Metro’s budget negotiations and a campaign to expand resources for operations. They held a “budget teach-in” and produced a “Metro budget guide.” While COVID disrupted those campaigns, advocates would soon have good reason to mobilize around the budget.
When COVID struck last March, LA Metro scaled back service to 80% of 2019 levels. This step was within the range of cutbacks by other transit agencies dealing with budget uncertainty and reduced worker availability. However, unlike most other agencies, LA Metro indicated that cutbacks would last indefinitely. The agency said that reduced service levels would be the “new normal,” and planned to keep a cut of 8% in place after COVID receded.
Advocates in Los Angeles knew that a permanent service reduction would inequitably affect residents who rely on transit the most. They also knew that transit service in LA retained a greater share of riders than in most other cities. Riders reported overcrowding on high-ridership lines, buses skipping stops because they were at capacity, and longer, more unreliable commutes — stories that transit advocates could share with policy makers.
The transit coalition fought to undo the service cuts at the Metro board meeting in the fall. With no new federal relief secured since the CARES Act in March, however, only one board member, Mike Bonin, voted to reverse the cuts.
Advocates were not deterred. After that meeting, evidence that Metro could budget for restored service grew stronger. Congress passed a new round of COVID relief for transit agencies in December, the Presidential and Senate elections made the prospect of further relief more likely, and LA Metro’s sales tax receipts came in $300 million higher than expected.
Because of earlier relationship-building for the NextGen campaign, the coalition was able to mobilize quickly around this opportunity. When news of the sales tax windfall hit, transit advocates convened a meeting to map out an action plan and develop messages to get the Metro board to reverse the cuts at the January meeting. The effort involved more than 30 nonprofit organizations, including Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, People for Mobility Justice, and Community Power Collective.
ACT-LA collected testimony from riders about the impact of service cuts and shared the stories with elected officials. They secured a meeting with Mayor Eric Garcetti, chair of the Metro Board, where riders could speak to him directly.
“Bus riders talked about the ongoing impact the cuts were having on their essential travel and ACT-LA-affiliated organizers asked him to reinstate the service,” said ACT-LA Director Laura Raymond. “The next day, his office contacted us about a motion he decided to introduce at the Board meeting that week.”
The broader coalition also mobilized to make sure board members heard directly from bus riders in the run-up to the meeting. Dozens of advocacy groups delivered 150 comments to board members calling to restore service. This was bolstered by more than 100 phone calls to LA County supervisors from transit riders with low incomes.
At the January 29 board meeting, Garcetti introduced the motion to restore service, sponsored by Bonin, Hilda Solis, and Janice Hahn. The motion also called for service to prioritize high-ridership corridors in disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles, vaccinations for Metro operators, and collaboration with LA County to ensure senior citizens are connected to vaccination sites. It passed unanimously.
The level of grassroots activism leading up to the January board meeting was unprecedented, but advocates see it as one step in a long path. “There is still much more work to do,” said Eli Lipman, director of development and programming for Move LA. “LA Metro needs ‘all hands on deck’ to move fast to put more service back on the road so essential workers (and all of us) have alternatives to single-passenger vehicle travel as schools, businesses, and offices re-open. Metro must immediately begin hiring more operators and mechanics.”
By listening to and mobilizing riders, building relationships with allies, and cultivating support from elected officials, LA transit advocates plan to continue winning improvements for transit riders in the years ahead.
The organizations and advocates critical to the January victory are listed below:
Investing in Place (@InvestinPlace)
Move LA (@MoveLATransit)
Los Angeles Walks (@LosAngelesWalks)
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (@SAJE_ShiftPower)
LA Bus Riders Union (@BusRidersUnion)
Streets for All (@streetsforall)
Central City Association of Los Angeles (@CCA_DTLA)
Jobs to Move America (@JobsMoveAmerica)
Action Center on Race and the Economy (@acrecampaigns)
Active San Gabriel Valley (@ActiveSGV)
Community Power Collective (@CPColectivo)
DSA Los Angeles (@DSA_LosAngeles)
Esperanza Community Housing (@EsperanzaCHC)
Ground Game LA (@groundgamela)
Institute for Transportation and Development Policy @ITDP_HQ
Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (@kiwa4justice)
LA River Communities for Environmental Equity (@LARiverCEE)
LA Forward Action (@LosAngelesFwd)
Natural Resources Defense Council (@nrdc)
Streetsblog LA (@streetsblogla)
Sunrise Movement LA (@SunriseMvmtLA)
Sierra Club Angeles Chapter (@SierraClubLA_OC)
League of Women Voters of Los Angeles (@lwvlosangeles)
UNITE HERE Local 11 (@UNITEHERE11)
Cal State Northridge (@csunorthridge)
What comes next as transit agencies strive to bring service back and deliver what riders need in 2021 and beyond? In a series of posts based on interviews with transit agency staff, TransitCenter will outline the challenges and opportunities facing the transit industry as it recovers from the pandemic.Read More
The Transit Equity Dashboard is a first-of-its-kind tool which measures how well transit networks in six U.S. cities connect people who’ve been marginalized by segregation and discrimination to the jobs, services, and amenities they need to thriveRead More