Relationships with government and agency staff are an important channel for inside advocacy, allowing advocates to better understand the obstacles and opportunities for reform and to develop lines of communication with the people who will ultimately carry out change if advocates’ efforts are successful. To build these relationships, it is important that you be considered credible and fair by agency officials and staff. Furthermore, advocates with a base of influence—a large grassroots membership, well-known policy expertise, or a consistent media presence—will be taken more seriously by decision makers than those without.
Once you have identified a problem and solution, determine who has the power to make the desired change and learn what stands in the way. Transit agencies typically run buses and trains, while cities are responsible for managing street space. Sidewalks and bus shelters may be under a mix of transit agency, city, and private control. It may become necessary to add external pressure, but building constructive relationships and working with staff internally is a good place to start.
Cultivate allies inside the agency
Internal allies can help advocates understand which levers to pull to make change happen effectively within bureaucracies. However, you don’t need the blessing of the agency to advocate for changes you believe in; in fact, with strong agency-advocate relationships in place, agency officials tend to view policy disagreements more fairly. Stay in regular contact with agency staff, and once you’ve cultivated internal agency allies, brief them on your upcoming actions in advance. Seek their perspectives on what you’ll be calling for and what they consider constraints and opportunities for change. In general, you want to avoid surprising allies with your actions. Keeping them informed will help to maintain trust and ensure you’re drawing on their internal expertise in crafting your message and identifying opportunities for reform. And if the agency is set to release a plan or project you do not fully agree with, a back channel will allow you to help constructively shape the project before it goes to the public.
Official meetings might not be the best use of your time
Don’t get too wrapped up in official “process” like the “rider advisory committees” or “advisory task forces” that transit agencies convene. These engagements can be useful if attendees get briefed on inside information. But too often, agencies promote the existence of these committees to make a show of rider engagement without actually taking rider input into consideration, merely briefing attendees on project decisions that have already been made and offering no opportunity for meaningful contribution. Official meetings do create opportunities for advocates to advance their message. Transit agency board hearings, for example, tend to generate press coverage. Take advantage of the fact that the media and agency staff are present at public transit hearings and plan your remarks accordingly.
Facilitate productive interaction between the agency and the public
Advocates should push for transit project development processes that feature genuine community engagement. This will lead to projects with stronger outcomes and smoother implementation. San Francisco Transit Riders (SFTR), a grassroots advocacy organization, developed the “ride audit” program to facilitate communication between bus riders and transit planners about riders’ priorities for improvements on bus routes. SFTR hosted three multilingual rides with opportunities for structured observation and group discussion among riders and planners. Through this process, community members became familiar with changes coming to their neighborhoods and provided the SFMTA with useful firsthand information. Riders became familiar with the transit planners in charge of the work, building trust. The SFMTA is now funding SFTR to continue this program on other routes.
One of the best ways to ensure that agencies foster inclusive access to transit as a matter of public policy is to push for internal reforms that advance inclusivity within the agency itself. Hiring women, people of color, and people with disabilities––especially in leadership positions––broadens the perspectives that will shape the design and implementation of projects and policy changes.
In New York City, for instance, high-level staffing decisions have signaled major changes in how the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) prioritizes accessibility. The MTA operates the least accessible subway in the country. Advocates campaigned for years to win stronger commitments to stair-free access at stations, facing stiff resistance from the agency.
Soon after the MTA brought on Andy Byford to run the subways and buses in January 2018, he made it clear that improving accessibility would be a top priority. Among his first hires was Alex Elegudin, a former transit advocate who uses a wheelchair, to oversee an agency-wide accessibility initiative. Elegudin is now working to instill accessibility throughout the agency, from employee training to station design.
There are politicians who are true believers in transit, who sponsor pro-transit legislation and bargain with colleagues behind the scenes to ensure it is passed. Then there are those who are apathetic or even deeply in opposition. They may support transit projects in theory, but not “this” project in their district. It’s rare that an indifferent politician can be converted into an enthusiastic champion. The key is finding the champions who do exist and encouraging them to organize their colleagues around supporting your policy priorities. Sometimes there is no champion in the legislature or city council––advocates must then try to get more champions elected!
Provide elected officials with issues to champion
Politicians want issues to latch onto. When voters ask, “Why should I support you?” a politician needs an answer. The more politicians reply “better transit,” the better. But political support for better transit is unlikely to materialize out of thin air, and if left to their own devices, professional politicians may confuse symbolic but useless transit (like mixed-traffic streetcars) with transit that actually improves people’s lives. During campaign season, advocates can lead politicians in the right direction by releasing policy positions, sending out candidate questionnaires, and staging issue-specific debates. After elections, advocates can supply officials with transit inspiration by cultivating relationships with their senior staff, producing packages of pragmatic policy recommendations, and inviting elected officials to press conferences where they can crusade on camera for better transit for their constituents.
Use the press and stay on message No matter how well articulated, rational policy analysis can be easily ignored by political leaders if it never reaches a broad audience. When elected officials dig in their heels and won’t respond to polite requests for better transit policy, a steady dose of bad press may change their minds. Your method of press outreach will depend on the context. If you’re releasing a big new report, you should plan a press conference far in advance. If new data comes out showing bus ridership continues to fall, you can send around a statement to reporters about the need to improve speed and reliability. If there was a meltdown with train service that morning, you may just want to tag your political target on social media and ask when that official is going to fix the problem.
The key to influencing a specific official is to stay on message and on target. Say you have identified the expansion of bus lanes as your top priority. Your campaign should generate a steady drumbeat of press attention on the problem of slow, unreliable bus service, and why it’s incumbent on the mayor to address the issue by providing more on-street priority for buses. It may feel repetitive, but well-timed and sustained media pressure is a powerful mechanism to prompt policy change from elected officials.
Rally neighborhood political support for change
Transit advocates need to rally visible and sustained support for everything from replacing car lanes with bus lanes on a single street to citywide transit service plans. This show of force may require fewer bodies than you think. But it is important, because the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Open houses and public hearings for projects, for example, can be dominated by a very small opposition group––ten loud people can look like unified neighborhood opposition (or a large block of voters) if advocates don’t show up.
Celebrate elected officials who make the right choice Praising elected officials for championing your priorities is the right thing to do and can bring other public officials around to the cause. For example, during the 2019 political battle over a proposed toll to drive into New York City’s central business district––a source of revenue needed to fund crucial subway improvements––Riders Alliance used its social media platforms to thank elected officials as they announced their support for the policy. This highlighted political momentum and signaled to other potential converts that they would not be alone on a hot-button issue. A growing number of elected officials eventually signed on in support, and the policy passed during state budget negotiations.