Last week's column calling for Metro bus riders to form a transit riders' union prompted a massive, supportive response from an unexpected place—bus drivers.
Metro drivers and customers, I pointed out last week, are natural allies—both have an interest in making the system better. However, given that I also said riding the bus "can seriously suck," I was surprised by the deluge of letters from Metro drivers who wanted to know how they could help. "Metro feels the 'right to ride' is more important than the 'right to ride right,'" one wrote. "Do you have the pleasure of smelling shit, vomit, malt liquor, piss, and Old Spice in your workplace? I don't even have the privilege of stepping off the bus by choice."
Riders, like drivers, aren't demanding that buses be as convenient as driving or as private as taking a taxi. All we want is a bus system that's reliable, safe, and clean—one where we aren't subjected to harassment, aren't forced into confront-ations we didn't ask for, and aren't shoved up against people who smell like shit. A system, in other words, where the rules are actually enforced—and where drivers and passengers are comfortable and safe. But adding security, installing ticketing kiosks, and buying more buses requires funding. A transit riders' union could advocate for that funding.
One of the largest and oldest transit riders' unions in the nation is the Labor/Community Strategy Center's Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles, which formed in 1992 in response to proposals by the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to raise fares and eliminate discount monthly bus passes. The union sued the transit agency in 1996 on behalf of 350,000 riders. To nearly everyone's surprise, they won. The MTA agreed to freeze or lower fares, cut the price of weekly and monthly bus passes, hire additional transit police, and add new buses to its fleet. In 2001, a federal court ruled that the agency had failed to live up to that agreement—spending 90 percent of its money on commuter rail to wealthy suburbs while urban commuters sweated on overcrowded buses—and forced the agency to buy hundreds of new buses to make up the discrepancy.
None of this would have been possible if there hadn't been a strong, independent, and loud riders union pushing for improvements to the system. In Seattle, bus riders have as much of a need in 2007 to improve our system as L.A. riders did in 1992. I'd love to see some smart, organized, ambitious folks get together and make it happen.