Notes from the Underground. New York’s Straphangers Campaign

by Eric Schaefer on January 17, 2005

San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency has faced intense public scrutiny in its ongoing efforts to close its $18 million budget shortfall. Organizations like Transportation for a Livable City, the Sierra Club, Mission Agenda, Transport Workers Union local 258 and numerous private citizens have attended public meetings regularly and have consistently opposed any increase in fares or reductions in service. At a time when transit systems across the country are experiencing budget crises and service problems much like San Francisco’s, both sides of public debate have looked toward other cities’ solutions to those problems for ideas.

Most of these comparisons have concerned questions of policy, focusing how much other cities spend on fare collection or what kind of taxes other cities use to support their transit systems. This article looks to other cities for new ideas on the process of organizing the public. First New York, where the “Straphangers Campaign” has led a continuous effort to boost investment in their city’s transit system and to provide riders with detailed information and the means to act on it.

The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a student-directed reform organization, founded the Straphangers Campaign in 1979. This was a time when, according to the Campaign’s web-site, graffiti covered subway cars and stations, trains went a mere 8,000 miles between breakdowns and more and more businesses cited poor public transportation as their reason for leaving New York. Rider-ship had fallen to the lowest levels since the beginning of the century and “The system had become a symbol of the decline of the city itself.”
Now the New York subway system is generally clean and safe and trains run an average of 110,000 miles between breakdowns.

In 1997 the New York MTA granted free transfers between subways and buses and the next year the MTA started offering a range of discounted unlimited-ride transit passes. According to the Straphangers Campaign, these improvements attracted 1.2 million more riders per day to the system. They are now pushing for more service to accommodate the increase.
In the words of the Campaign, “These improvements didn’t happen by accident.” The Straphangers credit the $30 billion invested in New York’s subways since 1981, investment that their campaign pushed for through “rider organizing; coalition building; research and reports; and media savvy,” for the transit system’s success. Much of the money came in the form of direct investment from the city and state. In 1985 the “March for Decent Transit” eventually forced then-Governor Mario Cuomo and then-Mayor Ed Koch to “trade in” a highway project for $1.5 billion in transit repair funding.

The Straphangers Campaign offers a vast amount of information to the public. Each year the campaign publishes several alerts and reports, including one on the “State of the Subways” which is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This report, compiled from NYMTA data, measures the scheduled minutes between trains, the percentage of trains arriving at regular intervals (without bunches or gaps), miles between breakdowns, the percentage of correct announcements, the likelihood of getting a seat during rush hour and the general cleanliness of cars. The report presents not only the system-wide data but breaks down the information for each line. The Campaign is currently pushing the NYMTA to post this information in each subway station.

For the last three years the Straphangers Campaign has also issued “pokey awards,” gold colored statues in the shape of a snail, to the slowest local bus routes in the city.

In addition to providing information, the Straphangers Campaign tries to focus public comment for the maximum effect. Each line report card is published as widely as possible and includes the telephone number of the line superintendent and the group’s web-site lists telephone numbers and mailing addresses for each department of the NYMTA. The Straphangers hope that their reports will help riders on lines with a poor level of service make their case for improvements and allow riders on better lines to keep them at that level. Their web-site even includes a “Rider Diaries” discussion forum with 2300 members. The discussion groups are also organized by subway line.
Currently, New Yorks’s MTA is projecting a budget a budget shortfall of $400-$500 million in 2005 and of at least $1 billion in 2006.

The Straphangers Campaign unsuccessfully campaigned against an increase in the cost of multi day use passes, which passed on December 17th of last year. The NYMTA had increased the base fare by fifty cents the year before. The Straphangers joined several other organizations in filing a lawsuit against the earlier increase, alleging that the MTA was not entitled to raise fares because it had overstated its budget shortfalls. Though the New York State Supreme Court eventually dismissed the lawsuit, Straphanger Campaign lawyer Tom Shanahan said that the case would serve as a “warning to the government agencies that they will be called to account when they don’t level with the public.

The campaign is also working for more transparency in the MTA’s budgeting process (most of the Board of Directors is appointed by the Governor) and calling for more state and city funding to protect the MTA’s long range investment plans.
The difference in scale between San Francisco and New York is enormous: the budget short fall for New York’s MTA is greater than the entire budget of MUNI and the subway’s daily rider-ship of 7 million is roughly eight times the entire population of San Francisco.

Still, San Francisco’s fledging rider’s organizations have much to learn. The achievements of the Straphangers Campaign are considerable. They highlight the potential of pushing state and local governments to invest heavily in their transit systems, turning public transit from a black eye for a city to a selling point. Most compellingly the “State of the Subways” report cards, and the other surveys and publications put out by the Straphangers Campaign, demonstrate the power of putting complete and accurate information in the hands of people to whom it matters most.

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