Lessons Learned: Organizing Bus Riders in Portland, OR

The following is a guest post from Jon Ostar, Executive Director of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. OPAL recently organized bus riders to fight service cuts and fare increases in Portland. If you are interested in doing a guest blog post about your organizing efforts, please email me. Here is their story:

OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon organizes low-income communities and people of color to achieve a safe and healthy environment where we live, work, play and pray. We work to create opportunities for meaningful participation in decision-making and build power to address root causes of environmental racism and oppression. Starting in January 2010, OPAL began organizing transit-dependent bus riders to build a stronger collective voice in transportation decision-making.


Focused primarily on the growing communities of color and low-income communities in East Portland, OPAL has worked to educate, empower and mobilize its Bus Riders Unite membership to demand fair treatment and meaningful participation in TriMet investments and decisions. BRU members have prioritized extending the transfer time for single ticket riders and improving the conditions at East Portland bus stops as top priorities. During the recent FY13 TriMet budget process, BRU developed an alternative budget that closed the projected shortfall without raising fares or cutting service. While the TriMet board ultimately voted to raise fares (for the 11th time in the past 12 years) and cut service (after cutting 15% of bus service the past three years), OPAL and BRU were successful in winning an additional million dollars to help offset the impact of fare increases on the lowest-income riders and mobilized hundreds of bus riders to participate in the decision-making process for the first time. Our work showed that an organized and informed group of bus riders can effectively engage in transportation decision-making and can advocate for social change and transit justice.

Here are the lessons we learned from our recent effort:

  • More organizing. After about two years of organizing bus riders with a limited team of organizers and volunteers, we were able to turn out about 100 bus riders and allies to the TriMet board meeting for the budget decision. It was a mix of community leaders, first-time civic participants and progressive allies from a host of various sectors, including public health, housing, youth services and workforce development. And yet it wasn’t enough to move an embattled and shell-shocked TriMet board that was being led by the hand of agency staff. Fare hikes and service cuts will always be the de facto response to a budget gap until bus riders organize and mobilize in numbers to keep them from being the path of least resistance.
  • Smart policy is important, but isn’t enough. Building off the above lesson, we learned that it was critical to have a budget alternative that proved we were both competent and smart enough to take a meaningful position on public policy. Bus Riders Unite budget proposal showed that TriMet could balance its budget without raising fares or cutting service, requiring a shift in priorities. And yet even though we had the “smartest” policy argument in the room, it wasn’t enough to win the day. Smart policy can never replace grassroots organizing, mobilization and empowerment. At the end of the day, this work is about values, principles and justice
  • Know the legal process. While it was always a longshot that the TriMet board would seriously consider Bus Riders Unite’s alternative budget proposal, TriMet was able to hide behind the legal budgetary process to exclude any alternatives. Our members first presented our budget alternative to the TriMet Board at the end of April, receiving compliments on its thoroughness, its grounding in personal narrative, and the respectful manner in which it was presented, with the urging to work with staff to develop a compromise. The board promised that it would take all available time – through the end of June 2012 – to fully consider all proposals. As that compromise was being hashed out over the next several weeks, TriMet postponed its next regularly scheduled board meeting in May, and then announced it would hold a board meeting in mid-June and take up a final vote on the fare hikes and service cuts. By the time that meeting came around, the board was effectively precluded from even considering any alternative proposals because of the requirement to have a first reading before a vote can be taken at the subsequent meeting. As the old saying goes, “he who controls the process controls the outcomes.”
  • Find your champion. This one seems obvious, which made it all the more glaring that we didn’t have one. Our best champion on the TriMet board, a longtime political director for an established labor group who vowed to never vote for a fare hike and kept his word, resigned a few months prior, and with 4 of 7 board members having less than one year’s experience, there was little excitement to rock the boat. We went into this battle without the guarantee of even one vote in support of our budget alternative; without even one voice who would slow the process down to ensure meaningful consideration of alternatives. While we did the best we could with the few resources we had, in hindsight, more effort should have gone into developing a champion from the get-go and ensuring that this board member had what they needed from us to carry our message. Because in the end, we were left with a crowd of angry bus riders yelling and chanting to drown out and disrupt the board’s vote on the fare hikes and service cuts without anyone in the midst to offer the leadership we needed to succeed.

OPAL and BRU will continue building a movement of bus riders in the Portland metro region to ensure that TriMet represents the needs of transit-dependent riders and is held accountable. Visit our website atwww.opalpdx.org for updates and further information.

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