Q&A With John Raskin of the Riders Alliance, NYC’s New Transit Advocates

New York City transit riders haven’t had much to be thankful for recently. Sure, countdown clocks have arrived on some subway lines, and buses are moving faster on the routes where the MTA and NYC DOT have implemented Select Bus Service. But overall, the story of NYC transit the last few years has been about service cuts and fare hikes, as the MTA struggles with rising costs and volatile revenues.

John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance.

The worst of it is that paying more for less service was preventable. Twice in the last five years, proposals to stabilize transit funding gained political momentum only to stall in Albany — first in 2008 when congestion pricing cleared the City Council but died in the Assembly, then in 2009 when a handful of NYC-based state senators blocked the establishment of bridge tolls on the East River and Harlem River crossings. It was abundantly clear that some state legislators thought they could act against the interests of their transit-riding constituents with impunity.

One person with an inside view of the bridge toll saga was John Raskin, who at the time served as chief-of-staff to one of Albany’s most pro-transit legislators, State Senator Daniel Squadron. In 2011, Raskin brought his background in community organizing and politics to a new project. With a braintrust that included Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign and Michael Freedman-Schnapp, the policy director for City Council Member Brad Lander, Raskin set out to complement and strengthen NYC’s transit advocacy coalition.

What emerged is a new organization, called the Riders Alliance, focused on grassroots transit advocacy and mobilization. After laying the groundwork for six months (and landing some impressive press coverage), the Riders Alliance is making its public launch tonight at the Bubble Lounge on West Broadway.

I recently got on the phone with Raskin to talk about what the Riders Alliance has been up to in its formative days, the role the organization fills in the universe of NYC transit advocacy, and what it takes for riders to get through to Albany. Here’s our Q&A, edited for length and clarity.

Ben Fried: What was the need you saw — what led you to launch the Riders Alliance?

John Raskin: There are a lot of organizations involved in transit advocacy, and they do really important work: Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, RPA, and many others. But no one is going neighborhood by neighborhood and building the grassroots constituency to support transit. We’re working on local issues, both to address the very local problems that impact people’s experience riding the subway or bus, and also to develop grassroots leadership in the community who can advocate for their own needs.

We’re already working with one group of transit riders in Bay Ridge who are interested in more frequency on the R, as well as improved bus service. We also have a group of G train riders who are interested in more service, better communications with riders, and common-sense changes to stations on the G Train.

BF: Transit advocacy campaigns have struggled to get traction in the state legislature, and you’ve seen that up close. How can people get the attention of legislators in Albany?

JR: There’s a stereotype that Albany legislators don’t care about their constituents’ concerns. But one surprising experience I had in Albany is that legislators are often very responsive to constituent needs. What that means is that it’s the responsibility of advocates to get constituents to get in touch with their legislators about local issues that matter. I think transit is one of those issues.

When you start to work on these local issues and try to fix service, it quickly becomes apparent that you can’t fix the local issues without fixing the broader problems, especially funding for transit. We work with our grassroots leaders to make those connections, and that work is not very hard. It’s clear that you can’t win all the service improvements you want unless we find sustainable sources of revenue for our subways and buses.

On state policy issues we work very closely with our allies. What we’re hoping to do at this point is to work with our local organizers on local issues, and also to add value when it comes time for the advocates to go to Albany.

We’re working very hard not to duplicate the efforts of what others are doing. Other advocates have been very helpful with sharing the policy expertise they’ve developed over many, many years. That’s going to be an important resource for us going forward as we organize locally, with respect to what’s good policy, what’s worked before, what’s possible and what’s not. We’re hoping that, in return, our grassroots organizing work can add some strength to what the advocates have been pushing and some of the policies they’ve been trying to move forward.

BF: In terms of how the public views transit issues, what we see a lot of the time is that the MTA gets blamed for Albany’s failures. Do you encounter that when you’re talking to riders, and how do you respond?

JR: The negative attitude toward the MTA is a real hindrance. The MTA leadership is working to address that image, and I think that’s a smart thing to do. But what we’ve found is that when we talk to riders, their opinion of the MTA is not that relevant. They’re very responsive to the opportunity to improve their experience, regardless of how they feel about the MTA.

BF: Do you think Sandy and its aftermath will affect your message?

JR: Sandy gave us a painful example of what it’s like to live without transit. It reminded everyone how important these investments are, and we’re working to make sure everyone remembers that experience as it comes time to discuss funding and the question of how strong our investment in transit is going to be.

BF: What about surface transit upgrades like Select Bus Service and BRT. Does allocating more street space to transit fit with what you’re doing?

JR: No question. For us there are three things we consider. Would it improve the rider’s experience? Is it something people care about in the community? And of course, is it a good idea?

BF: You mentioned Bay Ridge and the G train corridor as places where you’re active now. What other neighborhoods are you looking at?

JR: We’ve been talking to riders in parts of Queens, including Jackson Heights and Corona, as well as Highbridge and Soundview in the Bronx. We’re looking to explore what the local transit issues are in diverse parts of the city, partly because every neighborhood has different issues, and partly because if we’re trying to build a grassroots constituency, it’s important that that constituency cross lines of race, class, and language.

BF: Give me a sense of how far along you are and what’s next for the Riders Alliance.

JR: We’ve been working behind the scenes for six months. We’re just doing the public launch now. In that time we’ve gained about 300 grassroots members and donors. And we think to have an impact on transit policy, you don’t need to organize the 7.5 million people who ride every day, but you need to organize a lot more than 300, so we’re going to keep going.

The Riders Alliance launch is tonight from 6:30 to 8:30 at the Bubble Lounge, 288 West Broadway. Tickets are $50 or, if you’re a member, free.