Public transit governing boards don’t look like their riders. A new state study could be a fix.
Riders packed on a GRTC Pulse bus during the first week of service, which began on June 24. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
The ascension of three Henrico County officials to the governing board of the Greater Richmond Transit Company in April marked a new era in Central Virginia’s increasing coordination towards a more functional regional public transportation system.
The addition of three men—two White and one Black—from a suburban jurisdiction has also made GRTC’s board even less representative of the riders it serves who skew female, Black and urban.
Transit boards that don’t reflect their ridership are not unique to Richmond. That type of inequity repeats itself across the commonwealth and the country, but a state study to be released next month by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation may offer answers on how to repair the disconnect between decision-makers and the experiences of Virginia’s transit riders.
After examining the public transportation systems of 11 regions across America, Jessica Cruz—a program manager at Transit Center, a foundation that works to improve public transit in cities across the U.S., and the author of the report “Who Rules Transit?”—kept witnessing the same pattern repeat itself again and again: “Transit riders tend to be women and people of color who live in urban areas, but transit agencies’ leadership teams are predominantly suburban White men,” she said.
The trend holds true at the two transit providers serving Virginians which Cruz analyzed: GRTC and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Although the board behind the Metro largely lives across the region in the same distribution as the system’s riders, fewer than a quarter of board members are people of color despite nearly 60 percent of WMATA’s ridership being non-White. On gender, WMATA’s leadership is even further behind: over half of riders are female but just one in five board members are.
Before the inclusion of Henrico County officials on the GRTC board, the system already had a gender representation problem with six men split evenly between Black and White and urban and suburban. With the addition of three male members from Richmond’s northern neighbor, the number of women on the board remains at zero while the body’s demographics as a whole have lurched even Whiter and more suburban than the riders they serve.
Demographics are not destiny, however. Throughout the pandemic, GRTC’s board has repeatedly prioritized the needs of riders by focusing service on high-demand local routes and even allocating its own federal dollars to stay fare-free after Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney reneged on his promise to fund the zero-fare program. Examining the composition of boards merely represents one of the most straightforward methods to measure the connection between transit leadership and riders, according to Cruz.
“Representation is a starting point,” she said. “At the end of the day transit boards need members connected to the lived experience of people who rely on transit. Such board members tend to have a positive impact on the overall outcomes of transit investments, service standards, and decision-making. Getting people onto governing boards who are transit riders themselves is the most effective way to improve service.”
The customer is always right
Virginia’s dozens of public transportation providers run the gamut from city agencies to nonprofits and even locality-owned private companies. Given the multitude of setups for the commonwealth’s transit systems, the state doesn’t have a specific role in their relationship or responsiveness to their riders.
That doesn’t mean that the Department of Rail and Public Transportation doesn’t have an interest in improving the feedback loop between transit users and leadership. Of the four main chapters included in DRPT’s upcoming Transit Equity and Modernization Study, one focuses specifically on governance structures and public engagement.
“The state invests an incredible amount of money in Virginia’s transit systems to ensure that the needs of commuters and communities are met across the commonwealth,” said Jen DeBruhl, DRPT’s director “The voice of the public in how those funding and service decisions are made is incredibly important. We are looking at recommendations to create transit rider advisory councils to help make services stronger and better around the state.”
DRPT won’t dictate governance changes to any of Virginia’s dozens of transit providers as a result of the study but rather pull together a toolbox of resources and techniques that can serve as best business practices to enhance public engagement. “I think we can all agree that having a more inclusive and transparent decision-making process is something that benefits all agencies of government, regardless of the sector,” DeBruhl added.
Today, actual users of public transit are a rarity on Virginia systems’ governing boards. Although riders’ absence isn’t a guarantee of bad service, their presence in the decision-making process is one of the strongest factors behind transit systems’ success.
As many transit providers across the commonwealth hustle to restore ridership to pre-pandemic levels, those who are breaking records have done so by listening to users and shifting gears to meet their changing needs. For GRTC’s largely low-income riders, that meant an embrace of zero-fare. At Mountain Empire Transit in Southwestern Virginia, the pivot towards grocery delivery and medical care during the pandemic proved a godsend for users.
Calling for accountability
Currently many transit providers face few incentives to reach out to riders and bring their voices and perspectives into the decision-making process. At worst, public transit leaders may view vocal riders as annoying nuisances rather than as the top experts they are on how to improve and expand service.
“Transit isn’t an issue that a lot of electeds are focused on, so often there isn’t a lot of accountability or attention around these boards,” explained Cruz. “Right now the structures to foster accountability are mostly just board meetings which aren’t accessible for many people to attend. Few transit board members offer office hours or such to hear from riders on what systems could do better. There is an overall lack of accountability.”
To change that dynamic in Richmond, GRTC is teaming up with RVA Rapid Transit—a local advocacy group representing riders—to revive the system’s Transit Advisory Group in 2023. The plan is to recruit riders into a “mobility university” to provide them with training on the acronyms and jargon of transit professionals and then encourage them to join the TAG as an actionable next step.
“In a perfect world, the board representation would match who is being served, but until then we can work towards creating systems that connect decisionmakers to the people they are making decisions for,” said Faith Walker, RVART’s executive director. “The danger lies in people who sit on the board having the best intentions but not understanding the daily experiences of the riders.”
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