The deciders who sit on the boards of large urban U.S. public transit agencies often differ sharply from most riders by geography, race, and gender, according to a new analysis by TransitCenter, a New York-based research and advocacy group.
For instance, 38% of the residents of SEPTA’s service area and 71% of its transit riders live in Philadelphia, yet only 13% of board seats are allocated to the city’s representatives.
Transit directors are often scrutinized less than more visible officials, such as members of city councils and county commissions, but they adopt budgets and prioritize capital projects, hire the agency chief executive, and make the final decision on policy, including what levels of service to offer.
“Those things really impact a transit rider on a day-to-day basis and impact the health of a community, the economic status of a community,” said Jessica Cruz, the report’s author.
Released Tuesday, the “Who Rules Transit?” analysis makes the case that improvements in transit service depend on having directors and executives who more closely represent the riders.
In a sample of 108 transit board members in 11 large cities, only 36% of 108 transit board members in 11 cities with large systems are people of color, compared with 63% of transit riders in those same cities.
Five people of color serve on SEPTA’s 15-member board of directors.
In the same sample, 30% of board members are women, compared with just over half of transit riders in the metro areas. In Philly, 13% of SEPTA board members are women.
Researchers examined the metropolitan New York transit system, as well as the systems in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, and Richmond, Va.
“It’s difficult to imagine that the SEPTA board is able to have a full understanding of SEPTA’s ridership and its needs when they’re living in the suburbs and representing suburban interests,” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, manager of the advocacy coalition Transit Forward Philadelphia.
The board members skew “affluent white and male” and don’t regularly use transit service within Philadelphia, as the largest share of SEPTA’s riders do, he said. In addition, many are elected or appointed government officials, or at least are active in politics.
TransitCenter’s report notes that a person’s race, gender, and ethnicity are not the only things that determine a person’s experiences and points of view. And Zarrinkelk said the SEPTA board members care about transit and the riders, and understand the system’s challenges — but having a straphanger’s perspective on the board would help.
By law, Philadelphia has two allotted seats on SEPTA’s board, appointed by the mayor; each of the four suburban counties has two representatives, appointed by county officials. Four members are appointed by the partisan floor leaders in the legislature, and the governor chooses one. The city and county board members serve five-year terms; the legislative appointees have no term limits; and the governor’s representative is limited to two terms of four years, as is the governor.
Current board members do have valuable experience and strengths, Zarrinkelk said. “A lot of the folks on the board have excellent working relationships with legislators in Harrisburg,” who determine state transit funding, he said, particularly Chairman Pasquale T. “Pat” Deon, a longtime Republican power broker from Bucks County.
SEPTA has won praise from Zarrinkelk and other transit advocates for putting more emphasis on projects important to city riders, such as trolley modernization and an ongoing reorganization of bus service called “Bus Revolution,” with extensive public engagement.
“I commend Leslie S. Richards for moving things forward,” Zarrinkelk said.
Much of the geographic disparity stems from legislation that established regional transit authorities and granted greater representation to suburban areas on a per capita basis, Cruz said.
The report also found white people hold 66% of managerial and leadership positions in U.S. public transit agencies, an overrepresentation that could disadvantage those who rely on the service most. The report did not break out metrics for individual agencies. Richards is the authority’s second woman CEO.
Agencies can correct for that by seeking ideas from people in underrepresented communities while planning projects and also by developing relationships with and incorporating ideas from frontline workers such as bus and train operators, cleaners, and mechanics, Cruz said.
“They are out there every day and see and know things you don’t,” she said, noting frontline workers are not regularly consulted by management in most agencies.
People of color make up about 45% of the transit workforce nationally but relatively few are in upper management. About 27% of frontline transit workers are Black, the report found.
This story was updated to correct information on the leadership of SEPTA.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.