It’s all about the timing for Transit Forward Philadelphia.
The regions’ commuters have a new voice in this advocacy coalition ready for a public launch Thursday after months of buildup. Its formation comes during a new chapter for SEPTA as the transit agency welcomes a new general manager in former PennDot secretary Leslie Richards.
Not that it needs a blessing, but the group has her support, as well as the city’s. It’ll need to work with both as it campaigns for its biggest priorities, including fair fares and upgrades to the bus network amid falling ridership, said the coalition’s organizer, Yasha Zarrinkelk.
“We have no intention of trying to burn the system down and rebuilding it," he said. “We have to work with these people but also put pressure on them to make sure things are being done appropriately.”
The coalition is led by 10 member-organizations, including urbanist political action committee 5th Square, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and the Clean Air Council. It looks to grow even bigger, and recruit as diverse a community as it can to fight for equity and accessibility.
It wants to hear voices that Zarrinkelk, 31, of West Philly and a former community liaison at the Bike Coalition, believes have been “historically left out of the conversation,” such as communities of color and low-income riders.
On Thursday, Zarrinkelk will be joined by Richards; Chris Puchalsky director of policy and strategic initiatives at the city Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, and Councilmember Helen Gym during a question-and-answer panel. The event will begin at 5:30 p.m. at Azavea, a software company at 990 Spring Garden St. Registration is required.
Transit Forward Philadelphia gets financial support from the Energy Foundation, a charitable organization promoting energy efficiency and sustainability, and Transit Center, a foundation that aims to better public transit across the U.S., Zarrinkelk said.
It’s not that riders have been voiceless. SEPTA does have an independent citizens advisory committee and youth advisory council, while 5th Square and the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers have elevated passengers’ ideas, too. A Philly Transit Riders Union holds its own general meetings.
There’s plenty on the horizon to tackle beyond everyday concerns. SEPTA is expected to release a fare proposal sometime in March, while the Key, its modernized way to pay, hasn’t fully been rolled out. Funding, of course, has been a dark cloud for one of the nation’s largest transit agencies.
“We’re all really excited that [Richards] has taken over as the head," said Dena Driscoll, 5th Square chair. "We think there’s change coming, and this is the perfect time to form a coalition so that can push for the change that we think the city and the surrounding counties really need to make SEPTA a better product for everyone.”
Transit Forward Philadelphia’s other members include AARP Pennsylvania, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, PenTrans, the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, Service Employees International Union 32BJ, the Sierra Club and Philadelphia Climate Works, and the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia.
Puchalsky said the city looks forward to working with Transit Forward Philadelphia. The city’s CONNECT, or strategic transportation plan, released in 2018, highlighted a need for “more civic engagement organizations in transportation, particularly around transit.”
The plan points to efforts in other cities, such as Transportation Choices Coalition in Seattle and Transit Choices in Baltimore. Zarrinkelk mentioned TransitMatters in Boston’s work around its Regional Rail system, and New York’s Riders Alliance push for half-price MetroCards for low-income riders.
Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, said that effort took years. It’s one success Riders Alliances points to as it works to build rider power.
“Transit is the lifeblood of the city," he said. "We are in a position to see that its needs are addressed, and that riders needs are addressed, and ultimately, hopefully, if we’re successful, then we win the transit system that we deserve.”
Richards, who has made it clear that she’s willing to listen as she starts the job, says she welcomes the extra voices.
“I also want help in solving some of our challenges," she said. “These are complex issues that we are dealing with right now; if they were simple to solve, they would have been solved already.”