MEMPHIS - Considering the climate-controlled environments many of us live in, it's easy to forget that summer officially started June 20. As temperatures across the mid-south climb to near 100 degrees, Memphians who rely on public transportation will not be so lucky. Many bus riders report that in an effort to save money, the transfer hub at 50 Poplar does not run its air conditioning. Even more have attempted to alleviate the sweltering heat on an overcrowded bus by opening a window only to find the window screwed closed.
Founded in February, the Memphis Bus Riders Union was created to "raise the level of service and dignity provided by the public transit system as well as ensuring greater accountability and public input over ... policies and practices."
Laura Sullivan says that, "Public transportation is a civil rights issue," and that the old bus routes, "still reflect Jim Crow." With the white flight to the suburbs from inner-city Memphis, many of the bus lines in Memphis were created to transport domestic workers to and from the suburbs. To this day, Memphis Area Transit Authority has yet to change its routes.
Of the available jobs in Memphis, only 26 percent are reachable via public transportation in less than 90 minutes and 80 percent of public transit users have no other form of transportation. Considering that nearly 89 percent of MATA customers are African American and 60 make less than $18,000 a year, MATA is a blatant example of the institutionalized racism that pervades the American South.
Furthermore, since 2009 MATA has raised fares twice, and reduced bus service three times in 2011 alone. Considering that "40 percent of Memphians need access to public transit and nearly 25 percent of Memphis live beneath the poverty line, it is unconscionable," says Paul Garner "to combine fare increases with reduced routes and times."
According to the Brookings Institute, Memphis public transportation system is one of the worst in the nation (69th out of 100).
At its founding meeting, Emmett Miller a retired bus driver expressed the frustration many felt before the founding of the union when all one could do was "ask for change in MATA from the same people who cut, slashed, and decimated the system." Miller suggested that the union "appeal to a much wider populace... that it should [appeal] to every citizen in the metro area."
Inspired by the example of similar organizations in places like Los Angeles, the Memphis Bus Riders Union has high hopes for the future. At a June union meeting, Bennett Foster pointed out that, "Twenty years ago in L.A. they were able to increase the fleet, change the routes and expand the running hours."
One of the main differences however, is that the Memphis Bus Riders Union is a volunteer movement made up of public transit dependent Memphians.
This week, members of the Memphis Bus Riders Union, all dressed in their telltale yellow and black t-shirts attended a MATA meeting chaired by General Manager Will Hudson. Hudson was condescending, dismissive, and rude to the union members present except when they had complaints about how they have been treated by the drivers.
According to, local artist and activist Paul Garner, "MATA is trying to scapegoat the drivers." Garner felt that, "Hudson encouraged complaints about the drivers' and often referred to drivers as "bad apples."
The Memphis Bus Riders aren't falling for it. The "bad apples" General Manager Will Hudson refers to are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Hudson would like nothing more than to use one union to break the power of another.
After the meeting, Garner said, he would "like to see driver-rider unity." Drivers and riders standing in solidarity against cuts and managerial abuses could do a lot to take the heat off of the people riding and driving the busses and shine some sunlight on the racist policies that guide the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
Photo: Memphis Bus Rider Union member addresses the audience at the union's recent meeting. Emmaline Raines/PW