Riders Alliance’s John Raskin on what’s next for him and the MTA

John Raskin, co-founder and outgoing executive director of the Riders Alliance.
John Raskin, co-founder and outgoing executive director of the Riders Alliance.
Courtesy of Riders Alliance
John Raskin, co-founder and outgoing executive director of the Riders Alliance.

Riders Alliance’s John Raskin on what’s next for him and the MTA

The transit advocate talks leaving the grassroots group, successful campaigns and the challenges ahead.
July 21, 2019

There comes a time when any organization’s founder has to move on – or so says John Raskin, co-founder and outgoing executive director of the transit advocacy group Riders Alliance. Started in 2012, aimed at organizing New York’s public transit commuters into a coherent political voice and with Raskin as the sole employee, Riders Alliance has since grown into an influential advocacy group with a full-time staff of 10. The organization has been a driving force behind success campaigns for Fair Fares and congestion pricing. It also created the viral campaign #CuomosMTA and helped put the governor on the hot seat for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s failures. 

Raskin, once the chief of staff for former state Sen. Daniel Squadron, announced that he will depart Riders Alliance in the Daily News on July 10, though he’ll stay on until a successor is found and settles into the role. Calling from his vacation upstate, Raskin spoke with City & State about his organization’s successes, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s performance on MTA issues, and the challenges the next generation of transit advocates will face.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Seven years after founding Riders Alliance, you've announced your plans to depart. Why leave, and why now?

I have always believed that it's important for the founder of a nonprofit organization to move on at some point for the health of the organization – and also the health of the founders. We're coming off some significant wins on some of our key campaigns and (we) also have a clear path ahead of us of important work that has to happen over the next few years. It felt like the appropriate time for me to move on and for the Riders Alliance to find a new generation of leadership.

Do you have anyone in mind to take up the mantle?

We're very much in the initial stages, and we're doing an open search. It's important to us to do the open search and to make sure we're using our networks, and we even brought in a professional search firm that specializes in grassroots organizations like ours to make sure that we have a strong, and also diverse, set of candidates.

You say that you're leaving now after having some important wins. When you look back over the past seven years, what stands out as Riders Alliance's biggest accomplishments?

Recently, I think two of the more significant points of progress have been one, in last year's (New York) City budget, winning New York's first ever Fair Fares program. And that's not something we did alone, of course, it was a broad coalition that we and Community Service Society led together. The Fair Fares program is now being phased in, (and) when it's fully operational, it will help hundreds of thousands of people gain access to public transportation, and consequently, gain access to more job opportunities, and to participation in the life of the city.

And what's the second big point of progress?

To fix the subway, we will need billions of dollars, and we worked on winning that money. The passage of congestion pricing in the state budget this year, as well as a couple of other revenue sources, will go a long way toward helping the MTA modernize the transit system and make it reliable.

One of the campaigns the organization is well-known for is #CuomosMTA, a hashtag putting pressure on the governor to take control of the MTA. How did that come about?

That's actually a very telling moment, because most of the good ideas that have come from the Riders Alliance have been ideas generated by our grassroots members. And that includes #CuomosMTA, that includes the cardboard cutout Cuomo that we used some years ago, when the governor would not respond to our invitation to ride the subway with us at rush hour. We took a cardboard cutout of the governor instead. 

Both those campaigns were built on the power of social media – a tool that was present in 2012 but maybe not as ubiquitous in the political sphere as it is today. How has that changed the work of advocacy for you?

The fundamental work stays the same, because, fundamentally, community organizing and successful advocacy is about winning accountability. That said, I think you're absolutely right. The advent of social media really has changed a lot of the day-to-day work of policy advocacy. And, just as one case in point: it was only this past year in 2018, that the Riders Alliance hired our first ever digital organizer, someone who focuses on running social media, and going beyond social media to other digital forms of engaging people. We now have a kind of text-to-action program, where people can sign up for Riders Alliance text message alerts. None of that was part of our plan when we started in 2012.

How would you rate Cuomo's performance in taking control of the MTA today?

It changes month by month, and it changes year by year. The issue of the governor not being fully accountable for the transit system long predated Gov. Cuomo. And the challenge of holding the governor accountable will outlast Gov. Cuomo. But, that said, in politics, if something is not a personal problem for somebody, it is not a problem that gets resolved. Community Organizing 101: if the governor can solve the problem and he's not doing it, you need to focus attention on the governor. 

So for this month or this year, then, how would you rate Cuomo's attempts to solve the MTA's problems?

The governor passing congestion pricing and other revenue sources is an extraordinary moment of leadership that we hadn't seen on public transit at the state level in many years. And the governor deserves credit for taking the lead in bringing the Legislature together, and for passing a multi-billion dollar financing plan for the MTA as part of the state budget. Now the governor has a new challenge, which is to take that money and make sure that it's used to fulfill the promises that were made about modernizing the transit system and making it reliable.

Some would argue that Cuomo may have overstepped his authority on certain MTA issues, like his move to cancel the full shutdown of the L train earlier this year.

To succeed at running the MTA, the governor has to play an active enough role that he is overseeing the agency and taking charge, but also play a supportive enough role that he can attract and retain top talent to do day-to-day management. I think that the governor has to be careful when he gets too into the weeds, because the governor of the state is not always in the best position to make technical decisions about what's best for transit and also because, in the long term, success of public transit will rely on bringing in top people, like (New York City Transit President) Andy Byford and (MTA Chair) Pat Foye, and making sure they have the tools they need to do their job – including some independence.

There are some worries that the proposed plans to restructure the MTA will take independence away from division heads like Byford, affecting his ability to implement the Fast Forward program. What do you make of the restructuring recommendations?

The reorganization plan should not be about any one governor or any one public transit leader. We need to organize the MTA in a way that's going to work for the long term, when Gov. Cuomo is out of office, and for many years in the future, no matter how long Andy Byford stays. I think a lot of the attention to the governor-versus-Byford power dynamic is a little bit of a red herring. I will say, I think part of the question is about what will provide the best service. The other part of the question is about what will allow the MTA to attract and retain top talent, of which Andy Byford is an example. Putting aside the question of whether Andy Byford will stay or for how long, we need for the MTA's leaders to have enough autonomy, and enough support, that we can bring in the best people to get the job done.

Do you think that the governor is sending the message that he wants transit officials to have independence and autonomy?

The governor's attention to transit can be a double-edged sword. It is absolutely necessary when we need to pass things that only the governor can do, like congestion pricing. But the governor needs to be careful to respect the people he's brought in to run the MTA, and also the tens of thousands of employees at the MTA, most of whom are performing their jobs professionally and admirably, and need the support of their ultimate boss, which is the governor.

What will be the next issues for transit advocates to tackle?

Most immediately, the challenge facing public transit riders is making sure that all of our elected leaders from the governor on down actually keep the promises that they've made to us in recent years. At the state level, that includes modernizing the MTA and fully rolling out congestion pricing in a way that is robust and fair, and really produces the level of revenue that was promised. At the city level, that means rolling out the Fair Fares program on time and comprehensively, and also following through on some commitments that the mayor has made to improve bus service by installing more bus lanes more quickly and other changes in the streetscape that will be beneficial to public transit.

Will you still be working on these transit issues after leaving Riders Alliance? 

I don't know the answer to that question yet. I want to go step by step. The first step was to make the decision and get the process in motion for setting the Riders Alliance up to succeed. I believe very deeply in the vital role of nonprofit organizations in winning democratic accountability and good public policy. There are many opportunities to find a job doing that.

So you are interested in other issues besides transit?

Absolutely. Public transit is important, and it's important not just because of the nuts and bolts of operating a good subway and bus system, but because of what public transit does for the city. The reason that we're working on public transit is not because we're engineers who want to make the system run well. It's because public transit, when done successfully, means access to jobs and economic opportunity, and it means the city can grow sustainably and help protect the planet. And it means that the city is able to be a more fair and inclusive place that lives up to our values. People think that the Riders Alliance is a transit organization – and that is true – but at heart, we are a democracy organization. 

What does that mean?

The core of our work is about bringing accountability to our elected leaders, to make sure that the decisions they're making are really in the best service of their constituents who elect them. 

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.