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Why the Regional Transit Boards Skew White and Male, and Why That Matters

A Metra board meeting in 2014. Photo: Sun-Times

This piece previously ran in the Chicago Reader.

The boards of directors for the Chicago area's four transit agencies—the CTA, Metra, Pace, and the Regional Transportation Authority—make decisions about policy, fares, service, and senior leadership that affect all of us who ride public transportation. But in general the members of the boards don't reflect the diverse demographics of the region.

Three of the four boards skew much whiter than the populations they serve, and all of the rosters are overwhelmingly male. Local transit advocates and politicians say that's a problem, because when the folks who make choices about buses and trains aren't representative of the people who ride them, their priorities may not always reflect customers' real-life needs.

Transit leadership that isn't diverse is a nationwide issue, as highlighted by a recent blog post by Julia Ehrman of the TransitCenter foundation (a former Streetsblog Chicago funder). Ehrman compared boards in Atlanta, Boston, and Portland, Oregon, to the demographics of their service areas and customers and found that in most cases people of color and women were significantly underrepresented.

Why does this matter? Ehrman argues that if there were more people of color at decision-making tables, there might be more support for investing in better bus service—since buses are often the main transit option in African-American and Latino neighborhoods—rather than expensive new rail projects. (Looking at you, O'Hare Express.) Having a more diverse group of directors could also add perspective to discussions of transit policing strategies, which could help prevent any unfair targeting of minorities.

Ehrman adds that additional female representation might result in more focus on the needs of workers who commute during nonrush hours or use transit for multileg trips, such as running errands or picking up children, which is facilitated by free transfers. Women directors may also be more attuned to concerns about personal safety, which could result in more attention paid to lighting and visibility at bus stops and train stations. "Personal experience is not the only path to empathy," Ehrman wrote. "However, transit policy should be based on facts about rider experience and needs."

Graphic: Steven Vance
Graphic: Steven Vance
Graphic: Steven Vance

Ehrman's article inspired me to check in with our local transit agencies to see how we measure up. It turns out that people of color are well represented on the CTA board—of the six current directors, three are African-American (including board president Terry Peterson), two are Latino, and one is white. That means 83 percent of the directors are people of color, for a system where about 72 percent of riders are people of color, in a city that's roughly 68 percent black, Latino, and Asian.

In contrast, the 16-member board of the RTA, which oversees funding for the other three agencies, has six directors of color, including four African-Americans, one Latino, and one Asian-American. That's only 37 percent representation for a service area that consists of the entire Chicago metropolitan area, which is 47 percent people of color.

The Metra and Pace boards skew even more heavily Caucasian. All ten of the Metra commuter rail system's directors are white except for vice chairman Romayne Browne, who's African American. (In fairness, Metra ridership is 73 percent white, according to a recent customer survey.) The Pace suburban bus network's 13-member board is even whiter, at 92 percent, with Terry Wells, who's black, as its sole director of color.

When it comes to gender, all four boards are largely boys' clubs. The CTA board is 83 percent male. Eight out of ten RTA directors are men. The Metra board is also 80 percent male (the survey found that 52 percent of passengers are women). And 85 percent of the Pace directors are men (a recent questionnaire found that ridership is 51 percent female).

Some agency spokespeople acknowledged that the lack of racial and/or gender representation is an issue but noted that, since the directors are mostly appointed by politicians, there's not much the agencies themselves can do about it.

"This is a diverse region, and all of the agencies' boards should reflect the region as proportionately as possible," said RTA rep Susan Massel. She referred me to the transportation authority's Title VI program document, which provides demographic info that indicates that the RTA board is whiter than it should be. "The RTA does not control the appointment of its board of directors and, consequently, cannot affect the participation of minorities on the Board," the document states.

The mayor of Chicago appoints five RTA directors, the Cook County Board chooses another five, and the heads of Will, DuPage, Kane, McHenry, and Lake Counties select the remaining five. The chairman of the RTA board is appointed by the other RTA directors.

Likewise, when I asked Metra spokesman Michael Gillis about the diversity issue, he responded by explaining how the board is appointed. Cook County Board members choose five Metra representatives, and the leaders of the five collar counties each get to choose one director (the Will County seat is currently unfilled). The Chicago mayor only gets to pick one director, and this lack of political control is likely a factor in why Rahm Emanuel has shown minimal interest in investing city money in Metra station rehabs.

In contrast, Emanuel gets to choose four of the seven CTA directors (one seat is currently inactive), as well as the CTA president. The governor of Illinois appoints the remaining three.

Pace spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said diversity of leadership is important, adding, "We appreciate the attention being paid to this matter." However, she noted that by law the Pace board is made up of former suburban mayors and managers, plus the commissioner of Chicago's Office for People with Disabilities. The Cook County board's suburban members appoint six Pace directors, the collar counties pick five, and the leaders of all six county boards select the Pace board chairman. "Any steps [to increase diversity] would need to be taken by the county boards or the state as Pace does not take part in the selection process," Daly Skogsbakken said.

Several transit advocates and elected officials agree the status quo needs to change. "Diverse and inclusive leadership should be a priority for our transit boards," said Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke via e-mail. "We encourage the agencies and the elected officials responsible for appointing the board membership to take action to make their leadership more representative of Chicagoland's diversity."

Former CTA board member Jacky Grimshaw, now with the Center for Neighborhood Technology sustainability think tank, blamed the nondiverse boards on county officials. "They appoint folks who look like them," she said."If they do not understand and are not committed to diversity and inclusion, then members of the community may have to advocate for change."

Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle's spokesman, Frank Shuftan, said Preckwinkle "believes governance of the transit system should reflect the demographic composition of Cook County and the ridership served by the various agencies." He added that both of Preckwinkle's appointees to the RTA and Metra boards—Michael Lewis and Romayne Brown, respectively, are African-American, and Brown is a woman—reflects that philosophy.

I reached out to a dozen or so other county board leaders and commissioners from all six local counties to ask them if they feel the current transit board demographics represent a problem that needs to be addressed and, if so, how. None of them provided statements by press time. Pace chairman Richard Kwasneski didn't respond, and Metra chair Norman Carlson declined to comment.

However, 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Muñoz, whose district includes parts of Little Village, called the lack of diversity on the transit boards "a huge problem."

"These transit agencies don't have the perspective of working moms of color because it's a bunch of stuffed shirts making the decisions," he said.

Muñoz said that he brought the issue to Emanuel's attention after the mayor was first elected in 2011. "Rahm assured me that he would address this and, to his credit, he has diversified the CTA with his appointments," Muñoz said.

But since most of the directors are chosen by suburban county officials, Muñoz isn't sure things will change anytime soon. "Short of a legislative mandate [for diversity], there's nothing that can be done about this," Muñoz said, adding that Governor Bruce Rauner would be unlikely to get behind such a state law.

Still, with a gubernatorial and other elections coming up in the fall, there could be a new hope for transit leadership that looks more like the people on a typical bus or rail car and less like the membership of a country club.

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