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

The board members' decisions may not always reflect the needs of commuters

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

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.

  • FlamingoFresh

    I think another thing to look at is age of these board members. For example, when you just look at the US Congress it’s a bunch old out of touch baby boomers making laws and decisions that affect everyone from Millennials to Gen Z. Why do you think there’s such discrepancy in views from the people 40 and under and who is running the country (both republicans and democrats).
    I’m curious to see the age and generation that each of these board members from the transit agencies belong to and what the diversity is there too. This article from the Tribune states that Millennials are the largest age group in Cook County. How many Millenials are on these boards.
    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-met-census-bureau-cook-county-age-race-20180619-story.html

  • Kevin M

    Flamingo makes a good point about age; I do think younger people on transit boards would go a long way towards changing direction and priorities.

    I’d also argue that economic diversity is even more important than race (though that is important, too). Ultimately, though, I think the highest/first criteria that all transit board members should meet is a solid history of regular commuting experience by mass transit. I just don’t get the feeling that most of the people in charge of our transit systems actually use those same systems–whatever their race or age might be.

  • Anne A

    “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.”

    Bingo! It is also critically important to have disabled members on our transit boards. Too many decisions are made by people who obviously do not ride transit and who have very different priorities from those of many transit riders.

  • Jeremy

    In the March primary elections, millennial turnout was only 3%. Turnout of voters 54-74 was 42%. It isn’t clear whether that is for the city or Cook County.

    https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2018/03/20/illinois-primary-voter-turnout/

  • Jeremy

    I laughed when JB Pritzker claimed to ride the 151 bus. He should have made his Ventra history public to prove it.

  • planetshwoop

    Boards do complicated stuff. They award contracts, they decide upon compensation levels, offer debt to finance capital projects, etc. etc. They don’t need to ride the system to conduct these tasks. Nor is it a no-brainer that younger people would fix the systems’ problems.

    You can change the board, or you can have a more direct voice. The railroads control a lot of what happens (imho) at metra because they have the ear of the board. If there were a riders union, which were to elect members that advocate on behalf of reform, it would make a meaningful difference.

    I’m not suggesting board reform is a bad idea; I’m suggesting a more direct way for riders to push for reform than political appointments.

    The governance of the regional transit is a significant mess — too many groups, too little coordination. There’s a bigger problem to fix there.

  • CIAC

    I’ll just repost the comments I made on the Reader comment section of this article here. I’ll split them up since they’re long:

    “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 servicesince buses are often the main transit option in African-American and Latino neighborhoodsrather than expensive new rail projects. (Looking at you, O’Hare Express.)”

    As far as I know, none of the transit agencies has discussed investing in the O’Hare Express. At least not a significant amount. City leaders have made clear that if this project goes forward it will be funded entirely by private dollars and not by tax funds. That will be true both with the construction and the operation of the line. So bringing up the O’Hare Express in this context is a really odd example to use. It also, by the way, would probably be true that if there is greater diversity on the boards with respect to their opinions of whether or not environmental issues are important there would be more support for improving bus service rather than train service. That’s because, obviously, train service is more environmentally friendly than bus service. But I wouldn’t advocate for an increase in diversity so that the boards more accurately reflect the population’s political beliefs about environmental policy. And I’ve always thought that that a very strong percentage of African Americans do want increased rail service. So I don’t even buy the premise. A lot of people have been advocating for decades that the Red Line gets expanded south of 95th. Some people have argued for better service on the Metra Electric line in areas that are predominately African American. The Green Line, which has always and continues to be the line that has the highest percentage of African Americans, was rebuilt completely a couple decades ago with a lot of support from communities with large black population. There’s going to be a project to improve the north side Red Line in the next few years. Many people think that’s a good and a necessary investment. And I hope I don’t see anybody say “Oh, north side equals white people”. The ridership on the north side of the Red Line is probably about 30 to 40% minority. Many people on the South and West Side take the Red Line north (not to mention, the Purple Line to the suburbs) to jobs. And there are some neighborhoods on the north side that have a sizable black population. So I’m not sure what rail projects you think are a bad idea because they don’t serve that many African Americans. The one example you give doesn’t make any sense for the reason I said earlier. I thought you were a strong transit activist who believed in the environmental benefits of moving people around more efficiently. Rail does that a lot better than than bus travel.

    And in any case, Pace doesn’t operate a rail service and Metra doesn’t operate a bus service. So the argument that the boards should be more racially diverse so that bus service should be expanded more than rail service (if that premise made sense) only even can be applied to one of the three boards, the CTA. It is the only one that has a choice between bus and rail service. And as you say, that board already is predominately minority. I’m not sure that the RTA board is relevant at all because I don’t think it does much that’s significant.

  • CIAC

    “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.”

    That statement sounds like it belongs in the 1950s when these types of stereotypes were how females were defined. I get that Ehrman is a woman, but still. The notion that appointing women to transit boards would automatically cause greater consideration of how running errands, raising children, and working non-traditional hours affect transit really strikes me as going kind of back in time in terms of the women’s movement. And my observation is that there is, if anything, a greater percentage of commuters who are men during nonrush hours (or at least evening, overnight, and weekend hours) than there is during rush hours. I’m sure those stats are available somewhere. So I don’t think that part of the premise is accurate.

    I’m not really understanding the percentages used in the graphs discussing the demographics of population in the “CTA region” and the “Metra region”. You apparently are only counting the population of the city of Chicago in the “CTA region”. But the CTA serves several suburbs as well and attracts riders from even more suburbs. So I don’t know why only Chicago would be counted. It’s true that Chicago residents are likely to use the CTA more than the residents of even the near suburbs that are close to the CTA. But if amount of usage was the logic it certainly wasn’t applied to the statistics for the Metra region. Metra’s ridership is predominately suburban so the numbers from the city are going to skew the racial demographics when its population is counted. So both of these statistics, for different reasons, have artificially high numbers of non-whites compared with what would be the case if it was more targeted to who is directly served by the service (which doesn’t just mean ridership, it means who benefits the most by the service existing).

    ” Toronto’s Union Pearson Express, which has been cited as a model for the O’Hare route by boosters like Crains’ Joe Cahill, had dismal ridership until the fare was slashed from about U.S. $20 to roughly $9, which has required a heavy taxpayer subsidy: https://www.thestar.com/news/city_hall/201

    If that happened in Chicago, it could potentially impact funding for Chicago neighborhood transit, so representatives of communities of color should have a seat at the decision-making table.”

    None of the transit agencies, to my knowledge, even have the power to raise any taxes or provide any subsidies to this project. If taxpayer money is ever used it’s going to have to come from the state legislature or the city. So I don’t understand how the transit boards are even the “tables” in this discussion. The state legislature and the city council are very racially diverse. So if we really believe that racial diversity is a major key to good decisions about this type of stuff that’s not a problem here.

  • what_eva

    Someone at the Tribune should pick up where Hilkevitch left off 11 years ago and check the board’s ridership numbers.

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-03-05/news/0703050031_1_cta-ridership-transit-agency/2

  • CIAC

    I always thought that was a truly inexcusable article that was nothing more than yellow journalism. The entire premise of the article assumes that board members, most of whom are wealthy, were going to go out of their way to make sure they have their CTA identification cards ready and use them to save a couple bucks whenever they ride the CTA. That’s bs. And, of course, if they did do this to get tons of free rides there would probably have been an article written about how the taxpayers were paying for their transportation and how this was a horrible waste. I tend to believe what they stated in the article. They rode the CTA plenty of times but simply didn’t bother to use their cards to get free rides. For one thing, it allows them to observe the system without assuming that CTA staff know who they are and are going extra lengths to impress them. And the real thing the article found was that CTA executives, as opposed to board members, did use their identification cards numerous times. But the article focused on the negative (though I’m glad that, likely unintentionally, you linked to page 2 of the article, that gets into that rather than page 1). And people were mislead and continue to be mislead as a result of that artcle.
    Despite being before the time of social media, I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen people mention it even years after being written. Here we are again. You could tell from their comments that most people incorrectly perceived that it was talking about CTA leadership and not CTA board members. There was even an article a few years after it was written in (I believe) Chicago magazine that referenced it as if it was talking about CTA leadership when it said something to the effect of that the next CTA President was different because he “actually rides the system”. Horrible article. I never liked Hilkevitch and this was the strongest example of why I thought he was a very sub-par journalist.

  • CIAC

    I think the idea generally is that boards of directors are composed of people with experience. I don’t see a problem with it being skewed older.

  • CIAC

    ” I just don’t get the feeling that most of the people in charge of our transit systems actually use those same systems–whatever their race or age might be.”

    What’s causing you to not get that feeling? Will you explore that, if you haven’t already? One has to assume that the vast majority of board members who commute downtown daily uses the CTA every day. Just about everybody who lives in the city does, no matter what income level they are. And typically, just about everybody who commutes downtown from the suburbs uses Metra. I haven’t looked at the background of all the board members but I’d suspect that anyone who has a job located downtown uses the transit system. And by the way, the transit system isn’t solely for transit riders. It’s overall purpose is not simply to transport people. The purpose of the transit system is to move people around in the most efficiant way possible so that the economy can achieve its maximum potential. Many people have an interest, or should have an interest, in the transit system besides just transit riders. So I do not agree that everyone who isn’t a regular transit user should be shut out from serving on the boards. Their perspective is important too.

  • Jacob Wilson

    I’d be interested to know the economic status of the board members. Why is class always so absent from these discussions? The people who rely on public transit the most and have the least influence all have something in common and it has nothing to do with identity politics.

  • Tooscrapps

    “Just about everybody who lives in the city does…”
    “…just about everybody who commutes downtown from the suburbs uses Metra”

    If everyone who works downtown and lives in either the City or the suburbs uses Metra and the CTA, who is in all these cars?

  • Anne A

    Thank you!

  • Anne A

    You are assuming that board member *do* commute downtown daily. That may not be true. Many may live and work in the suburbs and NOT come downtown regularly.

    Plenty of people who live around the edges of the city use Metra, in addition to commuters to/from Ravenswood – a very heavily used station.

    The perspectives of non-transit users are a lot less important than those of transit users in making decisions about how the system should be run. Just my $0.02….

  • Carter O’Brien

    If all one uses CTA for is to take the L to go to/from the Loop in rush hour, you’ll likely have little understanding of the much larger challenge, as our hub and spoke system is widely acknowledged to be woefully insufficient for large swaths of the City.

    Case in point: Frank Krause. Yes, he took the train to the Loop as a commuter, but he never seemed to grasp the much more diverse range of user experiences wrt to the larger system. CTA needs to fix the bus bunching, and they need at least some people who understand what it’s like to rely on the bus to do everything.

  • CIAC

    “Case in point: Frank Krause. Yes, he took the train to the Loop as a commuter, but he never seemed to grasp the much more diverse range of user experiences wrt to the larger system”

    What gave you that impression?

    “CTA needs to fix the bus bunching”

    Fix bus bunching? Who would have thought of that? That’s an excellent point. How in the world could any CTA executive or board member be aware that bus bunching and delayed buses are a problem that needs to be dealt with if they don’t regularly take buses. Bus reliability certainly isn’t an issue that would come up regularly in their duties when they are running the CTA. It’s just not something that would always be off the radar screen. (That’s sarcasm, obviously)

    In every transit system with a significant amount of bus service, there is bus bunching. People have been trying to lesson this issue in, I assume, all of these systems for decades and decades. It is not easy to do. When buses travel through bus streets and a lot of people board and exit it is going to get delayed at times. That’s just reality. There is no easy way to fix that.

  • FlamingoFresh

    I do too but to a certain extent because it lacks a sort of diversity. The word “experience” is very broad and it doesn’t require a board composed completely of people with 20+ years of experience. Various ranges from 5+ can be a part of the board. By being on the board with more experienced members they can get the additional experience while offering a voice that is not represented at all. Being experienced doesn’t mean jack, especially if you’re not in touch with what’s going on. Experience is based of time and doesn’t necessarily translate to (effective) knowledge.

  • FlamingoFresh

    These complicated stuff can be learned. If you’re able to fill the board with people from all different demographics and have some of them learn about the process and business while serving I and have a separate entity oversee the contracts for the time being, I’m sure the outcome won’t be any worse than now. Don’t act like these boards are highly successful because they aren’t. The fact that most of these people are old fashioned and aren’t actively using transit is a problem. Maybe they should focus on just contracts and let the board consist of users who experience the struggles these agencies are facing.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I love how you answered your own question – what did Kruesi do to fix the bus bunching, again? Did he try anything? What are we trying now?

    “There is no easy way to fix that”

    That’s why these are people getting paid six figures, to fix the hard problems. Not to simply say “oh well, this has always been a problem so let’s just keep on doing what hasn’t been working.”

  • FlamingoFresh

    The point about members just using transit to commute to and from work during rush hour and not taking any other trips is a huge problem, I agree. One does not understand the troubles of public transit system unless it’s their main mode of transport every day. Think about using public transit to run errands (weekday and weekend), using transit while carrying groceries and items from said errands , having to meet up with a friend across the city in a transit poor area, taking transit home late at night and having to wait around for a bus and/or encountering unsafe situations while on transit. These are just a few scenarios and situations that introduces capture transit in a different light and highlight much different aspects than a rush hour commute trip on transit.

  • Cameron Puetz

    What’s needed is a diversity of usage styles. Chicago’s transit systems work pretty well for a Loop bound, able bodied, traditional commuter. The voices of off peak riders, riders with limited mobility, reverse commuters, ect. all need to be heard.

  • david vartanoff

    Economic class is more important than either ethnicity or age alone. Bluntly put, those whose discretionary income is effectively zero are not represented on any of the transit governing boards.

  • Jeremy

    Also, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for someone over 50 to learn something new from someone under 30.

  • You Know!

    Seems as though something is just plain wrong with the statement “board is even whiter”. If there is nothing wrong with that then the headline should read “transit board needs to be blacker(or browner)”.

  • TRPCLRMNTCST

    The RTA agreement of 1983 effectively segregated Chicago’s transit systems between white (metra) and minority (Cta). This is most egregious on the south side, where despite intersecting with multiple CTA Rapid Transit Lines, the Metra does not allow for a transfer. Take a look at the deteriorating platform structures at 63rd and Wallace for a view at what could have been if the white power mafia did not wrest control of public transportation from the citizenry.

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