Riders Alliance, turning straphangers ‘into a voting constituency’

John Raskin is leaving the Riders Alliance after a big year for the transit group.
John Raskin is leaving the Riders Alliance after a big year for the transit group. Photo Credit: Sarina Trangle

The Riders Alliance has become a staple of New York transit politics, a coalition of informed straphangers focused on subway service and the need for more bus lanes in NYC. The group has specialized in targeted transit-related actions: one classic was lugging around a cardboard cutout of Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a reminder that it’s #cuomosmta.

But the organization, founded in 2012, started with a single staffer: John Raskin, its founding executive director.

After a big legislative year for transit watchers that included the passage of a congestion-pricing scheme to help fund the mass-transit system, Raskin is leaving the group, and the spunky gadfly organization will continue on its own.

amExpress caught up with Raskin in Manhattan recently to talk about NY transit politics and the group’s future without its most public face.

Raskin, who was previously chief of staff for Brooklyn Democratic State Sen. Daniel Squadron, hasn’t disclosed his personal plans but says it’s a good time to leave because the organization is “in a strong place.”

He says it was never meant to be a platform for any one individual: “it was to build power for the transit rider in the long term.”

One aspect that differentiated the Riders Alliance from some other transit groups was its focus on turning transit riders “into a voting constituency,” says Raskin. The purpose of the MTA was originally to separate elected officials from direct responsibility for the transit system, and the authority has for decades been this sprawling behemoth that is hard to corral or even understand. In a foreshadowing of the Indivisible-esque national groups that formed after the 2016 election, Raskin used his Albany experience to try to mobilize fed-up riders, understanding which buttons a new constituency could push.

Now the group has 10 staffers and around 1,000 members who contribute monthly or participate in meetings or events, Raskin says. That base has helped nudge politicians who might otherwise more happily ignore transit issues for less complicated challenges.

The group is planning interviews for new leader candidates this fall. Next up is making sure politicians follow through on their recent MTA promises.

“Nothing is a success until it’s actually happening in real life,” says Raskin. So the group will be watching the Fair Fares program to subsidize MetroCards for those who need it, which started in phases earlier this year but hasn’t been fully implemented. Then there’s the complicated rollout of congestion pricing, and advocates want to make sure the money raised by tolling in Manhattan is used to invest well in signal and accessibility upgrades, among other improvements.

What’s next for Raskin? Despite the Riders Alliance’s growing political power and his own track record in state politics, there’s one thing the 38-year-old new father is ruling out for now.

“I can say with great confidence that I am not running for office anytime in the near future with a 10-month-old baby.”

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