The Self-Help Solution

The City of Chicago has cut bus service throughout the city, leaving many neighborhoods without accessible transit to other parts of the city. More than nine express routes and over 1,000 transit jobs have been slashed. So what do to about it? A resourceful group of Chicagoans is exploring the creation of a worker self-managed, community-controlled transit cooperative to provide bus service along the 31st Street corridor, one of the areas affected by city cutbacks.

This news comes from the blog of the Chicago I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World), which, working with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), believes that laid-off bus operators and mechanics could band together to provide "a better service, owned by those who operate it, with union-scale wages and benefits, for less cost" than the service that the city once provided.

The planners believe they could charge only $1.50 a ride as opposed to the CTA fares of $2.00 to $2.25, and could pay union-scale wages of $20 an hour. They also calculate that they could become financially viable even with a ridership half the size of the one that previously existed before the CTA cut bus service. Much of the savings would come by operating at 75% of the overhead costs that were otherwise borne by the CTA. In other words, fewer middle managers and bureaucratic costs.

The group hopes to raise $40,000 to $60,000 to buy some buses, so that labor will be the primary expense. Their plan involves community investment, donations, and partnerships with schools and businesses. It is also looking to the laid-off bus operators and mechanics as a pool of potential employees, who would be chosen through a lottery system to ensure fairness in deciding who can participate.

It's unclear if the I.W.W./LVEJO plan will fly. I would imagine that even a simple bus service entails all sorts of secondary expenses such as insurance, and the city surely has authority over private bus lines and jitney services, and could refuse to license the proposed bus service. Still, the proposed transit cooperative makes a good point: Why not explore more community-generated and -owned services, especially in big cities where the poorer neighborhoods tend to be the least well served? The lessons of urban farming are a good example of what a neighborhood can do if its energies are properly organized. Must everything be directly run through from the downtown city government, whose budgets are so thin, in any case?

If the Little Village neighborhood is going to wait for the CTA to restore service, it could wait a long time. Chicago should welcome some creative DIY leadership in meeting public needs in cheaper, more community-responsive ways.