The road of a transportation activist

“It takes a village to raise a child,” the saying goes.  But I’ve learned it similarly takes a community to effect change.

 I realized the power of collective action as a student at De Anza College, where, as an intern for the Institute of Community and Civic Engagement (ICCE), I was brought into the world of social justice and progressive activism. The mission of the college to engage its students in the art of democratic practice had opened up new spaces for political experimentation on campus—in effect creating a hub for grassroots campaigning and inspiring the next generation of changemakers.

It was then in 2012 that I was introduced to Chris Lepe and his work with TRANSITion De Anza, an affiliate of TransForm, and became involved in the effort to bring the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to the South Bay. The idea of democratizing the modes and methods for how people got to work, school, home, and all the amenities in their communities deeply resonated with me.  As a full-time student, not having regular access to a car often meant turning to a public transit system in disrepair. But the pressing need to overhaul the public transportation system, particularly along the Stevens Creek corridor, came into sharper focus when I discovered the growing number of De Anza students commuting from outside Cupertino.

Fighting for Bus Rapid Transit - and social change

The combination of increased enrollment among underrepresented students from San Jose and a chronic shortage of parking spaces at De Anza had brought the campus community to a tipping point. We realized that by providing more transit options, the college could better retain students and bolster socio-economic diversity. If implemented, BRT’s delivery of more reliable, efficient, and cost-effective service and dedicated lane along the Valley Tranportation Authority's 23 bus route would mitigate the stress of sitting in traffic and the expensive financial cost of owning a car.

Calls by the student body for more transit options had only grown louder, particularly since 2011, when it adopted the Eco Pass that continues to allow enrolled De Anza students to ride VTA buses and Light Rail for free. Even as ridership on the 23 bus route has significantly increased, college administrators have proven to be unresponsive to changing transportation trends. Rather than working with the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in good faith to consider plans for building an on-site transit hub for its new growth in ridership, administrators have instead doubled down on myopic efforts to provide more vehicle parking spaces.

As a result, TRANSITion expanded its network  to include student organizations across campus and cultivated broad support for transport mobility under the banner of college access and affordability. Too often riders of public transportation feel their interests are disparate and lack political clout. After surveying, petitioning and standing with underrepresented students we facilitated an important conversation— rooted at the intersection of college success and good public transit—that went from being at the margins to front and center of the main quad.

In 2012 TRANSITion organizers, with mentoring and guidance from Chris, held a rally and called for a sit-in on the day of a Campus Facilities meeting for administrators, whereby students showed up and shared out their concerns about the lack of leadership on transit issues. Consequently, the multitude of student voices helped establish a continuing dialogue between student government and administrators, proving how inclusive governance is more conducive to good stewardship for both the natural and built environment.

My future, thanks to my past

TransForm imparted invaluable tools that helped build the capacity of a small group of students, giving us skills in power-mapping, messaging, and progressive organizing. Fundamentally, we learned how personal narratives can be important currency for forming lasting coalitions and bridging connections across seemingly insurmountable identities.

Now a transfer student at Columbia University, my experience with TransForm has allowed me to explore new interests at the intersection of transportation and public service. Currently, I’m interning at the US Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in the Office of International Programs (OIP), where I’m researching how foreign policy impacts US technology and information exchange with other foreign ministries of transport. Following this internship I plan to pursue further opportunities and studies in public policy, focusing on livable and sustainable communities. 

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.