Tri-Met Called into Question by Community Activists

OPAL has organized a Bus Riders Unite program to help low-income people who rely on public transportation system to reach doctor’s appointments and buy healthy food.

In a car dependent society, it’s easy to forget that not everyone can drive wherever they need to go.  Even in Portland, a city lauded as a leader in public transportation, not having a car can be a challenge. The lack of reliable, affordable transportation can mean less access to jobs, healthy food, social services and healthcare.

OPAL (Organizing People Activating Leaders) Environmental Justice, which organizes low-income communities and people of color to create a safe and healthy environment, understands the importance of a reliable transportation system.

"Those who are most impacted by policy decisions rarely have meaningful input in the decision making process,” said Vivian Satterfield, its associate director. “We started organizing bus riders because in the face of continuous fare hikes and service cuts, they knew their voices weren't being heard. That's why Bus Riders Unite formed: to lift up the voices of transit dependent people."

Through its Bus Riders Unite program, people are given the opportunity to bring about change. Every day organizers are out on the buses talking to riders, learning their needs, stories, perspectives and ideas.

Lupita Velazquez knows what it’s like to rely on a transit system that doesn’t meet everyone’s needs.

“Many people have trouble getting to their doctor,” Velazquez said. “One of the reasons is because the TriMet bus or Max doesn't get to those destinations. Or the bus stop is far away from their doctor, making them late to their appointment. I remember my mother and I running to my doctor appointment just to be there on time because it (the bus stop) was so far away.”

Scheduling is also problematic. “TriMet doesn't run at night,” Velazquez explained. “So those who work at night and rely on Tri-Met to take them home, can't go home because TriMet isn't running. This affects the people’s health because they can't get home to sleep, so they have to stay at work or at the bus stop waiting for a bus to arrive in the morning.”

OPAL, which won the 2014 Oregon Public Health Institute Genius Award, is creating a voice for people who are often ignored.

“When I was interning at OPAL, we made sure that everybody had an opportunity to come and be a part of the meeting and/or events,” Velazquez noted. “People with disabilities have joined OPAL and they’ve said that after joining us their voice had finally been heard.”

Initially, OPAL’s work focused on indoor and outdoor air quality and asthma concerns in communities along the I-205 freeway corridor.

"How we address mobility in our urban centers ultimately reflects our values as a community,” Satterfield said. “Transportation is much more than about buses or single occupancy vehicles. It's about access, it's about our commitment to address climate change, and it's about our willingness to confront income inequality. Without taking a holistic approach to mobility, we're continuing a disappointing legacy of shortchanging future generations."


Joanne can be reached at [email protected]

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