Saving “RIPTA”: Rhode Island Youth Battle Cuts in the State’s Public Transit System

by Barbara Cervone

PROVIDENCE, RI—Across the country, local public transit systems find themselves facing a double-edged sword. Ridership is at an all time high. But city and state budgets are bleeding, forcing many local transit authorities to leave some passengers stranded.

When the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) announced in August 2008 that it faced a $10.5 million deficit and would need to eliminate routes, end bus services after 7 pm, and hike fares, a group of Providence high school students decided to stand up. As members of a newly formed “media team” at Youth In Action (YIA), an after school youth organizing program in Providence, they wanted to use media to bring public attention to “The RIPTA Crisis”—which at the time seemed to be passing below the public radar screen. They wanted to engage their peers, who like them relied on RIPTA to get to and from school, after school programs, and work. And they wanted to educate the public at large—those who, like them, depend every day on public transportation as well as Rhode Islanders who may have never ridden a city bus and view them as poor people’s wheels, beyond their concern.

With Providence in my (WKCD) backyard, I agreed to help the Youth In Action team create their media campaign. From early October through the end of December ’08, we met twice a week. We researched RIPTA and identified the key issues we would investigate and document. We interviewed stakeholders. We conducted street interviews with RIPTA riders in the Providence plaza that serves as the state’s public transportation hub. Among other questions, we asked, “How would you grade RIPTA services?” The answers ranged from “A” to “F.”  We took digital cameras and high quality tape recorders everywhere we went, then sorted through the images and audio we’d gathered to create a series of audio slideshows.

On January 2009, Youth In Action and WKCD unveiled a new website filled with the media we had created, the facts and figures we had assembled, and a call to action. Within a week, the Youth In Action media team found themselves speaking on the evening news, addressing audiences at events marking Martin Luther King’s Birthday, and gathering signatures—both online and in person—for a petition to the Rhode Island General Assembly demanding a “well-managed and well-financed public transportation.”

Our “Save RIPTA!” campaign took more time and elbow grease than we’d ever imagined. Producing high quality media is painstaking work. Shooting video or, in our case, taking photos and gathering audio commentary is the easy part; that’s where media making gets its lure! Editing and re-editing the “raw” media to form a short, compelling piece—the hard work—tests persistence, demands teamwork, and exhausts critical thinking. As one of the YIA team members said, “If this were a course, it would be the hardest one I ever took!”

The impact on the youth and the community has been substantial. “We’ve grown exponentially,” the team agreed in their final de-brief session.

 “It’s amazing to see youth take on, with such determination and intelligence, the state’s public transportation crisis,” said John Flaherty, a leader in a state alliance to reform public transit in Rhode Island.

While RIPTA’s circumstances may hold little interest for those outside the region, the work of these Providence youth deserves a look. It offers a model for how young people in other cities and towns might bring media to bear on serious issues facing their communities—and add youth voices to local policymaking and problem solving.

Click here to see “The RIPTA Crisis” website.

For more information about the project write



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