Bus Rider Shelia Williams Brings Community Perspective to Memphis Transit Board

By Courtney Hutchison, Senior Communications Associate, Policy Link

Shelia Williams, a 38-year-old single mother of five, was putting herself through college in Memphis, Tennessee, when the city cut the only bus route that she could take to get to school.

“I almost failed my classes — it was a huge obstacle for me to complete my degree without a way to get to school,” Williams said. “Here I am attempting to get this degree so I can better support my family, and public transit in our city can’t even provide me what I need to make that life transformation.”

For the 7.5 million households in metropolitan areas without a car, public transportation is an essential bridge to opportunity. It determines where they can find work, where they can go to school, whether they can access vital things like doctors’ appointments and grocery stores. This integral link between public transit and the ability to thrive is not always an obvious one, however, especially for those who have never had to rely on these systems.

This is why having transit-dependent community members in decision-making positions for transportation is so transformative.

For Shelia Williams, who had been a founding member of the Memphis Bus Riders Union, becoming a member of the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) Board of Commissioners was a game-changer for the way her city looked at public transportation issues. After being identified by the Mayor’s Office as board candidate in 2014, in June she joined this nine-person group, which votes on MATA’s budget, routes, schedules, fares, and vendor contracts. She is the only transit-dependent member on the board.

“When you have someone who is transit-dependent and is really passionate about public transit [coming] to the table with other decisionmakers, that’s when you start to see a shift,” Williams said. By sharing her story and those of others in the community who have struggled with access to public transportation, Williams says she’s seen an important change in the way that the city addresses and prioritizes public transit.

According to data from the Brookings Institution, Memphis has over 40,000 households without access to a car, 70 percent of which are low-income households. Though 80 percent of the metro area is technically “covered” by public transit, the average carless household can reach only 26 percent of jobs in the area via a public transit commute under 90 minutes.

“The Mayor has an initiative to lower poverty in the city, but that can’t happen when people can’t get to work because the bus doesn’t travel in their area,” Williams said, citing the example of President’s Island, an area home to 200 jobs that nearly had its bus route cut last year.

Williams said that when she explained in real-life examples how important public transportation is for connecting low-income communities in Memphis to jobs and opportunity, the board had an “aha” moment. Since then, the board has created subcommittees to work specifically on the public transportation issues the community has brought to the board, and issues of those who are transit-dependent in Memphis have risen “to the top of the heap.”

“On a broad level, we need a cultural shift — there’s this sense that public transit is just for low-income working-class people, and we don’t value those citizens enough to repair or improve the transit system,” Williams said.

“That has to change — public transit should be for everyone, and we should build a public transit system we can be proud of,” she added.

As the board works to make this vision a reality, Williams says she is “humbled to be a voice for those who have not had a voice…to be effective for those who have been overlooked in the past.”

Shelia Williams