Grosvenor Metro station by Aimee Custis Photography licensed under Creative Commons.

When you live without owning a car, as I do, the concept of elected officials taking transit for a mere week as part of a challenge can seem patronizing. After all, for the 37% of us who are car-free in the Washington region, every day is a #TransitChallenge!

Taking a step back though, there’s a lot of value in asking our leaders to walk in our shoes for a week. If we want those governing our transit systems to be making informed and intelligent decisions, they need to experience them first-hand. That’s why the Action Committee for Transit (ACT) decided to host an event in June to get elected leaders out of their cars and onto the local bus and train systems instead.

We were partially inspired by a similar campaign in Ottawa, Canada. The Transit Week Challenge there was organized by environmental and social justice activists with Free Transit Ottawa, and it was a rousing success, even in the February ice and snow. Surely, we could encourage local officials to take part in our relatively mild climate.

So ACT put together a proposal and rules for the challenge: Buses, trains, and Metrorail should be used for all transportation, besides walking and bicycling.

The challenges of running a #TransitChallenge

Takoma Park Councilmember Kacy Kostiuk (Ward 3) did a trial run in March. Kostiuk, along with habitual bike-commuter and Rockville City Councilmember Mark Pierzchala, described the good (the Transit app), the bad (nonexistent sidewalks), and the ugly (no-show buses) of their commutes at ACT’s May meeting.

For those who have never considered commuting without an automobile, the barriers to transit are not trivial. There is a learning curve to navigating an unfamiliar system, plus a mindset that needs to be addressed. ACT decided to make “transit coaches” available for any elected official who needed assistance, and we also offered to crowd-source transit advice on social media by posting commute questions on our Twitter and Facebook streams.

Participants were encouraged to take photos and to post about their commuting experiences using “#TransitChallenge.” ACT board member Sanjida Rangwala previewed the challenge at the week’s start on GGWash (she’s also on GGWash’s Editorial Board), and slowly, interest started to build.

The first tweets by Andrew Friedson, Evan Glass, and Will Jawando portrayed an unpleasant Monday morning commute. The torrential rainstorms made for great stories, and really put the “challenge” into those first-timer commutes.

By mid-week, the #TransitChallenge tweets were flying fast and furious, and more media outlets started to pay attention. Regular transit users chimed in with encouragement and tips.

Our goal was to get all the get all the Montgomery County Council to take part in the challenge. Ultimately, Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Evan Glass, Will Jawando, and Hans Riemer all did, plus two Montgomery County Planning Board members, Casey Anderson and Natali Fani-Gonzalez.

ACT members shared our commutes, and also asked people we know to switch to transit for a few trips. Some politicians in other nearby jurisdictions decided to participate, such as Baltimore-based Delegate Robbyn Lewis.

GGWash contributor Bryan Barnett-Woods detailed his #TransitChallenge in Prince George’s County.

People far and wide were inspired by the challenge

By the week’s end, a variety of local publications covered the event, and Twitter users outside the region were inspired to take on similar campaigns. Groups in Denver and Australia have contacted ACT to learn how to develop their own #TransitChallenge events. Rachel Taylor’s idea for a weekly transit challenge caught a lot of attention too.

If you’re interested in learning more about the event, ACT is planning a “what they learned” panel featuring the #TransitChallenge participants later this year. Follow us on Facebook or on Twitter for the announcement and other updates.