Jewell Thompson got mad. For years she had paid a five-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax earmarked for the Chicago-area Regional Transportation Authority. She finally got a chance, early in 1981, to use the commuter trains into Chicago when she took a job with one of the country's largest rehabilitation institutes, the McGraw Medical Center. The fare was about $50 a month. Four months later it was raised to $67. In midsummer another jump brought the price of a month's rides to $105. "And that's when I said, 'Hey, this is crazy,'" she recalls.
So what can one person do? If that person is Jewell Thompson, one person can save commuters more than $200,000 and lose the RTA upwards of $500,000 month after relentless month. It's not nice to mess around with Jewell Thompson.
When the fare reached $105, Thompson and her friends started talking about car pooling, but several were pregnant and there was some question about insurance. Then Thompson looked into leasing a van. With six people who had been paying $105 each, it would have been easy, but there still would have been insurance and parking costs.
Thompson then started thinking about a bus. As youth director of her church, she had experience renting buses for field trips and knew that school buses could be had for very reasonable rates when not in use ferrying school children. She contacted several bus companies who said they would think about using a school bus to transport commuters and get back to her; but they never did. "Now they regret it," she laughs her wonderful, infectious laugh.
Finally, a company agreed to help her, and a meeting date was set. Word of mouth brought 60 people to the meeting, with enough commitments to rent two buses. At the second meeting, there were enough for four buses; by a fourth meeting, 27. "With new buses starting in other areas," she says, "there were about 140 in October, with 48 people in every bus." She figures the average monthly RTA fare for these riders was $80 so the RTA is probably out "half a million dollars" a month. "The thing just spurted," she says in wonderment.
Passengers on the private lines divide the cost of the bus by the number of passengers and end up paying from $39 to $52 a month. Some of the buses meet at shopping centers, where merchants are happy to let commuters park because they gain an inflow of people to the center twice a day. Other buses pick up passengers at apartment complexes.
"I believe in voluntarism," Thompson says. She has several masters degrees and is currently working on a doctorate in education and is a voluntary coordinator for adult education.
The bus sharing often fosters a sense of community. Bridge clubs have sprung up, and backgammon tournaments help pass the hour-long ride into the city. "Everybody knows everybody's name," says Thompson. "You don't have to worry about going to sleep on the bus and missing your stop. If you leave something on the bus, your purse or something, you know it will be there when you get back." Friday nights, with their heavier traffic, have become times for wine-and-cheese parties on the bus, and a six-month anniversary party is being planned for the commuters and their families.
Recently, when International Harvester laid off some Chicago employees, many of the bus riders found work through the job bank that has been established spontaneously by the passengers. Job openings are disseminated through the buses and sent out with the monthly Charter Chatter, the commuter newsletter. Each of the buses provided food packages to needy families during the holidays, and Thompson's own bus has adopted a zoo animal, voluntarily paying for its upkeep. Plans are developing now for a food cooperative.
Thompson named her bus-organizing group the Rational Transportation Alternative. They have T-shirts—and plans to "get the rascals" that let the original RTA get out of hand. "If I can do it for less, RTA can do it for less," exclaims Thompson. "Lots of our riders could afford RTA rates, but—it's just the principle."
Jewell Thompson, a wife and mother, explains that her activism comes from her grandmother, who took care of Jewell and four others and "believed you have to work for whatever you get." She says she is neither liberal nor conservative, but she tends to favor private solutions. "Public schools are not where it's at," she announces unquestioned, "and I resent paying taxes to bad schools and tuition to good ones."
Even Thompson, though, does not seem to grasp the inevitability of bureaucratic blight. One of the goals of the group is to gain subsidies for the private bus lines. She does not have time indefinitely to run a bus line, go to school, organize classes, be with her family, and work, so her desire to get paid staff into the picture is understandable. But like so many people faced with a problem, her reaction this time is to turn to government for help instead of getting rid of the hindrances—the chief one being that the bus companies, who would profit from providing organizational help, are prohibited by regulation from supplying those services that would relieve the volunteers who manage things now.
Still, Jewell Thompson has proved once again that humans find ingenious ways to surmount their problems if they are allowed to. "This is a classic example of what can be done," she says—"plus it's very enjoyable." What more can you ask for?
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Ringleader of a Rider Revolt".