Queens Gazette

Charlton D’souza



Charlton D’souza is the founding president of Passengers United and has been a community organizer for over 20 years. A southeast Queens native, he is especially able to empathize with other everyday commuters and work with MTA and elected officials to improve public transportation in the New York metropolitan area.

Charlton was born in 1975 in Manhattan and raised in Queens Village, where he currently resides. In 1997, he graduated from Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School and received a full scholarship to Marymount Manhattan College in the Community Leadership Program. He later served as president of the McManus Democratic Club for two years and became the first South Asian adjunct trainer in the Manhattan Board of Elections.

Meanwhile, Charlton recognized that people of color (including himself) have been underrepresented and underserved by the region’s public transportation. For over a decade, he has petitioned the MTA to improve transit service and coverage, starting in Queens and expanding to the entire city and region. This includes attending and speaking at MTA board and committee meetings every month. In 2009, for example, he was able to save the Q110 bus route from being cut. Disappointed with other transit advocacy groups who seemed unwelcoming to his community, in 2018, he founded Passengers United to continue the fight for all transit riders on a larger scale.

“Passengers United is the leading grassroots advocacy organization in New York City and the Tri-State area for true equity, accessibility, safety, and sustainability in our public transportation. By elevating the voices of underserved and disenfranchised commuters, and, with empathy, research, proactive leadership, and coalition building, Passengers United strives to improve the quality of life for everyone,” D’souza explained. ​“Passengers United is volunteer-driven, powered by everyday New Yorkers who regularly use mass transit to live and work. The team is dedicated to making our mass transit better for everyone, putting the needs and concerns of the ridership first and foremost. Among other things, Passengers United mobilizes communities throughout the region and raises riders’ important issues with our MTA and government officials to ensure that all community members, especially those who are disenfranchised and/or in more vulnerable situations, are heard and represented. Our work has paid off in many ways, including a free bus route to LaGuardia Airport, the addition of surveillance cameras in subway cars, easier and more affordable commuter rail ticketing options, expansions of transit service, and much more.”

Charlton’s home subway stop is the last one on the F line, at 179th Street and Hillside Avenue. His favorite bus routes are the Q32, Q60, and Q88, but he relies on the Q2, Q27 and Q110 to get to/from the subway. He is also a fan of the Long Island Rail Road Hempstead Branch.

NB: Other than the amazing diversity, what do you love most about living in Queens?

CD: It’s peaceful and quiet at night when I come home at 1am in the morning, at least where I live. It has a suburban and city like atmosphere. It’s not congested like Manhattan.

NB: How did growing up in Queens inspire you?

CD: Growing up in Queens inspired me because I was exposed to diversity attending schools. It was a huge difference from the Bronx and I am glad my family moved to Queens in the 1980s.

NB: What advice do you have for readers who are hoping to create an advocacy organization?

CD: Be honest and set realistic goals that you can accomplish. Be patient, be persistent and don’t let anyone tell you what you cannot accomplish. People will laugh at you and degrade you – just ignore them. Time moves ahead and life changes for the worse or better. Read a lot of nonprofit books and always keep refreshing your skill set. Take advantage of the library and practice getting people involved in a cause. Keep motivating others. Sometimes you have a dream to change an issue like I wanted to, to run a nonprofit organization geared towards education support, but ended up focused on transportation advocacy because life goes in many directions. Always push yourself into opportunities where you can meet people and learn new skills. It took years of mistakes and I volunteered for so many different causes, but each time I learned a new skill. But you have to believe in yourself and your mission in life.

NB: What do you wish more people knew about accessibility?

CD: Not all disabilities are visible and we need to be sensitive to different types of disabilities and there is more than one solution so we need to have an open mind and work collectively as a team.

NB: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? What is something you wish you knew a decade ago?

CD: The best advice I ever got was from the book, How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I wish I knew how to create graphics, work on websites and be great at social media years ago.

NB: If you could have only one subway line to represent Queens, what would it be and why?

CD: That would be the 7 line, however I feel the R train is forgotten about and serves many communities despite being late every day. This is the worst line in terms of delays. It is annoying to wait over 20 minutes for a local R train. The R train should be extended back to 179th Street as a local with frequency of every 6 to 8 minutes during rush hour. The R train should run 24 hours a day. The F train should run express during weekdays and weekends. The Q60 bus route represents Queens because it goes through many communities and serves as a lifeline for our seniors.

NB: How do you deal with racism in general and some rejection from the MTA and other organizations?

CD: Unfortunately it’s humiliating and gets me angry. I have been berated by MTA officials in front of people after meetings. But I always tell my dedicated team that the bus, subway and commuter rail riders are depending on us to represent and advocate for them. We are leaders and cannot give up. We have to help people and inspire them to lead. There are a lot of nonprofits that are bad actors and want to degrade the grassroots local organizers and own the elected officials in this city. Many of these directors don’t attend meetings and are rarely seen but are quick to swoop in and take publicity for the work that we at Passengers United do. As far as racism, we cannot get depressed because we have been blessed with the opportunity to lead. I always remind myself that things can be worse in life and I have to put my grief aside and be the best leader I can be. My dad and my mom worked very hard in this country and did not have the same opportunities that I had. They faced a lot of discrimination, their choices were limited and they did not have the freedom or flexibility that I have.

NB: Do you have any events or projects coming up that may be of interest to our readers?

CD: I urge everyone to go to our website www.passengersunited.org and sign our change.org petitions. We need more volunteers to help to have a greater impact, but I am worried about what will happen to the Atlantic Ticket weekly $60 combined unlimited 7-day MetroCard and LIRR pass. The MTA wants to discontinue this program, but I feel that Queens commuters need this discount pilot to be extended to Penn Station, Grand Central and Hunter’s Point Ave as the new Freedom Pass. The time saving is crucial to the quality of life in Queens.

I am also worried about the Queens Bus Redesign. There are organizations that get funded by Uber and Lyft that are coming into Queens making bad suggestions talking over local organizers on the ground that could eliminate many bus routes in Queens. It’s so bad that last year bus ads were installed in many bus shelters lying to people that the bus redesigns were a good thing for Queens. I disagree. We have to fight tooth and nail to make our bus service better than it is now and we cannot settle with the MTA. We have to confront and hold our elected officials accountable. There will be no concessions to screw one neighborhood over another. We have been pushing for a new bus route from Long Island Jewish hospital that goes to Far Rockaway and makes stops through Southeast Queens for our healthcare workers. Unfortunately the elected officials and community boards are useless because many of them don’t ride public transportation. So we need to make sure that the MTA will take the passengers’ feedback with the true intention to improve bus service, and not listen to lobbyists who are giving campaign contributions via a PAC to control and steer elected officials towards a set plan; that worries me.

NB: Can you tell us more about why you became the President of Passengers United?

CD: Passengers United was created to fill an urgent void in our city. I knew that we needed an organization that was not affiliated with big corporate money. We as commuters know our local routes better than the MTA, elected officials and other organizations. Right now we are all volunteers committed to making a difference. We are the leading grassroots advocates in New York City and the Tri-State area for true equity, accessibility, safety and sustainability in our public transportation. By elevating the voices of underserved and disenfranchised commuters, and, with empathy, research, proactive leadership and coalition building, we strive to improve the quality of life for everyone.

NB: What are your favorite Queens restaurants?

CD: I don’t have a favorite restaurant because I cook at home mostly. I have to save money.

NB: Can you tell us how important daily reaching out is as an advocate?

CD: I feel that you have to get away from the iPad and computer and talk to people. When I am riding the bus or train I like to interact with as many people that I can. We get a lot of emails, and phone calls about service concerns sometimes, and I am proud to say that we work with everyone and I have learned a lot from people. We have a bond with the bus drivers, train operators, conductors and we support our first responders. As far as “Management 101,” that involves inspiring everyone around you. I have met so many wonderful and dedicated volunteers who are making a difference and that is what I am so proud of every day. Not only are we focused on advocacy, but I know that for some of our volunteers this is the first positive interaction they have had making a difference. Being the founder and President is not a glamorous job. The hours are long, I am very hungry, busy and we are always working on something.

—Nicollette Barsamian

This column was originated in July 2013 by Nicollette Barsamian.



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