Race, Class, and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America

A Valley Metro bus drives through downtown Phoenix, Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010. Buses could be sitting idle Friday if a Phoenix bus operator and the union that covers drivers fail to reach a new contract by midnight. (AP Photo/Matt York)   (National Journal)

In 2009, Jacqueline Carr's public transit experience was limited to bus lines of the "party" variety. Then, Carr lost her talent agency gig, sold her Jetta, and charted out a route to her new job — and yoga class — on the Los Angeles city bus system.

Carr deemed this lifestyle shift so significant that she launched a blog, Snob on a Bus, to detail her experiences. When it comes to L.A. bus riders, Carr — a 20-something white woman — is a unicorn. In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color. Their annual median household income is $12,000. On her blog, Carr cataloged her "WTF moments" with the bus system's regular ridership. She critiqued the upholstery. She name-dropped her essential travel accessories — Lululemon, Blackberry, Uggs. She sported jeggings. After one late-night drunken ride, she praised a bus driver who razzed her and her friends as "a bunch of idiots."

Those idiots are a group that U.S. cities are eager to attract to public transportation — "choice" riders who don't need to take the bus, but do it anyway.  Right now, discretionary commuters like Carr make up only a quarter of Los Angeles' public transportation users. Everybody else who takes the bus does it because they have to.

Meanwhile, as "captive" commuters wait in excess of 90 minutes to get to work out of necessity, cities like L.A. are funneling serious resources toward getting people like Carr to step on board. But can a city actually successfully gentrify its bus system? Does it want to?

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Despite its car-centric layout, L.A. provides more complete, if sluggish, transportation access to the carless than any other major metropolitan area in the country. Still, a "choice" commuter like Carr has plenty of incentive to keep the Jetta. City bus travel can be slow, unreliable, inconvenient, hot, uncomfortable, and confusing (it can also be cheaper, greener, and a perfect opportunity to sit back and actually read something, or at least improve your Angry Birds skills). Many of these limitations can be alleviated with investment in larger fleets, dedicated bus lanes, streamlined transit maps, and a little air conditioning. But there's a more conceptual roadblock keeping well-to-do commuters from getting on board. "I felt like I was too good for the bus," Carr told the Los Angeles Times of the origins of her "snobbish" take. "I think there's a social understanding and a construction around that if you take the bus, you take it because you don't have money. There's a social standard. Obviously I had bought into that."

The U.S. government has made efforts to accommodate the superior attitudes of white, upper-class commuters dating back to the dawn of public transportation in America. In 1896, the Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson that Louisiana railroads were within their rights to run "separate but equal" segregated trains so that white riders wouldn't be forced need to sit near black travelers. In 1955, black riders successfully reversed the ruling only after staging a year-long boycott of Montgomery's segregated bus system (the bus service responded by cutting routes to black neighborhoods and increasing fares for white riders by 50 percent until the courts forced it to integrate its seating). The landmark decision didn't stop the U.S. government from pursuing transportation solutions that disproportionately favored wealthier, whiter travelers. Soon, heavy federal investment in the U.S. highway system had allowed upwardly mobile commuters to flee the cities for the suburbs entirely, leaving lower-income minority residents moored, carless, in the inner city.

Fifty years of urban gentrification and suburban integration later, Manhattan Institute data suggests that the all-white American neighborhood is "effectively extinct." But U.S. transportation systems have not been marching toward racial integration — quite the opposite. According to the research of Mark Garrett and Brian Taylor, minorities accounted for 21 percent of bus riders in 1977. By 1995, that number had jumped to 69 percent. In that time, the proportion of minority car drivers rose just 8 percent.

As minority bus ridership rises, the racial stigma against the transportation form compounds. When Atlanta launched its Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) system in the 1970s, some hissed that the acronym stood for "Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta." Today, though 78 percent of MARTA riders are black, many black residents still struggle to access the city bus lines, which fail to stretch deep enough into the sprawling black suburbs. (One critic has characterized the lingering problem as "transportation apartheid"). And the racial stigma against buses lingers even in lines that have not yet been built and boarded. When a new bus route was charted through a white Tempe, Arizona, neighborhood a few years ago, neighbors complained that the line would attract serial killers and child rapists. Also: "bums," "drunks," and "Mexicans," who the commentators feared would soon be "drinking out of our water hoses."

The ramifications of this stigma stretch far beyond NIMBY name-calling. Localities have responded by pouring funds into more gentrifiable transit systems at the expense of the city bus — even if ridership on subways and light rails represents a relatively boutique market. In 1995, activists in Los Angeles formed the Bus Riders Union to fight the city's massive investment in its rail system, which they claimed violated the civil rights of the city's minority residents. Though buses are cheaper, easier to implement, more flexible, and practically serve a greater diversity of riders than rail, the city had allocated 70 percent of its transportation budget to what amounted to just 6 percent of the system's (disproportionately white) travelers. Despite some legal victories, the union continues to protest the city's lopsided investment in its rail dreams, which now include a federally-backed "subway to the sea" to connect downtown to Santa Monica in the next decade. Over the past four years, the city has also cut bus service by 7 percent and bumped transit fares by 44 percent.

Rising gas prices and unemployment rates have naturally squeezed some more privileged commuters like Carr onto public transit: In 2008, nationwide public transportation ridership hit its highest levels since 1957. In Los Angeles, rail trips spiked. Bus ridership fell. Overall, the strategy didn't add up — on the whole, public transportation numbers in the city dipped.

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Can a city build a less stigmatized bus? After all, the racial and class bias attached to city buses has little to do with the vehicle itself and everything to do with the riders on it. Garrett and Taylor note that though "bus ridership declines with rising income, the use of streetcars, subways, and commuter railroads tends to increase with higher income." As the blog Seattlest put it in 2006: "If the actual goal is to get people out of their cars and onto transit by choice, no one's going to give up the hybrid for a damn bus." But it was not always this way. When public buses were first introduced in Washington, D.C. in the early 1900s, many riders viewed them as a more comfortable, "modern" alternative to the existing streetcar system. By the 1960s, the city's streetcar lines were abandoned and dismantled. In 2009, D.C. began laying track for a new line of (exorbitantly expensive) streetcars, including along some "blighted" corridors of the city, all of them already served by city buses. The plan was targeted less at getting commuters where they needed to go and more at coaxing them to move in this "new," exciting way — maybe even to parts of town they previously avoided.

Choice commuters want a transit solution that seems modern, even if it's actually old school. Really, they want a transportation choice that feels made for people just like them. And there's no reason — as Salon's Will Doig has argued — that buses can't achieve a similar reversal as the revitalized streetcar. In major cities from Colombia to China, Doig says, the bus has risen to become "a form of what people see as upper-class transit." In Mexico City, "the [Bus Rapid Transit] system has come to be seen as the upper-class form of transit because it's perceived as safer and cleaner" than the subway. As Doig notes, making buses that beat the subway often means making them act more like trains — streamlining routes and limiting stops; making bus and train routes appear more equivalent on transit maps; renaming bus lines after colors instead of numbers; cordoning off dedicated bus lanes to avoid traffic congestion.

While some of these improvements are practical, overcoming the stigma is also a matter of gimmickry that doesn't help anyone get to work any faster. In the United States, the DOT has noted that bus rapid transit systems can benefit from "an articulated brand identity" that helps improve "the image that choice riders have of transit." Newer bus lines targeted at choice commuters are often painted in bright, contrasting colors with the city's existing buses. These new bells and whistles don't come cheap, and discretionary commuters aren't eager to finance the cost — remember, they don't have to be there. Meanwhile, existing bus commuters are left with no choice but to accept fare increases, even if their buses aren't getting any better — actually, even if they're getting worse.

What is the point of public transportation? Is it a social service to help those most in need? Or is it an environmental initiative to get drivers out of their cars? And can it ever be both? "Unlike any other public transit around town," reads the advertising copy for the DC Circulator, a fleet of cherry-red buses that run on five limited routes, arrive every ten minutes, cost a buck a ride, and have successfully courted the most elusive bus demographic — 60 percent of Circulator riders hold college or graduate degrees, and 18 percent bring in over $80,000 a year. But it appears to have attracted these new riders without losing sight of the city's captive riders. Thirty-four percent of Circulator riders are black, and 44 percent make under $40,000 a year. After several years of operation, the Circulator finally cut some lines around the Smithsonian and Convention Center and expanded its service to some predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. A train could not be so easily diverted.