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.
Interesting discussion. It reminds me of some of the efforts to introduce buses into the Chicago suburbs through PACE and other organizations since at least the early 1970s. Even when introduced to heavily trafficked routes, such as shuttling commuters from train stations to other parking areas or large workplaces, the buses have had difficulty attracting riders. I suspect even when the buses are free and ultra convenient, suburbanites would tend to turn them down. Why? Two reasons, one of which Hess discusses. First, there is some sort of stigma attached to buses. Second, certain people would rather (and can) pay more for the freedom and alleged convenience that driving offers. Of course, these two issues can be intertwined. But I think this is tied to the American love of the automobile and the cultural emphasis we place on not being tied down by transportation options that seem more out of our individual control.
I do wonder where a public discussion of mass transit as a social service would go…