“White people won’t ride the bus”, if true, is racism, not a rationale for light rail. Just saying.

I’ve heard “white people just won’t ride a bus” roughly a million times during my career. It’s conventional wisdom. I also hear it used for why we need more rail investment to attract choice riders out of their cars. “White people just won’t ride the bus.”

Since when does indulging racism serve as a justification for putting billions of taxpayer money into something?

Oh, yeah, since forever if our mortgage policies are any indicator.

Some of this may be code for the belief that light rail is always better service than buses, and you won’t get choice riders without better service. I’m a lifelong transit commuter, and I could care less about what is under the vehicle. I want service that comes every 5 minutes, no vomit on the seats, reasonable reliability of arrival time, and amenities at stops. All those things can be accomplished with light rail or buses, if there is a sufficient investment in the buses. Oh, no no no, rail people tell me. Rail is better because it has dedicated ROW. Oh, baloney. As we prove over and over in LA, if your rail is interacting with traffic signals, it’s going to be slow. And there is more than one way to get your own ROW: sure, building LRT is one way. Or having the political guts to just take away two lanes of car traffic for dedicated bus service is another way. Gulling people into giving you billions for the former so you can avoid have to annoy people with the latter is good politics, but it doesn’t make for inherently better transit.

And since white people apparently don’t ride the bus, we fling our resources at rail projects for white people, since improving bus service would just make life easier for all those brown people who are dumb enough to use buses, not like those clever and discriminating white people, and when has making life easier for brown people ever been a public priority in the US? So then since buses are ghetto, and that’s just that, there’s no point in working on them. Buses are more difficult to operate well, and doing so requires more political courage (see taking lanes away for cars), and if buses do run well, people might not vote for fantasy rail systems and they won’t give us any money for transit–so there’s really nobody who is going to advocate for putting the resources you need to run buses well into buses, except for things like the Bus Riders Union and we all know what those people are like. And so, quelle surprise, buses don’t run well. But that’s ok because white people won’t take the bus.

Rail and buses (and taxis) work together to create a *system*. A system matters. Modes are just tools for systems. The Tube may be the most obvious and capital intensive of London’s transit, as is the subway in Moscow. But both those cities also have comprehensive and frequent buses and ubiquitous taxis to help people with their last mile. And there’s a whole lot of white people on those buses.

The bus *versus* rail idiocy in the US undermines our service here and transit riders, particularly people of color, suffer from the racism that has defined our approach to different modes.

If we approached investing in our wardrobe way we talk about investing in modes, this is how the conversation would go:

Man, why buy shorts when you can buy pants? Pants are a-numero-uno. With pants, your whole leg is covered, as well as your privates. It’s premium. All the way, all the time. You never have to worry about how you look in a fancy restaurant. You’re covered. Totally. In pants. They are so much better. Yeah, they cost more, but they do so much more! All the time.

But what about shorts? Shorts are inexpensive, and they also cover your privates, and they are so comfy in hot weather by the beach.

NO WAY! With shorts, you can’t do everything you can in pants. Pants are inherently better! Investing in shorts would be a waste of money, since you can always still wear your pants on the beach, but you can’t wear shorts at a country club, now can you? Can you?

But what about those places where shorts are more convenient and comfortable? Like a basketball court.

Oh, screw those places! Those places are so marginal, nobody really needs to go there. Look, pants are all the rage with classy people. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll concentrate development to direct people to go to places where their investment in fancy great pants makes sense, and get them to eschew those places where shorts might work better because we just don’t think shorts are worth investing in.

Yeah, that whole conversation is painfully stupid to listen to. But it’s the conversation about modes I’ve had to sit through for 20 years. No wonder I’m bitchy, right?

6 Comments

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6 responses to ““White people won’t ride the bus”, if true, is racism, not a rationale for light rail. Just saying.

  1. ocschwar

    ““White people won’t ride the bus”, if true, is racism, not a rationale for light rail.”

    It can be both, you know. Build something that only the marginalized will use, and you can be sure it will be subjected to malign neglect as soon as public attention wanders to other things.

    • But that’s also an unsustainable cycle over the long term if a service becomes defined with public stigma and derogation simply because marginalized people use it. The logic that something can only be “good” if white people are on it, and if white people flee at the prospect of shared service with marginalized people, then there is a permanent cycle of expending resources on customers who won’t stay if you actually serve marginalized people. We end up gold-plating certain facilities and services for less frequent users rather than boosting the entire system, and the result is much less usability for transit riders, who deserve better.

      • ocschwar

        There is no logic that says that says something can only be “good” if white people are on it. There is an empirical observation about human behavior that says it, and human behavior is as far from logic as you can get. For example, as buses decay (and that never takes long), they start to stink of diesel fumes. And the more they do, the more privileged white people like me feel inclined not to ride them, leaving them to those who don’t have affordable alternatives. And the more the ridership skews towards the marginalized, the more the bus line will be neglected by the governments responsible for funding it.

        Ergo, there’s a good case to be made for not falling into that spiral to begin with.

  2. Ok, but buses don’t have to smell of diesel fuel–there are plenty of alternatives to that. (Where I live there are no diesel buses on the road at all, and none of them stink. So here’s where we get into the problem that bus service quality is perceived to low: is it inherently low because it’s just an inferior service (the rail advocates’ argument), or it is low because we refuse to do the work we need to in order to maintain bus services because we think it’s only for poor people (and then it does, in fact, become only for poor people because it’s not getting maintained) and the majority of the public want trains. I understand your argument about the spiral, but I’m less willing to sign off on the cycle as a reason to gold-plate a geographically limited set of services rather than put up my dukes and demand the whole set of modes work in the name of broader geographic converge and service frequency.

    Here’s why: we have limited service areas for trolleys, light rail, and commuter trains. Even though Americans love to talk about population densities, building it is a rough endeavor. So if bus service is poor quality, we only serve the limited number of people who live right in the immediate service areas for rail because people will be unwillingly to transfer. In places where buses aren’t second-class services (and are arriving frequently), transfers are less of a big deal, and you can capture and serve riders much farther from rail stations vis-a-vis density limits around stations than if you allow your bus services to go to pot while emphasizing your rail capital improvements. So if bus service qualities were high enough to actually accommodate fussy or ‘privileged’ passengers, it can extend the geographic reach of investments in rail. But I don’t think you can get there by treating one mode as first class and letting the other one become a service of last resort.

  3. I loved the bus system when I lived in Chile. There was a stop half a block from my house and I never waited more than five or ten minutes. It cost almost nothing – about a quarter, I htink, even on a Peace Corps stipend. Sure, it got crowded, but I could read when I was on the bus, I didn’t have to look for parking, and I wasn’t paying $1500 in car repairs once a year, $600 in insurance, and $100 a month in gas.

    But to ride the bus here – I would be waiting about 40 minutes, unless I timed it just right. I still wouldn’t get where I wanted to go – I’d have to transfer, and it would cost me $2.25 a ticket. (Although there is a weekly pass for $17.50.) Still, the money is not the big issue – it’s that it would take me so long to get anywhere! I would love a system like I got to use in Chile. I hate driving. But I hate waiting even more.

  4. Jimmy Stroup

    This insistent need to capture “choice riders” is perilous to the overall transportation system “captive riders” depend upon. You’re entirely right, but I think a few things even more complicated work into this issue beyond simple racism (and I would more accurately call it class-based inequality, because these “choice” riders are middle-class and up…that they also tend to be white is a separate issue, I think). L.A. has an international complex it’s attempting to satisfy with rail projects. Since the municipal takeover of rail in the 1950s, transit has existed in part to show the whole world how great L.A. is, and how cosmopolitan and worldly. In that vein, L.A. must have rail because, of course, all the great cities in Europe and even new York have super neat-o trains. Never mind that most of those European cities were formed in an era dependent upon walking or horses as the primary means of transportation, so their cities tend to be denser, making rail a smarter system for the compact developed region. New York is geographically desirable for rail–just a sliver of an island and a few lines get over the Hudson or the East River–but where the land spreads out, what’s their primary transit in the boroughs? Buses. If you look at the Los Angeles Basin…it’s pretty spread out. A thin network of trains is a poor substitute for a vast network of buses. California High Speed Rail? Same impulse. Except it won’t even be high speed. Just another slow train to San Francisco. Like one we have now. So we’ll have two.

    The cost of rail versus the cost of bus service is disgusting. The original segment of the Gold Line cost $859 million to build nearly 14 miles of track. The Orange Line through the Valley cost $324 million to build 14 miles of dedicated busway. And ridership on the Orange Line blew the Gold Line away: 31,787 daily boardings to 21,000 (on the original leg of the Gold Line…the ridership has jumped to 42,000 with the Eastside Extension–for another $900 million to add 6 miles through Boyle Heights). Let’s do some math. That’s a public subsidy of $38 per boarding for a year (not counting weekends) to build the Orange Line. The public subsidy to build the Gold Line was $154 per boarding for a year…the Eastside Extension increased that cost to $157 per boarding for a year. Now, absolutely, the continuing costs for bus v. rail are largely similar. Both work out to a basic subsidy of $2.50-2.60 per boarding per year. But the construction costs! And, as you mention, ROW for light rail ruins street traffic–and many segments must be traveled slowly because they are dangerously close to housing and the risk of hitting people increases dramatically. While buses might be traveling in the same traffic congestion as cars, at least they aren’t increasing the problem with their traffic-inducing ROW stops. The Orange Line works WITH traffic, increasing the transit speed for everyone through the Valley.

    It’s good to see someone in planning education thinking about the diverse issues affecting planning choices to provide rail transportation. And, as you say, it’s largely political because shiny trains can get voter and federal funding where not-as-shiny buses can’t. It’s really sad that everyone is so impressed with a 19th century technology when a 20th century technology is so much more apt to Los Angeles’ urban setting.