Obsessing over trying to serve different economic classes on mass transit misses the point.

Years ago, when I was presenting my firm’s bus network redesign plan to the board of a suburban transit agency, a board member from an affluent suburb leaned slowly forward, cleared his throat, and asked me a simple question:

"So, Mr. Walker. If we adopt this plan of yours, does that mean I’m going to leave my BMW in the driveway?"

Years later, on my book tour, I was at dinner with some architects when the conversation slipped into one of those abstract rail versus bus debates. One woman, a leading architecture scholar, said: "But I simply wouldn’t ride a bus," as though that settled the matter.

Both of these people are prosperous, successful, and (if it matters) white. So both are likely to be counted as data points when people argue that there is an American "stigma" about buses, felt mostly by white and successful people, and that transit agencies need to "break through" that stigma to achieve relevance.

There is a simpler explanation. These two people are relatively elite, as are most of our decision-makers. Elected officials and leading professionals are nothing like a representative slice of the population. Many have the best of intentions and a strong commitment to sustainable urbanism, but some still make the mistake of assuming that a transit service that they personally wouldn’t ride must not be accomplishing anything important.

Elites are by definition a small minority, so it makes no sense to define a vast transit network around their personal tastes. Even when we’ve achieved all our sustainability goals, that particular city councilman can still drive his BMW everywhere, and that leading architecture scholar need never set foot on a bus. It doesn’t matter much what they do, because there just aren’t very many of them.

This, after all, is how Germany works. Germany is a world-leader in the design of expensive luxury cars, and has a network of freeways with no speed limits where you can push these cars to their ecstatic edge. But most urban travel in Germany happens on bikes, feet, or civilized and useful public transit systems in pleasant and sustainable cities. Transit’s purpose is to appeal to massive numbers of diverse riders, not chase the choosy few who would rather be on the Autobahn.

All of this came to mind in reading Amanda Hess’s recent Atlantic Cities article, "Race, Class and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America." Hess argues that the predominance of minority and low-income people on the bus is evidence of an American bus "stigma." "In Los Angeles," she writes, "92 percent of bus riders are people of color. Their annual median household income is $12,000."

The reference to race is a distraction. The service area of the Los Angeles MTA is well over 70 percent people of color. What’s more, whites are more likely to live in low-density areas with obstructed street patterns where effective bus service is impossible. So people of color in L.A. may be over 80 percent of the residents for whom the MTA can be useful, which means that the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect.

When it comes to income – or "class," as she calls it – Hess has a point. Median income among Los Angeles MTA bus riders is well below the average for its service area, as is true of most urban transit agencies.

Notice what happens, though, when you say "class" instead of "income." Income is obviously a spectrum, with families and people scattered at every point along it. But "class" sounds like a set of boxes. American discourse is full of words that describe class as a box that you’re either in or out of: poverty, the middle class, the working class, the wealthy, the top one percent. We tend to use the word "class" when we want to imply a permanent condition. You can move gradually along the spectrum of income, but you must break through fortress walls to advance in "class."

Should transit agencies define their challenge in these terms? Should they consciously try to break through some barrier to attract a new "class"? Again, people and families are scattered everywhere along the spectrum of income, each with different factors affecting their choices. Some people, for example, have huge extended families that routinely give each other rides, while some don’t. Some have commutes that transit can serve well, some don’t. And most importantly: some are proud of their cars and associate them with success, while others feel trapped into owning cars because they lack a credible alternative. The notion of "class" as a small set of boxes suppresses all of this richness, but to transit, it’s the richness that matters.

Transportation planners can fall into the same fallacy by using the terms "choice" and "captive," just as Hess does. In this orthodox binary view, the choice rider has a car in the driveway and chooses to leave it at home, while the captive rider has no alternative but to use transit. The choice rider, therefore, requires a superb service to compete with the car, while the captive rider will keep riding no matter how bad the service gets. The implication is that we’re all in one box or the other.

In fact, "choice" and "captive" are endpoints of a spectrum where most people are in the middle, just like the spectrum of income. You may have a car, but perhaps you don’t trust it, or you can’t afford the gas, or your partner needs it some of the time, or you just hate driving, or you can get to work faster on the busway. Or you don’t have a car, but you have a bike and a carshare spot, or an extended network of friends who share rides, or you’ve budgeted to take taxis everywhere. Suppose a family decides that transit is now good enough that they can sell one of their cars. The sudden relief on their family budget will be liberating, even though some binary thinkers will now call them "captives." As @GlobalTom tweeted, in response to the comment debate on my blog: "I choose not to have a car. Does that make me a choice rider or a captive one?"

North American public transit has a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to buses, but telling transit agencies that they must defeat a "stigma," or break into a new "class," amounts to telling them to despair. It implies they must uproot supposedly deep-seated feelings in people's hearts, the sort of feelings that may change en masse only with the turning of generations. More disturbingly, it tells everyone that an incurious aversion toward buses is a normal part of being a successful person.

Fortunately, the real path to successful transit is easier. Now and then a major advance, like a new rapid transit line, causes a step-change in transit's relevance, but most of the time transit improves gradually as funding permits. Usually, when transit makes a modest improvement, it gets a modest ridership gain as a result, because the change has shifted the calculus for a few people on the vast spectrum of income and situation. If everyone were stuck at the extremes of "choice" and "captive," or waiting for transit to become relevant to their "class," this outcome would be impossible. In fact, it’s routine.

Mass transit, even the indispensable bus, will continue on that path to greater relevance to the degree that citizens care about it and demand that it be funded. Right now, many people who don’t use transit are making a rational choice, based on its current usefulness and their alternatives; no stigma is needed to explain that behavior. As transit improves, and especially as other options become more expensive, decisions will continue to change, person by person, family by family, and ridership will grow as a result. At some point in that process, journalists will stop talking about a stigma. But the solution to the "stigma" or "class" problem, all along, was to refuse to define it that way.

Photo credit: Dave Newman/

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