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But a sharp new study also shows that plenty of others truly prefer their transit trip.

The talk of the public transit world yesterday centered on a report by Laura J. Nelson and Dan Weikel of the Los Angeles Times spotlighting a troublesome decline in local bus and rail ridership. The news shouldn’t have been a shock: dips in U.S. bus travel, very likely the result of service cuts, have been out there for all to see. But the story revived the impassioned debate about whether transit riders are really just would-be drivers who can’t afford a car.

USC’s James E. Moore II, a longtime L.A. rail critic, clearly thinks that’s the case. Via the Times:

"It's not the dream of every bus rider to arrive in a bus that was on time, air conditioned and clean, where a seat was available," said Moore of USC. "It's the dream of every bus rider to own a car. And as soon as they can afford one, that's the first purchase they'll make."

Steve Hymon of The Source, a blog overseen by the L.A. Metro, clearly doesn’t. Hymon responded that while people—and especially Angelinos—obviously enjoy the convenience of a car, that doesn’t make it the ultimate dream of everyone riding a bus:

But I seriously doubt that most people believe that we should stand pat on transit in our region because everyone loves the convenience of driving so much. Or that everyone on a bus really wants to drive.

The question of which view is more accurate isn’t so easy to answer. You could simply ask people what mode they prefer, as transportation researchers often do, but their responses might not be all that trustworthy. Public transit tends to be a strongly (if oddly) ideological issue that can lead people to mask their true thoughts. Explicitly saying you hate the bus, after all, might suggest undesirable feelings toward the social classes often associated with it.

Psychologists have an established tool for dealing with touchy matters that people have trouble discussing in the open: the Implicit Association Test. Conducted via computer, the IAT measures how quickly people associate various pictures with various words. The idea is that reaction times will be faster for pairs a person naturally believes go together (say, a picture of peanut butter with the word “jelly”) and slower for things they don’t (say, peanut butter and “Mount Rushmore”).

The IAT is typically used for teasing out hidden racial bias, but recently a group of MIT scholars used it to study how people really feel about buses and cars. The researchers showed test participants images of sedans and city buses, and paired them with words related to positive or negative social status. Again, the key to the IAT is response time: if a participant paired a sedan with the word “trendy” more quickly than he or she paired a bus with the same word, that suggests a social bias toward cars and against buses.

Using the IAT to measure bus or car bias

To see whether the IAT differed from more traditional measures of mode preference, the researchers also gave participants explicit surveys about cars, buses, and social status. Last, they gathered information about which modes participants used on a normal commuting basis.

The new work reached several striking conclusions. One was that IAT scores predicted a person’s typical commute mode, but explicit survey questions did not. In other words, how a person said they felt about buses and cars didn’t align with whether or not they used the mode to get to work, but how a person implicitly felt about buses and cars did.

A sample of IAT screens used in the MIT bus bias study. (Moody et al, 2016)

“What we found in the survey, or the traditional way you’d ask people, doesn’t have any explanatory value,” said study collaborator Joanna Moody during this year’s TRB meeting, where she presented the findings. “The fact that the way we traditionally ask people doesn’t matter for this mode choice, but the way we could be asking them does, is food for thought.”

The deeper finding was that the IAT predicted bus commuting better than it did car commuting. That means two things. First, that some of the study participants indeed secretly aligned buses with positive social status, and that these same folks typically took the bus to work. True bus lovers do exist.

But it also means the IAT is picking up some interference when it tries to link people who love cars with those who use them. In fact, the car bias-mode choice relationship was not statistically significant. What’s happening, Moody says, is that some of the study participants who secretly felt that cars have a positive social status nevertheless woke up most mornings and rode the bus.

“A few of the people with the strongest bias for cars were actually bus riders and appeared (from their other sociodemographics and survey responses) to be bus ‘captives,’” Moody, who stresses that the research is preliminary and that many of the conclusions were drawn from small data samples, tells CityLab via email. “This suggested that these people would have preferred to take a car could they afford it, and perhaps they ascribe stronger positive social status to the mode they want but cannot easily have.”

So Moore and Hyman both have a case. Sure, some people who ride the bus every day really just want a car, because it would make their lives much easier. But others really seem to love the bus they take to work every day, perhaps precisely because it frees them from the costs and stresses that come with owning a car and driving it in a congested city.

The greater lesson for a place like L.A. that’s intent on reducing car-reliance is that city residents are perfectly capable of developing strong feelings toward a bus if the service is designed right. That means increasing frequency and reliability instead of cutting operations, dedicating traffic lanes to buses instead of making them fight through general traffic, crafting grid-like networks that connect people with their jobs across an entire metro area, and helping riders feel safe. Such steps would go a long way toward making people comfortable enough to profess their love for the bus out in the open.

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