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

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


 (AP Photo/Matt York)

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.

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