Revisiting Bus Stigma

Every day, the neoliberal consensus delivers another iteration of the split between public and private that euphemizes its ongoing project of class segregation. It’s no secret that the split extends to public transportation as well.

Photo by Carspotter/Flickr.

Every day, the neoliberal consensus delivers another iteration of the split between public and private that euphemizes its ongoing project of class segregation. Private schools for the wealthy, public schools for the poor (with, of course, charter schools for enough of the native-English-speaking, non-special-needs poor to drain funds from the regular public schools). iPads for urban professionals and hollowed-out public libraries for rural housewives. Luxury condos for the 1% and ten years in a Section 8 waiting line for the other 99.

It’s no secret that the split extends to public transportation as well. Since the 1950s, US policymakers and politicians have built highways and parking spaces on what seems like every corner of the country. Meanwhile, urban transit systems from Boston to San Francisco have suffered massive disinvestment and stigmatization despite their numerous positive externalities (notably, decreased pollution and gridlock) and increasing ridership. While subway and light-rail systems are appreciated and used by many affluent urban residents, bus systems, largely the modes of last resort for poor and underserved communities, are stigmatized by these same urbanites. Ludacris’s character in Crash, a young black man hyper-aware of societal racism, disparages buses as humiliation vehicles for the least fortunate Angeleno people of color.

Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker, in a recent article for the Atlantic Monthly, recognizes this stigmatization, and he thinks the Great Neoliberal Split is an acceptable way to come to terms with it. “Even when we’ve achieved all our sustainability goals,” Walker writes, a “city councilman can still drive his BMW everywhere, and [a] leading architecture scholar need never set foot on a bus. It doesn’t matter much what [elites] do, because there just aren’t very many of them.” If affluent people disdain bus systems, that’s fine; urban planners and policymakers should continue to design bus systems around the needs of lower-income populations. Walker, a public transit planning consultant, seems terrified of the word “class,” replacing it with the innocuous “income” whenever possible.

Leaving aside the spurious claim that the poor have different needs for a public transportation system than the wealthy (don’t we all want our transit to be clean, safe, extensive, and on time?), public transportation systems cannot function in the long term unless they are used by a majority of their possible constituents, including the poor, the working class, and Walker’s city councilmen and architects. Without the revenue earned through fares, transit systems are forced to rely on alternative and unstable sources of funding, such as high-interest credit swaps and politically vulnerable sales taxes. Urban professionals may not feel inclined to ride the bus, but ignoring that stigma will do little for the long-term viability of public transportation. The reasons that many affluent people disdain buses (they are crowded, unreliable, and subject to street traffic) have not escaped the notice of working-class riders, nor are these riders indifferent; many of them simply have no other choice.

These transit-dependent, “captive” riders, as well as their “choice” counterparts, deserve well-funded public transportation that continues to grow in infrastructure and ridership, not an Autobahn for the rich and a bus system for the poor. (Walker’s example of the German public-private transportation split is rather weak, since German public transportation is far more extensive and better funded than its American counterpart, and Germany continues to disincentivize drivers in the form of high gas taxes, many of which fund other public benefits like pensions). Underfunded systems, or ones that accept the “bus stigma” and gear themselves to (or, more accurately, against) the urban poor, are doomed to undermaintenance, struggles over government control, and resentment from wealthier taxpayers, fueling the cycle.

Like the struggles over education reform, affordable housing, and other public amenities, the disinvestment in public transportation highlights an increasing disregard for those things that allow this country to produce and function on a very basic level. Public goods like these can only function effectively if they are available to everyone. Otherwise, like welfare in the nineties, they’ll be stigmatized and gradually eliminated by the ruling class. What we need is not to ignore the stigma of buses, but to erase it by creating a public transportation system that refuses to define riders’ needs by their class background. Or we could take a page from Ludacris’s Anthony and carjack ourselves a Lincoln Navigator.