Social Stratification in American Transit

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten anything up here. Sorry!

The idea that public transit comes with class and racial connotations in the American imagination is hardly new or surprising. That the desire to avoid “those people” has long driven aspects of US transportation policy is hardly a new suggestion; many people who drive to work cite the desire to be alone or to avoid “crowded” or “smelly” transit vehicles as driving (pun intended) their decision-making. Fights over supporting transit with class and racial overtones are common. As Cap’n Transit points out, the driver/transit rider divide is the fundamental stratification of American transportation policy–and it’s clear who’s on top.

But there’s also stratification within our transit system. And we don’t talk about it enough.

It’s been that way for a long time. I recently found this 1975 article by Paul Barrett in the Business History Review, titled “Public Policy and Private Choice: Mass Transit and the Automobile in Chicago between the Wars.” It contains a particularly striking passage about the social stratification of transit in Chicago:

But here is another reason why the status connotations of mass transit per se should not be overemphasized. Chicago’s mass transit system had long provided ample opportunity for skittish riders to choose the character of their fellow travelers. As early as the 1880s one South Side woman, complaining of the lack of “heating” straw on the floors of streetcars, observed to the Tribune that “the rich have their [Illinois Central commuter] trains to ride.” And early streetcar routings took class into account, as Northwest Side community leader Tomaz Deuther discovered when he asked Chicago Railways president John Roach to send cars directly down State Street from Deuther’s working class neighborhood. “You can’t mix silk stockings with picks and shovels,” Roach replied. Deuther was satisfied and marked Roach down as an honest man. As late as 1947 patrons in many districts could choose among streetcar, elevated, interurban, boulevard bus, and commuter railroad service for a trip to the CBD. Each line had its own fare structure and routing and, we may assume, its distinctive clientele. In short, the argument that aversion to class mixing helped to kill mass transportation must be considered in the context of the unique transit system each city developed for itself by means of local policy decisions.

Barrett’s point is that analysts should not assume mass transit declined in the postwar years mainly because of social mixing, since it was frequently already stratified. I think he is, to some extent, wrong–the explosion of suburbanization and sprawl in the postwar era created (indeed, was premised on) new forms of exclusion–but the point that we shouldn’t idealize the egalitarian nature of some prewar transit systems stands.

And here’s the thing: it’s still like that in a lot of places. The Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union has long been vocal that LA Metro’s expansion of the rail network prioritizes a small cadre of white riders over the system’s much more numerous bus ridership, which is heavily composed of people of color. The point that capital spending on rail expansion ignores or even hurts the majority of a transit system’s riders has a lot of validity (arguably more in non-LA contexts, actually), but also lacks significant nuance–Metro’s last biannual onboard survey found that while twice as many white people ride trains as buses, the respective percentages are only 9% and 18%.

But there are other examples. I was in Philadelphia over the weekend, and took the opportunity to ride one of the nation’s most interesting transit operations, the Norristown High Speed Line. The High Speed Line is interesting not just for its unique combination of technology, but because it parallels and complements other SEPTA routes, in particular the Regional Rail Paoli/Thorndale Line (the former Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line, which has lent its name to the corridor of wealthy suburbs along it) and the ex-Reading Norristown/Manayunk Line. Norristown, a struggling collar city, is served both by the High Speed Line and the Regional Rail route–and the social stratification of the services is clear.  As I rode the NHSL, Stephen Smith educated me about the line’s social aspects:

Because of a suspicious object under the NHSL viaduct, we ended up taking Regional Rail rather than the NHSL back to Center City. Midday, Regional Rail runs at hourly headways, while the High Speed Line runs every twenty minutes. NHSL is a premium service relative to other SEPTA rapid transit services, with a base fare of $2.75–but a Regional Rail fare from Norristown, which is in Zone 3, is $5.75, and $7.00 if purchased on the train. And the Regional Rail ticket office is only open until 12:45 weekdays, and not at all on weekends, meaning you have to pay the higher fare at those times, period.


NHSL trains and a SEPTA bus at Norristown Transit Center. Regional Rail station to the left. 


A Regional Rail train approaches Norristown Transit Center

Indeed, though diverse, the (small) crowd that ended up on our Regional Rail train was clearly better-dressed and more professional-looking than the NHSL clientele.

Indeed, what Americans call commuter rail is, arguably, a fundamentally inequitable mode reliant on social exclusion.  It’s a high-cost service whose fares are frequently unintegrated with other forms of transit and that runs only frequently enough to be useful to those who have significant flexibility in their schedule, or the privilege to define their own time management. But it has a powerful constituency that keeps it going–and just functional enough to suit their needs.

For example, there’s been a ton of talk in the Boston area about cuts to the MBTA–but, while expansion may be slowed some, there’s been little talk of cuts to commuter rail, even though it’s by far the most highly subsidized of the agency’s modes on a per-ride basis:

In a nutshell, this is why my senior paper research focuses on making commuter rail more egalitarian. The fundamental inequity of American transportation policy is the privileging of automobile use and abuse over everything else, but too much of the inegalitarian stratification that defined transit before World War II still persists. Indeed, in some ways it may have gotten worse. And that’s something planners and transit advocates need to address.







13 thoughts on “Social Stratification in American Transit

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog California

  2. Pingback: Commuter Rail and Inequality Within Transit Systems |

  3. Aren’t the MBTA commuter operations privatized and run by Keolis? Might be part of why there aren’t cuts to that service.

    incidentally I used to ride the NHSL from time to time, there’s a point where you can transfer to a bus to go to King of Prussia. There’s a project to bring the NHSL to King of Prussia but it’s probably decades away. The NHSL’s the only real survivor of the western suburbs’ once-extensive interurban network.

  4. There was a great study done years ago on the MTA in New York as a result f a lawsuit over fare increases initiated by Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign that broke down the fundamental differences in the political economy between the Transit Authority and the Commuter Rail systems (in NY that’s the LIRR and MNCR). I suggest you take a look at it when developing your thesis.

  5. The situation in LA is interesting, because the demographics of rail ridership seem to vary considerably depending on time of day, especially on the Red Line. Off peak, the demographics seem about the same a on the buses: predominantly minority. But during rush hours, white people are a much more noticeable presence, maybe even the majority. My conjecture is that this is because that is when the subway becomes faster than driving. Thus, what the BRU is actually lobbying for is a transit system so terrible that only those with no choice would use it.

    • I’ve seen this in Chicago too, though probably not to the same extent (I haven’t spent that much time in LA). The BRU has potential but seems to be focusing its energies in entirely unproductive ways.

    • Interestingly, when you look at the history of the Bus Riders Union in LA (look at the old Internet Archive pages from the Labor Community Strategy Center), they did look at the differences between commuter buses and local buses. In particular they zoomed in on the more comfortable Santa Clarita and Foothill buses in comparison to the crowded RTD ones (Metrolink was a minor factor in the mid 90’s). However, when they teamed up with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, they focused on the internal divisions between Metro Rail and Bus, exacerbated by incidents such as the cost overruns and the tunnel collapse on Hollywood Boulevard.

  6. I think your research topic is interesting and you have some great thoughts here on the challenges of subsidy, equity, and service frequency. However, I think the argument is too simple yet (obviously I realize your senior research is incomplete, and I’ll be interested to see your conclusions). First, you mention equity and the consumer price of commuter rail fares being exclusionary, yet you go on to point out the MBTA commuter rail is its second-most highly subsidized service. It would be an even higher subsidy if the fares were lowered to be more “equitable”, but I suspect lowering fares alone would not suddenly draw a more diverse crowd, much less additional riders to offset the lost revenue. As someone on StreetsBlog pointed out, there is more than one measure of equity. I would argue that commuter rail in most places is not run on a frequency to only accommodate “those who have significant flexibility in their schedule”, but rather to try to capture the peak-of-the-peak travel crowd who were working 8-5 in the city using limited resources. Those commuting patterns may be seriously declining in significance today, but there may still not be enough people willing to take transit on the fringes or off-peak to support the high operating cost of those services. I wish I could point to conclusive research on this off the top of my head, but instead I can convey my personal experience. Facing this very same question, a transit agency I was previously the planner for expanded evening and weekend service in response to requests to serve the working population who had less time flexibility and worked “second shift” or overnight. After heavy advertising directly to the people who were advocating for this, including many existing riders who only took the bus one way and found rides home, no one used the new service and it went away. This cycle has probably been repeated several times over the years. Sometimes, efforts to make transit more “equitable” fail because driving as an alternative is still exponentially more valuable, even if it’s more expensive on paper.

    Also, there may be goals that commuter rail achieves even at a high subsidy that might not be regained by reinvesting those operating dollars in other urban service. Part of the issue there is that commuter rail helps to stem continued/steeper growth in parallel highway driving commutes that won’t be solved merely by focusing on core-urban transit service. Without it (as in, the only alternative is driving), congestion on the highways around Boston would presumably be much worse, and/or many people would simply not make trips and thus miss out on economic opportunities. It’s impossible to measure what *doesn’t* happen, so we can only speculate what the real effect would be. I would also argue the T is one of the better commuter rail operators in the country in terms of off-peak service; even in LA, the commuter rail network has barely any off-peak service – a region many times the size in most measures (population, average density, mileage) from the MBTA’s service area.

    I believe it’s important to recognize the history of how modern US commuter rail systems came about from private operations, too. Part of the reason we have the service we have today is that private railroads faced regulations limiting their ability to run profitable service (argument about whether profit-driven service is the right solution is another whole topic, of course) by raising fares or cutting money-losing lines. Simultaneously, the Fed was raising money through the new gas tax to build fantastic, futuristic highways that no transit could compete against.

    So, there is absolutely still an equity and stratification problem, but it’s far more complex than simply high fares (also, high in comparison to…?) and infrequent service. And there’s no question that inequality and prejudice issues can be traced back to the beginning. I hope these thoughts give you something to consider in your efforts, and I look forward to the same opportunity when you finish your research.

    • Thanks for the thoughts. Indeed, this is a vast oversimplification of what I’ve assembled. The final product, though, is going to take some time to assemble 😉

      I think the core argument that I’m going to end up making is that the decision to run commuter rail as a basically peak-only service was hardly inevitable or “natural”; although off-peak ridership cratered after WW2 (and was in decline in most places before that), a combination of cost-cutting, government investment, and creative marketing that was never achieved could have stemmed the losses. Instead, the service changed–largely under government auspices, sadly–into an exaggerated version of what it always had been, a mode that allowed upper classes to isolate themselves from the kinds of people who rode other types of transit. Now more than ever, the chance to regain that lost round-the-clock ridership exists–but it requires unseating assumptions that have become entrenched in policy and politics for quite a while.

  7. London unified fare policy under the “zone” system in *1981*. I was surprised at how late it was, actually, given that they’d had Socialist government since 1946… but had still maintained class distinctions in the various railway and bus services.

    Just a tidbit which might be worth looking into. No US city has unified “commuter rail” and “urban subway” fare policy the way London did.

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