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.
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.