Let Them Eat Bus Fumes

03.01.2004 | BOOKS

Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism & New Routes to Equity
Edited by Robert D. Bullard, Glenn S. Johnson and Angel O. Torres.
South End Press, 244 pages, $18

I count myself, reluctantly, as an enemy of the train. I say this not because I dislike trains; I actually like them quite a bit. I consider myself a city person, and there is something distinctly urban about the clatter of a trolley as it rolls through a neighborhood, the explosion of sound and light as a subway bursts from a tunnel and the catalog of possibilities exposed when an elevated streetcar rolls past row after row of second-story windows, each one containing the story of a life being made or ruined in the city. Given a choice, I will ride a train.

And that's the point–I have a choice, which makes trains something of a conceit. Rail transportation is offered to people like me, who own cars, in the hope that we will choose not to drive them. When transportation agencies think about people like me–middle-class people in "knowledge-based" jobs–they think about putting us on trains. When they think about people who are less like me–the unskilled poor who don't own cars–they think about putting them on buses, if they think about them at all. This is the paradox of modern public transportation: Unless you own a car, you're not taken seriously. Like a spurned lover, it wants you most when you need it last.

Highway Robbery, the new collection of essays edited by sociologist Robert Bullard, is poorly titled. It is not directly about highways, or the disparities in financing between the car and public transportation. For the most part the book takes as a given that mass transit is underfunded, and explores instead what happens to its priorities in a world when it has too few resources and too many demands.

There have been few inventions with the impact of the automobile; a good analogy, made by UC Berkeley's Melvin Webber, might be the telephone. The more telephones there are, the more valuable they become, because the web of opportunity and information they create grows larger with every person who gets plugged in. The more valuable the phone becomes, the more devastating it is to live without one. To live without a telephone today is in many ways to exist outside of society. The world is increasingly organized around telecommunication, and not having a phone is like stepping off the planet as it starts to spin faster.

Much the same can be said about the automobile, with one exception. In the last 50 years the cost of telecommunications infrastructure has fallen even as its capacity has risen. The opposite can be said for the car. The capacity of our roads and highways is reaching its maximum, and today the costs of providing new highway infrastructure–fiscally, socially and environmentally–are too high.

The major problem associated with the telecommunication system is that some people still don't have access to it. Cars have created a more perplexing dilemma, for they cause problems both through their presence and their absence. Thus, public transportation is pulled in two separate directions. On the one hand it can be designed, through rail systems, to get people out of their cars. On the other, it can be used, through buses, to help those who don't have cars at all. The moral choice seems clear, but for cash-strapped agencies the fiscal calculus is inevitable. The bus riders, who have no options, will ride the system no matter how bad it is. In transportation jargon they are called "captive riders." The affluent, by contrast, need incentives. They get trains.

The results, chronicled well in Highway Robbery, are perverse. Clean, air-conditioned rail lines glide back and forth across metropolitan areas, carrying inbound commuters, while old and overcrowded buses ply the traffic lanes of the inner cities. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority used bus fares to subsidize rail expansion until a federal judge ordered it to stop. The Baltimore MTA spends 20 percent of its operating budget on a commuter rail service that accounts for only six percent of its riders. Bus patrons, who account for more than 70 percent of Baltimore's ridership, are allotted less than half of the operating budget.

So why don't the poor just get on the trains? The rails are not just a different mode–they are a different system. Rail services run inbound from suburbs to downtowns, while subways and light rail, particularly the newer ones, tend to crisscross dense city areas. But low-wage jobs have decentralized; manufacturing and retail work tends now to be located in the suburbs, and the transit system is ill-equipped to move people outward from cities. The suburban lawyer who steps off her train in a busy downtown station is often a moment's walk from work. But the low-income mother who rides out from the city and gets off at a suburban depot is still far from work, which might be in a highwayside office park miles away.

Which brings me to my final, heretical point. The authors in Highway Robbery recommend a program of grassroots action to move funding away from trains and back to buses. For the most part, I agree. But they leave out the most obvious solution: Give the poor cars. Public transportation will become more responsive to the needs of the poor when the poor are no longer its captives–when they can, like me, choose to drive away.

Is the car a troublesome invention? Yes. Is it oversubsidized? Yes. Should we be working to develop alternatives to our dependence on it? Definitely. But until that happens, and so long as we are still an autocentric society that demands–through punitive measures like welfare reform–that the poor get jobs and be more like "us," then we have to let them do so the same way we do, which is by getting in the car and driving to work. To expect anything less is hypocrisy, like climbing to the roof, kicking away the ladder and then asking in bewilderment why some people just can't seem to get off the ground.

So I count myself, reluctantly, as a friend of the car, because for all its problems, a car is not a conceit. It is one of the first things Americans buy and one of the last they give up. It is an item, like housing, that we go into debt to own, but that, unlike housing, loses value as we pay it off. Sacrifice like this is indicative of nothing if not desperate necessity. The car is a fundamental part of American success, and if we don't like that then we should change it. But the change will come from those who are already successful, not those left behind. The poor will like buses when we all like buses; buses will be "good enough" for them when they are good enough for us. Such is the paradox of cars: It's easier to be their enemy when you own one.

Originally published in New York Press.

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