Thursday, January 24, 2013

Moving from Subaltern to Sustainable Transportation

Yesterday this 2011 post from Thought Catalog about tips for riding transit in LA, by a woman who is a longtime bus rider, made the rounds in my corner of the internet. As I have noted lots of times on this blog, most recently here, I'm not a fan of the notion that using transit in LA is for disgusting losers, so I appreciate finding positive writing on the subject. At the same time, it is an undeniable fact that for many years our culture, and the public policy our cultural beliefs shape, has treated transit users like worthless criminals who don't deserve quality service. Advocates like me are trying to transform how Americans think of riding transit, walking, and biking, but that doesn't mean we can erase that history.

Down in the responses, I found this comment by a guest user: 
[Y]our perspective of L.A. buses may be valid but it's a very privileged point of view. youre white.. you got your ipad and charmed sense of self. My family didnt have a car for my entire childhood and being able to drive instilled a sense of pride for me and my family. It sounds superficial, but when you grow  up in a working-class, immigrant household, being in charge of you and your family's mobility means something. My parents are undocumented but I was there anchor baby. I grew up in L.A. and almost all my friends grew up taking the bus.. it was always shitty.. you were not growing up here in the 90's, buses were dangerous back then. Before you go on thinking you know everything about L.A. and its people.. take a step back from your ipad and learn to be more sensitive to the fact that some people on that bus want nothing more than to be the "trapped" people with a car.   
Rarely do I see so explicit a condemnation of privileged people using sustainable transportation. I'm not a mind reader, so I don't know this poster's motivations. But to me, this comment illustrates a tension I have witnessed many times, explicitly or implicitly, as I've studied bicycling in U.S. cities. It's the reason I stopped riding the bus as soon as I could when I got my driver's license at 17. When you've been the person standing at the bus stop for hours while people drive by in their cars, when you've had someone try to rob you when you got off the train, when you've been riding on the same bus as someone who smelled so bad that another stranger started yelling about it, when you're someone whose skin color or accent or clothing means you're going to be judged by strangers, you know the nasty truth about our disinvestment in public spaces and transportation in the U.S. Riding buses for many years has been a punishment for those in poverty, a further reminder that if you don't make much money, you don't deserve a good quality of life. That's something that stays out of the picture in a lot of sustainable transportation marketing.

The new, positive image of bicycling and public transportation at Union Station in Los Angeles
In the Thought Catalog piece, the writer seemed to be trying to frame riding transit as a rational choice; driving in LA is very stressful, so it makes sense to use the extensive network of buses and trains. I know a lot of people who use this kind of justification for going carfree. I wonder if this only strengthens the image of sustainable transportation as a symbol of privilege. So what am I saying, that everyone should drive because some people couldn't afford to for a long time and that reinforced their social marginalization? Not at all! Driving may be a status symbol, but that road leads off a cliff.

Rather, I think that robust sustainable transportation promotion projects should acknowledge the fact that our transportation systems and histories reflect our social inequalities. Trying to leapfrog over that legacy might be interpreted as just another attempt to impose an outsider's definition on someone's reality. The bus isn't scary, it's easy to use! Biking isn't a transport mode of last resort, it's a great way to exercise! To me, ecological sustainability means recognizing our interdependence. That means we need to build new definitions of sustainable transportation together.


  1. I think the commenter is saying, "Hey, don't (implicitly or otherwise) criticize or look down on my choices."

    It's something we're going to hear a lot as suburbs are increasingly the homes of immigrant communities and people that can't afford to live in increasingly expensive inner-city neighborhoods. "Don't tell me about your car-free lifestyle; where I live there's no weekend bus service and no way I can do this all on my bike."

    Call it disinvestment or whatever you like -- much of Pugetopolis would have to be radically rebuilt to support sustainable transportation (this applies equally to Greater LA or Chicagoland, where I'm from). It's desperately important that we find ways to repurpose and rebuild infrastructure, and at the same time that we don't look down on anyone when a basic map of housing units shows that most people today don't have practical sustainable transportation options (and many live in places that local transit can't possibly serve efficiently).

  2. This is a conundrum that shows up often in discussions of public transit (or what one auto-oriented writer called "collective transit"): The "transit-dependent" vs. the "choice riders". There used to be a transit-rider blog that posted the percentage of LA Metro employees who actually used "the sponsor's product" and it was somewhere in the mid-single-digits, and they get free passes. Then we have the so-called Bus Riders Union, who decry investment in rail transit, but use the LA subway to get to Metro board meetings. On the other hand, there are the rail enthusiasts who think trains are great, but that "Buses are for poor people" even though both modes do the same job of moving large numbers of passengers. Another comment painted a picture of an immigrant worker who bicycles between two ill-paid jobs but is saving up for a 1995 Toyota. Finally, last year I was making one of my periodic visits to San Diego to ride their pioneering light rail system. Riding along on one of MTS trains, I looked at the passengers, and thought, where are the "successful" people? Just judging from appearances, few if any of these passengers have net worth over four figures, and some may even be in the negative. One would guess that most of the folks with 401(k) accounts and plenty of home equity are either at work or out driving in their own cars. Does this make me a transportation snob or an observer?