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.