Public Transit Is a Race and Class Issue

This piece on fair public transit by Amy B. Dean in the Boston Review is infuriating and also illuminating! OBVIOUSLY read the whole thing but here are some EYE POPPING facts:

• “While the average family spends around 19 percent of its budget getting around, very low-income families (defined as families who make less than half of an area’s median income) can see as much as 55 percent of their earnings eaten up by transportation costs, according to a report by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development.”

• “Nearly 20 percent of black households do not have a car, in comparison to 4.6 percent of white households.”

• “Nationwide about 80 cents out of every federal transportation dollar goes toward highways…and only 20 cents goes toward mass transit systems…When it’s time to distribute that 20 percent, regional authorities often favor light-rail systems for suburban commuters over bus lines for city riders.”

But there is some hope because of fixing this mess because of ACTIVISTS and ACTIVISM:

• “In 2010 a multiyear campaign in Minnesota’s Twin Cities came to a close when the Stops for Us coalition compelled local authorities to include three stops for low-income communities on a light-rail project. ‘That line was basically going to zoom right through the African American neighborhoods and not stop,’ says Laura Barrett, executive director of the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), an organizer and pressure group with more than 350 affiliates in 41 states. ‘The reversal that the coalition won was pretty amazing.'”


46 Comments / Post A Comment

lizard (#2,615)

the light rail in south jersey ( river line) is bascially the opposite. It goes from camden to trenton and stops a lot on the way. its all lower income neighborhoods and the majority of the riders are people with no cars. It works pretty well and is on time and comfortable. you can connect to philly and to trains that go to nyc and atlantic city Its pretty cool

@lizard As a carless urbanite with family in south Jersey, I’ve taken the River Line, PATCO and NJTransit (trains and buses) to get around. I’ve been pretty impressed! I do wish there were more East-West rail connections, though– if they would connect Lindenwold or Trenton to Bay Head, it would make getting to the shore a lot easier.

lizard (#2,615)

@cuminafterall yay me too i dont live there anymore but i depend on nj transit to get back and often jump on the river line to make it an easier pick up for family. and i agree about the shore but a lot of those shore communities are hard for people without houses there. i think seaside and wildwood are more for day trips. I have a house on a barrier island and you cant really use it without a home. no public restrooms or way to get on without a car

oiseau (#1,830)

Atlanta is THE WORST when it comes to mass transit and it has a LOT if not EVERYTHING to do with race and class. Atlanta is a mess.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@oiseau Have you been to Baltimore?
I don’t want to say it’s the worst, because it does have some great things going on, and I’ve never been to Atlanta but I hear it’s very spread out and highway-y which sounds awful for mass transit people.
But Baltimore’s certainly not the best either. And race/class issues abound. ALTHOUGH, there are definitely high-income neighborhoods with nooo mass transit for the opposite reason in that- they want to keep to themselves.

oiseau (#1,830)

@bgprincipessa I haven’t been to Baltimore but I hear it’s pretty bad, too.

In Atlanta, this is the extent of mass transit: a grand total of 2 light rail lines, one going N-S, one going E-W. They do not go anywhere useful. They don’t extend into the suburbs, which refused the extentions because they are afraid of low-income inner-city populations moving in and demolishing home values plus also racism.

There are also lots of buslines but they are often late, serviced somewhat sporadically, and take forever to get anywhere. A 10 minute drive turns into a 45 minute bus ride not including waiting times.

One thing Baltimore has better than ATL (I think?) is that it’s connected in to train lines going to DC, Boston, NYC, etc. Atlanta is not – the only way to travel up the Eastern seaboard by train from ATL is by Amtrak, which is crazy expensive.

The trend seems to be starting to turn though, since more people(middle/upper-middle class white people in particular) are moving into the city proper in recent years. It’s safer and more gentrified than it was pre-1996 Olympics. This has led to proposed light rail extentions and so on, but whether plans will come to fruition is still very much up in the air.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@oiseau Eeks. Yes, that sounds awful. I am a huge proponent of public transit and it makes me so sad to think about its state sometimes.

Baltimore has 1 light rail line, that mostly serves the suburbs and the airport. 1 metro line, that serves nobody. 4 free bus lines, somewhat helpful, mostly for tourists and middle-income areas. Lots of public bus lines, just as you said above – sporadic, late, take forever.

There is a train that runs Baltimore-DC, but it is targeted for commuters and therefore only runs on weekdays. The rest of the time it is Amtrak for us as well, which as you said can be costly.

New plans are set up for Baltimore transit as well, but I have heard different opening dates that range over a 10-year span, so that sounds really reliable.

Sloane (#675)

@oiseau Interesting thing about MARTA is that it assumed the use of a car – think Brookhaven station. Huge, huge parking lots, which really separated the community from the station. There’s been a lot of talk about building developments on those parking lots so that the community that needs the rail line can live right there – the whole Lindbergh development is a good example. I think that this would really help the people who don’t want MARTA in their neighborhoods.

limenotapple (#1,748)

@oiseau St. Louis is similar and definitely a race/class issue. People who do not live in the city don’t want mass transit coming to their suburb because they don’t want the “urban element”. It’s infuriating. Also, they really love their cars. I would love it if mass transit could deliver me to my job in the next county down (I live in the city) but they wouldn’t hear of it. If you need to get around within the city you can (mostly) do that, though it takes FOREVER. It amazes me how much people would rather sit in traffic than sit on a bus or a train and read or play or listen or something more fun.

jfruh (#161)

@oiseau Baltimore’s subway doesn’t serve “nobody.” It serves 50k ppl a day — mostly poor, mostly black, thus the whole point of this article?

bgprincipessa (#699)

@jfruh Ok, sorry, gross exaggeration. Honestly I used the metro yesterday, I know it does get used (my 2nd time using it in almost 7 years of living here). But it serves very specific locations, and not necessarily a huge cross-section of the city.

oiseau (#1,830)

@jfruh Out of curiosity, I looked up the stats for MARTA. They say ~123,000 people take MARTA each day. The total population of the Atlanta metro area is ~5.5 million people. That means only 2-3% of Atlanta’s population rides MARTA!!

In addition, the report I just read said ~60% use MARTA to commute to work (coming in from the burbs), ~30% use it to get to events (coming in to watch a game at the Dome from the burbs), and only 10% use it for their daily activities like shopping, etc.

This is RIDICULOUS! I wonder what the rates are for other cities.

oiseau (#1,830)

@oiseau Quick googling leads to this comparison:

In NYC, 4.3 million people ride the subway each day. The total population of NYC is 8.24 million. This means that a solid 52% of NYC’s population takes the subway each day.

oiseau (#1,830)

@jfruh And if 50k people ride Baltimore transit each day, out of a total population of 619,493, that means that ~8% of Baltimore’s population uses the subway daily – not great but still better than ATL. :(

@limenotapple In Georgetown (DC) they say they don’t have a metro stop because of “geological issues.” It’s much more polite that way.

frenz.lo (#455)

@bgprincipessa Your non-Amtrak weekend Bmore to DC option is to catch the B-30 bus from BWI to the green line. It is time consuming and semi-complex, and also a closely guarded secret, but it exists.

@frenz.lo SHHHHH!!!!

Next thing you’re going to tell the Loudon County people about the 5A, jesus.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@oiseau Assuming these stats are correct (I know, it’s Wikipedia, but there are sources) Baltimore is the 5th lowest in annual ridership, daily ridership, and route length. This doesn’t take into account the relative sizes of the cities of course, on both geographical and population levels.

oiseau (#1,830)

@bgprincipessa That is a pretty interesting link.

To take into account the population size of US metro areas, I found this Wikipedia page, which places Atlanta as #9 in the country. (Baltimore is #20)

Interestingly Dallas and Houston are ranked #4 and #5 in terms of metro area population size and yet on the list of mass transit systems they are not present whatsoever! I think Dallas and Houston win as The Worst. …Are there any Texans who can vouch for TX mass transit?

bgprincipessa (#699)

@oiseau I have not been to Houston, but I did visit Dallas and use the public transportation there for a bit. One thing I remember about Dallas and have been told about Houston is that their “downtowns” are very compact – that is, most of the big office buildings etc. are in the same area.

This might have to do with geography/weather too? Like for LA – the metro doesn’t go far, but earthquakes, right?

@oiseau YES let’s talk about how the MARTA is just a hot mess. I don’t have a car and used to commute on the MARTA (I live literally .9 miles down Sidney Marcus from Lindbergh), and while the trains generally run on time and seem to have a lot of commuters the buses are awful. The worst. Just freaking ridiculous.

Ti:Sapph (#2,050)

@oiseau Having lived in both Baltimore and Atlanta, I assure you the transit in Atlanta is worse. It doesn’t help that Atlanta is sprawled out to all hell and not very walkable or bikeable.

chic noir (#713)

@frenz.lo isn’t it like 6 bucks for the B30 and because DC subway fares are do wacky it may not be much in the way of saving if you purchase your Amtrak ticket early. BAL to DC run about 11-18 dollars depending on how early you purchase your ticket.

Weasley (#1,419)

In my lifetime of using public transportation the thing that has infuriated me the most is when bus lines are completely shut down on federal holidays. OH! It’s President’s Day! Guess I don’t have to be anywhere today.

Lily Rowan (#70)

I’m going to go back and read the whole thing, but was wondering: Do other places have a thing like The Ride in metro Boston? If you’re disabled, you can get door-to-door service. As they note, the price has recently gone way up, but it’s still much, much less than a taxi.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@Lily Rowan The special door-to-door service for disabled people is called paratransit, and many (most?) places in the US have it. It’s often not a very well-run system, though, and some disabled people would rather have a functioning, accessible system that was available to everyone.

Megano! (#124)

@Lily Rowan @Lily Rowan Toronto has it, Ottawa has it.

Blondsak (#2,299)

@Lily Rowan DC does; it’s called MetroAccess.

Lily Rowan (#70)

Good to know!

@WhyHelloThere Sure, mass transit should be better and more accessible, but it would never work for my father (Alzheimer’s) or grandmother (blind + unstable on her feet) at this point. The Ride is like magic for them.

@Lily Rowan Yep! Like Megan said. In Toronto a senior with disabilities can use a TTC senior’s ticket as cab fare (with certain cabs). We also have wheeltrans which is basically a short bus adapted for people with disabilities. Both programs are associated with our public transit system. Wheeltrans is notoriously unreliable though, and also has a three strikes you’re out policy if you mess up your scheduling.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@Lily Rowan Yeah, that’s a really good point. Paratransit definitely works best for people with cognitive disabilities or dementia.

Is it working well for your father and grandmother? I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories about paratransit not coming, coming late, or taking people to the wrong place, but I have a friend whose husband drives a paratransit van, and he thinks the system here works pretty well. He also really likes his job, which is always a good sign.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@WhyHelloThere There have been a couple of incidents of them not coming, but in general, it’s pretty good, even though the drivers apparently sometimes take terrible routes, according to my grandmother. And between the two of them, they probably take 10 trips a week, the vast majority of which have been fine.

Sincerely, Jane (#1,588)

“While the average family spends around 19 percent of its budget getting around, very low-income families (defined as families who make less than half of an area’s median income) can see as much as 55 percent of their earnings eaten up by transportation costs, according to a report by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development.”

Yes, that sounds much more shocking than saying that the transportation costs in a certain area are mostly fixed across all income levels.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

This is a subject that gets me ranty.

Where I live, public transit is really designed to meet the needs of privileged commuters who own a car but don’t want to drive it to work. The bus will take you from residential neighborhoods to jobs downtown. It won’t take you from a residential neighborhood directly to a grocery store or the mall. You have to go downtown and transfer, and since the buses only run hourly most of the time, that means that it can take a really long time to get to a grocery store or movie theater or place where you can buy a pair of socks. (Another problem is that there’s no grocery store and limited other shopping downtown, and I think that’s a related story. Our city is designed for people who have cars, and there’s no expectation that things will be centralized downtown for people who walk, take the bus, or ride a bike.) There’s restricted bus service on Saturdays and none on Sundays. There’s no direct bus service taking kids from low-income neighborhoods to the high school, so they have to go downtown, wait for the next bus, and then go back out to school. We have a whole racist discourse about how black kids waiting for the bus downtown are so loud and rowdy, and nobody ever, ever points out that the bus system ensures that a bunch of bored teenagers spend a big chunk of their day on buses or waiting for buses. It’s infuriating.

And don’t get me started on the lack of sidewalks and safe street crossings in the low-income neighborhood where I live. Urban planning really is a social justice issue. I’m glad more people are talking about this.

Weasley (#1,419)


That describes exactly my high school experience with buses. I lived in a suburb and if I wanted to go anywhere I had to bus to downtown (no grocery stores, shopping, anything, just skyscrapers) wait awhile and then hop on another bus to actually get where I wanted to go.

Sallymander (#3,159)

@WhyHelloThere Oops, privileged commuter who owns a car but takes public transit to work weighing in here…

In my personal situation, I bought a car at a time when I did not intend to work in a high-density area (DC). Since then, the car has kind of been calling the shots. I live way out in the suburbs because only there can one find leases where parking isn’t an additional cost on top of rent. I don’t drive into work because it’s cheaper to take public transit than to park for the day. It’s not really more convenient though; the driving time of my commute even in rush hour is about 40 minutes while the public transit time is an hour minimum, and an hour and a half if I miss my bus (about 30% of the time). I could cut down on all the commuting time by selling my car and moving closer to the city, but I’m not planning to be in the area forever, and by my estimation I’d take a huge loss if I tried to sell the car now and buy another one later. I’m sure there’s some kind of wry commentary to be made about our nation’s car culture here.

hopeyglass (#3,298)

@WhyHelloThere “Urban planning really is a social justice issue.” THIS.

….sadly, and only based on current anecdotal experience, urban planning programs fragmented into different concentration tends to compartmentalize so the folks wanting to do transportation planning never get exposed to issues of social justice and then get reaaal fidgety when called out on some of their stuff. Kindov the “engineer” mentality if you know what I mean.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@Sallymander I feel that the car thing invariably becomes a vicious cycle – you get a car so you can get to work, but then you end up living far away from where you work because you have the car, and then you have to use the car, so you can’t get rid of it, etc. For me, the choice has always been to live in the city with ready access to public transport and never own a car. I have never owned one! In my life! And I’m 36 years old! Yeah it sucked when I lived in Philly and the only option was the craptacular bus, but somehow…I just can’t bring myself to get a damn car. I hate everything to do with them, a lot. My friends who have cars mostly live in the burbs and it affects their whole lifestyle. I’m just not willing to do that. They laugh at me for paying “so much” to live in the city but with what they spend on their cars, gas, insurance, repairs, blah blah blah blah blah, PLUS the abandonment of any late night drinking activities pretty much (unless you want to pay cab fare, utterly defeating the purpose of having a car), I figure their expenses are equal to or more than mine.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@Sallymander Don’t get me wrong: I also own a car and take public transit to work. I think people like me are an important constituency, and it’s good that our needs are met. But there are a lot of people in my neighborhood who need the bus to get to school or the grocery store or the free clinic, and their needs aren’t being met. I’m saying that a just public transit system would meet the needs of all users, not just the one group of users who have most access to power.

ETA: I actually think it’s really important that public transit systems serve privileged people, as well as poor people. Systems that only serve poor people tend to get neglected. It’s a matter of balance.

Sallymander (#3,159)

@WaityKatie Yep, I’ve made peace with the fact that it’s the car’s world and I’m just living in it. And call it Stockholm Syndrome, but I have a great deal of affection for the dang thing!

What’s more, I’m not really a city person. The ‘burbs are okay for now, but I’d really like to live somewhere rural. In my imagination I have a house on top of a mountain and it’s just me and the car (my husband can come along too if he wants). Someday!

Fig. 1 (#632)

@WhyHelloThere Reasonably sure we live in the same city except we do get (sporadic) bus service on Sunday and holidays, and the race that bears the full front of discrimination is First Nations, not black.

Li'l Sebastian (#3,297)

I’m really glad you mentioned the Stops For Us campaign, Logan. If you’re interested in learning more about the context and history of the community that’s being impacted by the lightrail, this article from MPR is really excellent:

Also, these comments make me real glad I live in the Twin Cities, even with our light rail issues, because the buses here are much more dependable and frequent than what you all are talking about.

My experience in bringing up public transit with Republicans at the local level, especially in towns without a big shiny train system, is that they often simply *haven’t thought about it*. Like, how would you get to work if you didn’t have a car? How would you get your groceries, as a single mother, when the bus only comes once every 45 minutes and the stop is a mile away and it’s raining, or 90 degrees out, or both (I’m talking about Florida) and there is no bus shelter?

This post also inspired me to finally write and send an email to my city councillor about the dire transit situation in toronto. he is conservative, but supposedly sensible, unlike our mayor (he’s also the deputy mayor so one would think he should hold some sway, although one would probably be wrong because our city council is totally dysfunctional)

even though it won’t do anything, I feel good about it.

EM (#1,012)

@redheaded&crazy Tell me more about Toronto transit! I have taken it and found it pretty all right. I live in Vancouver and am generally a fan of our transit system, although not a fan of our transit cops :/

TARDIStime (#1,633)

While all of this is super, super true and I totally wish everyone (esp. the disadvantaged) had good access to reliable and awesome public transport, I wonder what would happen to property prices for any of the areas that get improved?
Typically, the poverty-stricken tend to be renters living in areas with affordable rent. IME, these places are usually affordable due to being less accessible than more affluent, easily accessible areas (this is, IME, why the city is so expensive vs the suburbs, vs the country).
By this logic, if we made these less accessible and less affluent areas more publicly accessible, the people we would be helping the most would be people who are already home owners (not disadvantaged) and the people we are trying to help (the renters) would end up being priced out of the area due to the market rent being worth more, perpetuating the cycle of inaccessibility because they would have to move somewhere else inaccessible to afford the rent.

^ any ideas for solving the above? The only thing I can think of is to make public transport free for people below a certain income, maybe with some kind of free transport pass that comes back with your tax return?

Comments are closed!