Elites are by definition a small minority, so it makes no sense to define a vast transit network around their personal tastes. Even when we’ve achieved all our sustainability goals, that particular city councilman can still drive his BMW everywhere, and that leading architecture scholar need never set foot on a bus. It doesn’t matter much what they do, because there just aren’t very many of them.
This, after all, is how Germany works. Germany is a world-leader in the design of expensive luxury cars, and has a network of freeways with no speed limits where you can push these cars to their ecstatic edge. But most urban travel in Germany happens on bikes, feet, or civilized and useful public transit systems in pleasant and sustainable cities. Transit’s purpose is to appeal to massive numbers of diverse riders, not chase the choosy few who would rather be on the Autobahn.
All of this came to mind in reading Amanda Hess’s recent Atlantic Cities article,”Race, Class and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America.”Hess argues that the predominance of minority and low-income people on the bus is evidence of an American bus “stigma.” “In Los Angeles,” she writes, “92 percent of bus riders are people of color. Their annual median household income is $12,000.”
The reference to race is a distraction. The service area of the Los Angeles MTA is well over 70 percent people of color. What’s more, whites are more likely to live in low-density areas with obstructed street patterns where effective bus service is impossible. So people of color in L.A. may be over 80 percent of the residents for whom the MTA can be useful, which means that the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect.