Race, Class, Fear, and Shame: Transit Barriers

[Update: KCRW's "Which Way, L.A.?" invited KCET's DJ Waldie and UC Irvine's Steven Spears to talk about this story and the study. You can listen below.]

If Metro builds it, they still won't ride public transit ... at least, not until their psychological blocks are overcome. That's the result of a new study led by Steven Spears, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine. Getting you on the bus (or train or subway) is far more nuanced than getting you into a "transit oriented" high-rise and pointing you toward the nearest bus stop or light rail station.

Spears and his research team found that "attitudes toward public transportation and concerns about personal safety ... were robust predictors of transit use, independent of built environment factors such as near-residence street network connectivity and transit service level. Results indicate the need for combined policy approaches to increasing transit use that not only enhance transit access but also target attitudes about transit service and perceptions of crime on transit."

In plainer terms, fear, class, race, and even shame color the decision to get out of the driver's seat and into a seat on a bus, train, or subway. The bias against public transit is so polarizing that European researchers last year announced a "Car Effect" that biases against transit. Instead of evaluating travel options for the combination that had the lowest cost and fastest commute, people in the study preferred driving even when a car wasn't the best time-and-money choice.

The researchers concluded that in the decision to ride or drive "available information is not properly processed; cognitive efforts are generally low and rational calculation play a limited role."

That is, most people are irrational when the choice is between a car and public transit.

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It isn't much of stretch to find that people who are willing to use good public transit actually use it, and that people who are anxious about transit won't. But as Eric Jaffe at Atlantic Cities points out, it's significant that an anti-transit bias persists even if public transit is frequent, relatively affordable, and built into the fabric of the neighborhood.

Even if public transit is the best choice, some (many?) potential riders still won't ever ride.

That will have unfortunate consequences for developers and urban planners who assume, it seems to me, that if you build dense neighborhoods in Los Angeles, then more transit will come, and when it does, people logically will choose to ride it rather than drive. Except the biased won't ride even if transit use is the rational choice, diminishing the anticipated the benefits of denser, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

The politics of development in Los Angeles and the convictions of urban planners have underestimated the irrationality of those who avoid public transit. Meanwhile, state land use policies are making dense, transit-oriented development the preferred form of new working- and middle-class housing (perhaps the only form one day).

Because they will have to, all sorts of people will live in these neighborhoods, the transit biased and the unbiased. Some will ride transit. Some -- many? -- won't, with unhappy consequences for traffic, air quality, and quality of life.

There are those who think the transit biased will be given no other option. Higher gas taxes, miles-traveled user fees, limitations on times and places cars can be driven, steep fees to park (or no parking at all), and access fees for congested city centers are some of the sticks suggested to pry the "Car Effect" out of drivers.

Reforming the image of transit is a softer solution. Jaffe suggests: "(C)ampaigns to target common misperceptions of transit -- that it's inconvenient or that it's unsafe -- may be as important in some places as improving service itself."

I'm not so sure that would be enough if "improving service" only means more frequency of service and not everything that might break through the barriers of race, class, fear, and even shame that keeps the biased off the bus.


Skip to 13:05 to listen to the segment.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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