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Transportation, comfort and social class

Transit can't create a classless society all by itself

As with most aspects of life in America, people don't like to talk about social class, but you can't get very far without addressing it.

There are three reasons I can think of not to talk about class in transportation. You could argue that class doesn't exist, you could argue that the class system is fair, or you could argue that class doesn't matter in transportation.

A lot of people would like to believe that we live in a classless society, but the facts show that there is not equal opportunity for everyone, and that people get better opportunities depending on who their families are, where they grow up and where they go to school. These last three factors do not make people inherently deserving of the better opportunities they (we) receive. I particularly like the presentation of these facts in Alvarez and Kolker's film People Like Us and in Gladwell's book Outliers.

As for the third question, in fact, social class doesn't matter in transportation as much as some people think, which is why we need to talk about it.

I'm a firm believer in equal opportunity in all areas, including transportation. The question is how much you can accomplish with transportation. Unequal opportunity permeates our entire lives (see the invisible knapsack, or the kittehs may make for easier reading). We can't solve this problem with just transportation.

We have other problems to solve with transportation as well. We want to end global warming and other pollution-related problems. We want to move from oil dependence to sustainability. We want to save future generations from the carnage that threatens us every time we walk out the door. We want walkable communities.

Transit can do a lot along those lines, and it can do a lot for equal opportunity. But just as it can't shoulder the entire burden for clean air, energy sustainability, safety and community, it also can't create a classless society all by itself.

The transportation system is not classless

In response to the previous section, MHJ wrote, "That is one of the reasons I became a transportation planner in the first place - for once in my life, my race, ethnicity, gender and income didn't matter - everyone paid the same $2 fare."

I like it too, MHJ.  And I have to say that I myself am bothered by the idea of a more expensive class of transit. I still remember the disgust and disapproval I felt for the first-class cars on the Paris metro and commuter trains. But I'm going to disappoint you now: our transportation system is far from classless if you look at it as a whole, including cars, walking, cycling and transit.

In the US and other industrial nations, generally speaking the divide used to be between the rich with their private vehicles, and everybody else walking and taking some form of transit. This heavy middle-class patronage allowed for some cross-subsidy to benefit the poor. Middle-class taxpayers also got government to subsidize some transportation infrastructure that was also available for poor people. When private car ownership came within reach of the middle class, they abandoned transit and took their money and their political power with them.

I raise the issue of class and transportation because I have ambitious goals. We need to not just decrease emissions, but decrease them enough to head off global warming. We need to not just improve efficiency, but improve it enough to head off peak oil. To accomplish these goals we need to shift a substantial portion of people from cars to transit.

We can't accomplish our pollution, efficiency and safety goals without getting the middle class to shift from cars back to transit and walking. If you disagree, I'd love to see your plan. Otherwise, the next question is how to accomplish that. 

Pick any two

We can't accomplish our pollution, efficiency and safety goals without getting the middle class to shift from cars to transit. To attract the middle class, transit needs to be classy. Is it classy now?

In technology fields there is a saying, "Fast, cheap and good. Pick any two." Of course, transportation is nothing if not a technology, and the saying is just as true there as in computers. Yes, you might some day have transportation that's all three, but let's not hold our breath.

The New York subway, which is one of the gold standards by which transit performance is measured, is fast and cheap - in fact, one of the fastest ways to get around town, but there are numerous complaints about the quality. It's gotten a lot better since the 70s, and it's now reasonably reliable, but it's still noisy, dirty and crowded. Cycling is also fast and can be very cheap, but the quality is mixed: some people love the exercise, others hate the sweat and the exposure to the elements, not to mention the abuse.

If you take the subway during rush hour, chances are you'll be standing most of the way. If you manage to get a seat, you'll probably find yourself with somebody's bag, newspaper, ass or belly in your face for at least two stops, and then you'll have to fight to get off the train in time. If you've got a flexible enough schedule so that you don't have to travel during rush hour, you may get a seat, but that's less likely than before 2004.  In any case, you'll probably still get bumped, jostled or at least cut off - numerous times as you walk from the entrance to the train. If it's an elevated train, you'll have to put up with somebody's obnoxious cell phone conversation. In any case, you'll probably get some jerk who thinks the whole car needs to hear her gospel tape, or who's got the techno cranked on his leaky earphones. You'll also be subjected to aggressive panhandlers, arrogant preachers, and that woman with the flute thing.

It's much worse for women than for men. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes encounter entitled males leering at them, making comments, and sometimes masturbating in front of or even on them. Many women have personally told me about being groped, pinched or fondled on crowded trains.

I have to say that I love the New York subway. It's my main form of transportation after walking. I've grown up with it and I wouldn't give it up. I'll be taking the subway until I can't climb stairs any more - and maybe after, if I last until they put elevators in all the stations. But sometimes I get tired of it. I'd like to be able to sit down at 8:05, maybe spread out and take some notes on a book I'm reading, and get off at 8:50 without having to push my way through twenty people. I'd like to have the option of quality. I'm at the point in life where I can pay for it, and I'm willing to, at least some of the time. Sometimes I'm also willing to sacrifice speed. But for most places I want to go, transit doesn't offer any quality option.

Many segments of the population are too old for this shit

When your Cap'n was a young whippersnapper, I traveled all over Europe and North America on the cheap. I stayed in youth hostels and friends' couches. I rode overnight from Chicago to Montreal on a Greyhound bus and on another trip from Paris to Venice in a non-sleeping compartment (with the return trip spent slouched against my bag in the corridor, surrounded by Italians who didn't care about "non fumare").

I gradually came to the conclusion that some things are more important than saving a few bucks. Stumbling around Northern Italy I realized that a good night's sleep is one of them. This was confirmed a few years later when Priceline saved me $20 by booking an "off-peak" flight with a two-hour layover in Phoenix at 1AM. Suffice it to say that I've never had anything to do with Priceline again.

Now I try to arrange things so that I always have a seat, and somewhere that I can get some rest. I'm still willing to put up with a lot, but it's less than I used to put up with. I'm not rich by any means, but at this point I can afford to pay $20-30 more for a flight that will get me home before my bedtime, and to take the train even when the bus is cheaper. I imagine that this will continue to change as I get older. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Now I have a strong aversion to cars. Been there, done that, but it's the transit life for me - for all the reasons listed at the top of this page. But supposing I had different priorities, and comfort was more important than avoiding any chance of losing control of a vehicle, or of minimizing my contribution to global warming. Confronted with the choice of relatively cheap and convenient but uncomfortable transit versus paying for a car, I would at least be tempted by the car.

The less convenient transit is, the more people opt for driving. I happen to think that cars have their own peculiar set of discomforts, but at least you don't have nuts preaching at you unless you specifically tune them in. You never have somebody's elbow in your ribs unless you drive a pickup with a bench seat. If you want a more comfortable seat, all you have to do is pay more.

That's the frustrating thing about the New York subway: there's no way to upgrade. No matter how much money you put into the Metrocard machine, the seat is still the same old molded plastic (possibly still sticky from some kid's Mountain Dew). There's no cupholder, no makeup mirror. The most you can do is buy a better Ipod.

Well, almost. James commented on the previous section:

Cap'N, depending on where you live in the city, there is another option re: a higher cost but higher quality option - it's called Metro North and the LIRR. When I find myself experiencing periodic subway burnout, I cough up the extra $2 for a Metro North ticket and enjoy a quiet, fast and immaculately clean trip home.
I have, in fact, had that experience. I live walking distance from the Woodside LIRR station, and there are times when I will spring for the $5.75 or whatever it is and be home in 25 minutes (if I'm near Penn Station to begin with). Of course, the commuter rail lines don't stop in very many places and they don't all have convenient schedules, but when it works out it's great.

There's a third option, even: express buses. As I understand it, many routes were specifically designed to capture some of the market that was leaving the transit system. There was one time when I needed to read books and articles and take notes. The subway was impossible: even if I got a seat, there was nowhere to put the book while I was writing the notes. I tried taking commuter rail, but it was actually too fast to get anything done. What worked pretty well, though, were the express buses. For at least part of every trip I had two seats to myself, and was able to spread out. Even when I didn't, the seats were wide enough that I could manage. And it was quiet: cell phone conversations were kept to a minimum, nobody was rowdy or intrusive. On the way home in the evenings, I think half the bus was snoring.

The commuter trains, of course, are full of people who feel like they're well off enough that they don't want to put up with the noise and dirt of the city. Some of them were born to it, others strove for it. The particular express bus route I rode, I noticed, was full of older Black and Puerto Rican women. I never had much of a conversation with them, but I got the feeling that they had taken the subway when they were younger, but after twenty or thirty years in whatever office or bank branch they worked at, they were too old for that. They had earned the $4 price of the bus ride, and the extra time it took to get to Midtown, and they needed it to keep their sanity.

Without the express bus system, these women would be driving cars. Without the commuter trains, the suburbanites would be driving into Manhattan too. These modes are helping transit to work for the middle class. They work. Let's use them more.