Dare to Ask: Mass transit open to all. And yet ...
By Phillip Milano
Why do I occasionally read in the newspaper or on the Internet a comment like
this: "Only low-income people or minorities use public transportation." Why is
there this perception? Don't people of all classes use public transportation?
Matthew, 38, upper middle class, Sunrise
In Eastern cities with good public transport, people of all income levels can
use it. Here in Los Angeles, which has almost no public transportation to speak
of, only the poor take the buses.
D., female, middle class, Los Angeles
Where I live, you are poor, a senior, blind, mentally challenged or too young
to drive if you take the bus. The transit system is outdated and inefficient.
It's so uncomfortable that no one takes it unless they have to. ... I wish it
were a valid option for everyone, the way it is in many other places (so I
C.C., 38, female, lower middle class, Canada
Let's travel in some facts, then come home to the truth.
A 2005 report by the National Center for Transit Research found that
minorities made up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, but 56 percent of
transit users. People making less than $20,000 a year made up about 18 percent
of the general population but fully a third of transit users.
So it's a fact that minorities and lower-income people are more represented
in public transit than in the country overall.
However, the truth is that some American cities, like Los Angeles, are spread
out and offer minimal public transportation, while others, like New York, are
more compact and offer a high level of service, said Kenneth Button, professor
of transportation economics at George Mason University.
"So this misperception arises because of what goes on in cities with less
public transport, where it's provided only as a social service," he said. "For
public transportation to be attractive to higher-income people, you must have
high service. Yet, the disabled and poor still need a basic level of service, so
they use what service is available."
In New York or in European cities like Paris, with strong public transit,
"You see people in suits and ties on the Metro, people who are going to office
jobs, and they are white collar, not poor," Button said.
So it may come down to where you live.
"In Phoenix or Jacksonville, which are spread out, they've grown up with the
car, and once you get away from a compact environment ... it costs more per mile
to provide public transit. But in New York, many people who aren't poor use
transit. I'm not saying Donald Trump does, but many do."
Media images can perpetuate the stereotypes, too, he said.
"In movies, it's more exciting to see gangs on a train. Spielberg isn't going
to make many movies with scenes of businessmen reading on trains."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general
column comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also hear his
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