Clowns to the Left, Jokers to the Right: Media Portrayals of the Car-Free

If there’s one thing we can say about the way transit riders and cyclists are portrayed on television and in the movies, it’s that there’s definitely room for improvement. Car-free people somehow become either the 40-year-old virgin (Hollywood will never live down that one) or conspicuously absent — erased from consciousness.

As the 40-year-old virgin, Steve Carell played an adult who still behaved like a child in many ways. One of his quirks was his choice of transportation: a bicycle. Photo: Entertainment Wallpaper

Adonia Lugo at Network blog Urban Adonia says the media reflects reality — up to a point. Non-automotive transportation is imbued with connotations of class and social standing — and the entertainment industry has not been shy about exploiting them:

Pretty much every time I watch TV or mainstream movies, I notice some scripted jab at people who don’t drive. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, the filmmakers indicate the main character’s incompetence at being an adult, along with his virginity and penchant for collecting toys, through the fact that he rides a bike to get around. Last week I watched an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” where one character tells another that any adult who does not drive must be “retarded.” Jokes built on the subtle or blatant assertion that only driving counts, that people who bike, ride transit, and walk are weirdos, seem to be stock material for writers.

These jokes hinge on the idea that people who can pay to drive everywhere should know better than to choose to associate with the dregs of society outside of cars. To me, this comes across as pretty racist and classist. The continuing contempt for the poor is a huge problem for sustainable transportation because so many Americans think of the stuff we promote as symbolic of poverty and disempowerment. Whether it’s intentional or not, imagining that people can be tainted by the mode of transport they use is pretty dehumanizing. I’ve felt the shame of standing at a bus stop, waiting and waiting, while cars flow past. You’re not supposed to have to wait; you’re an American, the cultural conditioning says in the back of my mind.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Dallas Morning News Transportation Blog reports that the city’s mayor is trying to make up his mind about the new toll road proposed for downtown — and he’s encountering overwhelming public opposition. Human Transit comments on an all-too-common phenomenon: when tax revenues approved for transit end up elsewhere. And Urban Velo introduces us to a handy new term: bike shop deserts.