Does Transit Really Have a White People Problem?

Yesterday, Atlantic Cities ran a post about “Race, Class and the Stigma of Riding the Bus in America.” The basic argument, which is valid, is that many American transit systems struggle to attract riders who have the means to drive instead.

Are there not enough white people in LA buses? Nonsense, says Jarrett Walker. Photo: Fred Camino

But some of the assertions from author Amanda Hess, namely that transit is not doing enough to court higher-income whites, rubbed Jarrett Walker at Human Transit the wrong way. Her argument focuses largely on Los Angeles, where she notes “92 percent of bus riders are people of color.”

So what, asks Walker:

Now, how does your reaction change when I point out that in the 2010 census, just under 28% of the population of Los Angeles County is “non-Hispanic white,” so over 70% can be called “people of color.” Now what if I tell you that as always, transit is most concentrated in the denser parts of the county, where the demand and ridership are higher, and these areas happen to be even less “non-Hispanic white” than the county at large?  (Exact figures can’t be cited as this area corresponds to no government boundary.)  So the bus system, weighted by where the service is concentrated, serves a population of whom much, much more than 70% could be described as “people of color”…

Racism has sometimes had a role in the history of U.S. transit planning, and there’s a Federal regulatory system, called Title VI, devoted to ensuring it doesn’t happen again. But racist planning — discriminatory service provision aimed to advantage or disadvantage any ethnic group — is not only immoral but also a stupid business practice. Diversity is the very essence of successful transit services — not just ethnic diversity but diversity of income, age, and trip purpose. Great transit lines succeed to the extent that many different kinds of people with different situations and purposes find them useful. As a planner, I want every line I design to be useful to the greatest possible range of people and purposes, because that ensures a resilient market that will continue even if parts of it drop out for some reason.

So why is it a problem that in massively diverse international cities we don’t have “enough” white people on the bus?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Cyclelicious reports that Costa Mesa’s ban on locking bikes to anything besides bike racks constitutes a ban on bike parking altogether. Systemic Failure celebrates the introduction of Google Bike View. And Grid Chicago attempts to determine what percentage of Chicago’s bike commuters are killed and injured every year.