Wednesday, September 30

The secret life of a bus-riding movie producer

A funny little anecdote popped up in the Wall Street Journal this weekend that raises interesting questions about transit. Travel writer Stan Sesser decided to be a tourist in LA for a week taking nothing but public transportation between the sites. He noticed how few Angelenos seemed to be joining him by choice:

"I did meet one Angeleno who prefers public transit to a car—a movie producer who lives in West Hollywood next door to my friend's house, where I was staying, and he agreed to talk only on the condition of anonymity. "It's a preconceived idea that if you take the bus, you're a failure," he said. He ticked off things he likes about the bus. "I can read, I can get up to date on my iPhone, I can watch videos on my iPod. There's a lot that can be done with someone else driving." He warned me repeatedly not to reveal his name. "In the entertainment business, if they knew I took the bus they'd never talk to me," he said, explaining that he hires a car and driver when going to a studio."
LA Times blogger, Patrick Goldstein, enjoys this story and points out the strange inconsistencies of Hollywood culture.
"Sadly, until TMZ captures Leonardo DiCaprio hopping on the 305 bus to West Hollywood, it looks like status consciousness trumps eco-consciousness every time."
This seems about right. When Will Smith reached the point of complete destitution in the film The Pursuit of Happiness, I distinctly remember the chapter of the movie being titled "Riding the bus." Once he had to give up the car, he may as well have been homeless, even in New York City, I guess. And I'm sure this message gets pounded home in plenty of other films. I just pulled that out one of my head.

Where did our culture get this almost universal aversion to riding the bus? In my experience, it's a uniquely American phenomenon. In Argentina, I've ridden posh double-deckers between Buenas Aires, Cordoba, and Mendoza with the full range of professionals and families. The lively Argentine bus depots felt more like airports than Greyhound stations.

I have this theory that's a a completely non-scientific piece of pop psychology, but I'll say it anyway. We all have deep-seated memories of having to wake up and begrudgingly bump along in a school bus every morning. By high school, the cool kids started to, one by one, get their own cars. The rest of us could only wait until the government dispensed to us a driver's license, and we solemnly sweared, if only subconsiously, to never return once we got out. This could be at least a factor, right?

Beyond being a fun piece of social commentary, these status cues do bring up a whole range of important policy questions. Are cities better off working toward a distinctively cooler light rail system than trying harder to get people on to buses? Will Bus Rapid Transit still carry this cultural baggage or will it be different enough to move beyond it? New intercity services like Megabus and Boltbus, wifi-equipped and eschewing stations altogether, are giving some indication that erasing this stigma may not be impossible. And, of course, it's worth remembering that those who have no option but to ride the bus deserve attention too. Public transportation isn't just for movie producers.

Photo credit: flickr user Waltarrrr


The Travel Psychologist said...

I am The Travel Psychologist referred to in Stan Sesser's article on his LA bus travel experiment. I can attest to the fact that plenty of people, including those of substantial means, prefer using public transit in their travels since it affords them the maximum independence in getting around. How to I know this? I publish a series of travel guides to sightseeing by public transit in (so far) 14 cities. I have sold nearly 200,000 copies. There is no shame in using public transit! Michael Brein.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks for the comment, Michael.

Here's a link to the Travel Guide Web site where they can be purchased. What a great idea. In my experience, some transit systems can be difficult to decipher the first time around, yet visitors also may have the most need for it. Renting a car can be a hassle itself.

A guild is a great way to give travelers the resources they need.

LH said...

Daniel, thank you for this post. I have a couple of thoughts in response:

• Some of it is convenience. While I’m a heavy transit user, the only times I ride the bus are to use the high-frequency lines that run east-west through Center City and into University City (when it saves me from walking a few extra blocks to/from a subway station, and I know I won’t be waiting any longer than if I was waiting for a train) or to take BoltBus or MegaBus to New York City (because it’s cheaper and not much slower than the train). Otherwise, I am deterred by the possibility of being stuck in traffic, infrequent service, or having to wait outside. I am sure that others are similarly dissuaded from using the bus for these reasons.

• A lot of it is elitism. Where bus service is particularly cumbersome to use, the only users are those who have no other real options. And, if I have options, why would I want to go shoulder-to-shoulder with others who don’t? I’m a lot more adventuresome than most when it comes to urban transit, but read the third bullet in my account of riding the Metro in LA and tell me if the average sane person would want to do what I did:

Eric Orozco said...

I agree with LH above, negative experiences and (perceived or real) inconvenience deter most folks who have options. But I would say that is true of using light rail as well. What helps me in choosing light rail is consistency and frequency of service. I will wait 10 min. in order to avoid parking downtown, but not 20. Saving time, rather than psychological factors or comfort, is a more important factor determining transit system competitiveness.

What would help us break the negative perception and inconvenience of bus transport in this country is BRT (in combo with bikeway infrastructure). But we don't really have BRT in this country operating at a network scale with a great enough transit riding population to push the envelope in terms of urban mobility. Most Americans do not even have the categories to think of the BRT advantages. It's an incredible pet peeve of mine when I hear about American planners talk about BRT as interchangeable with streetcars (streetcars are NOT rapid transit) or even LRT (an inflexible guideway system). Where BRT gains its advantages is in the metro-wide operational network and informational infrastructure. But the reason we never implement true BRT networks is that we aren't willing to make the right-of-way sacrifices for true mass transit, because we don't have the transit riding public, because (sigh) we have our city bus systems to think of as an equivalent mode. We need to preach a true taxonomy of BRT...and that I'm afraid is almost a losing battle until we finally get an American city to serve as a real precedent.

Unknown said...

I've had the pleasure of using the LA transit system a few times to visit family in the city ( I live in Philly at the moment) and I would have loved to have been a passenger on that ride. Makes me was to get a bus for sale and try it myself.