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