The Bus Stigma
by David Deutsch
My first assignment as a Federal Transportation auditor was an examination of excessive customization of transit buses. Manufacturers were complaining that local transportation agencies across the United States were ordering buses that were custom-made for each locality. Manufacturers wanted to prove that this excessive bus customization was expensive and inefficient; instead, the OEMs wanted to have one standardized bus that could be custom-built for each locality order. An example of such costly customization: when Locality A wants a fire extinguisher installed on one side of the bus, and Locality B demands that it be installed on the other. (This, by the way, was a Congressionally-mandated audit. Yes, our fine members of Congress asked us to use law enforcement to investigate the location of fire extinguishers on buses.)
Armed with a mighty mandate from Congress, we went out into the field and examined various cities to understand why various localities required customized buses. As it turns out, there is very good reason for buses to be customized per locality: America is a big place, and America’s cities are very different from each other. Some cities had steep hills which required that their buses be fitted with strong brakes and transmissions. Other places, such as Orlando, would not need such reinforcements, but would require very strong air-conditioning. And places such as Fargo would not need A/C, but instead would require very powerful heating. One city even said they required driver’s seats that could accommodate a 500-pound person because they didn’t want to get sued for discriminating against drivers who weighed a quarter-ton. No, seriously, that happened. Manufacturers also complained that cities wanted to install security cameras throughout the buses, in spite of the fact that these cameras were very useful in documenting alleged injuries that could prevent multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Sadly, I am not sure if I am legally allowed to discuss the ultimate findings of the audit. Sorry if this keeps you in a perpetual state of suspense.
Outside the scope of the audit came an observation: one major reason bus manufacturers weren’t profitable was because localities preferred to purchase trains, highways, and just about any other kind of transportation other than buses. Why? In general, people don’t like riding the bus. In the United States, riding the bus carries a social stigma, as if riding a bus is a humiliation. In fact, years ago when I was working in a hotel in Baltimore, one co-worker said Baltimore’s transit system, the MTA, stood for “Move Those Africans.” That coworker’s observation stuck with me all these years, not just because it was racist and condescending, but because it was also an indication that only the poor (blacks) rode the bus where Real Americans drove cars or, at least, took the train.
Localities have tried numerous ways to overcome the bus stigma. Some tried purchasing fuel-efficient and hybrid buses, thus promoting environmental stewardship. Others have tried purchasing ultra-quiet ones that don’t belch out smoke every time they accelerate. Others still tried making their buses look like trolley cars instead of buses, hoping consumers would find riding the bus to be quaint. In other words, they tried to stimulate demand for buses by making them more appealing. None of these factors seemed to work, and bus ridership remained low. In fact, the only reason transit buses became popular was when the global economy tanked, sending bus ridership numbers through the roof. As you can see, bus ridership increased during the worst of the recession and has decreased since the economy has improved.
This mini-stream of consciousness came about after I read an article in the L.A. Times about a young West L.A. woman who is a self-proclaimed “Snob on a Bus” who started riding the bus (and blogging about it) because she could no longer afford the payments on her car. Admirably, instead of just hating her life because she has no car and is forced to ride with her lesser-peers, she adapted her urban-broke-alt-lifestyle—and her mindset—to make riding the bus cool. And she has some very interesting stories to tell as well.
As I noted in my previous article, supply flows from demand, not the other way around. Making fancier, quieter, and cleaner buses will not fuel demand for bus rides. We Americans are in love with our cars and, because of the stigma attached to it, will use the bus only when we can’t afford other means of transportation. Perhaps dramatically increasing the number of buses and bus stops would help, but that is an expensive proposition, and the American people hate tax increases even more than riding a bus.
And, at least in this case, some people will make riding the bus cool. Let’s hope this trend continues.