City Planning, Light Rail and White People

I have argued for a long time that the shift of city transit departments from buses to a love affair with light rail has been a disaster.  Rail is so much more expensive per passenger mile, and so inflexible, that it generally forces a shrinkage in the total number of riders at the same time that budgets explode (example article here).

There are a lot of explanations for this phenomenon.  Part of it is incentives - heads of agencies with rail get paid more than bus-only agencies, and unions love the higher-paying rail jobs that never go away (part of the flexibility issues with rail).  Part of the explanation is cultural - rail is now hip and edgy and allegedly green and modern.  Buses are so last century.

And part of it is social/racial.  White upper middle class yuppies wouldn't be caught dead on buses.   They like trains better, particularly when they are successful in running rail routes through middle class commuting routes.  If the cost of this forces cut backs on buses that run where the poor need to go, oh well.

So, I ask you, what city in America is most famous as a model for urban planning and light rail?  Portland.  So it is interesting to see what effect this planning and transit strategy has had on the population.  I have already written here before that Portland bus service has been gutted in favor of rail, such that total ridership in the city has dropped despite spending a lot more transit dollars.  These maps from the Portland Oregonian show another effect -- shifting transit dollars to modes favored by rich white people has... caused Portland to be increasingly white.  What a surprise.  Via the anti-Planner


  1. Foxfier:

    Living in the Seattle area, I'd be willing to ride the bus if I could be fairly sure of my personal safety. (That headline grabbing recent beating isn't highly unusual, just a bit extreme.)

    #1 thing they could do to up the ridership: some sort of security force, both with and without uniforms, on the buses and around the area.

    Of course, they're too busy raising the bus drivers' pay to worry about a little thing like people actually using the bus of their own free will or something.

  2. Anonymous Mike:

    Many years ago, before I could work from home, I was forced to take the bus into the office for about week. What was normally a 20 minute drive became a 75 to 90 minute slog (Chandler to the Broadway Curve.)

    To top it, I quickly learned the obvious which was that by taking the bus you couldn't run the normal errands on the way back from work - picking up dry cleaning, groceries, etc....

    To Warren's point though. The bus was mostly white but almost all blue-collar, nobody was carrying bags from Whole Foods. After about the 3rd day riding the bus, one of the regular riders struck up a conversation with me and after learning my car was in the shop apologized and said the conventional wisdom among the regulars was that based on my dress (shirt and tie)that I had my license suspended due to a DUI.

    Note that was an express bus that went right by my house, bascially the last stop before it went to downtown Phoenix and a much more professional demographic there. So I'm going to say the phenomena Warren describes is as much class as race.

    Two other observations about light rail in Phoenix:

    1) To my knowledge, unlike say the freeway system built since 1985, there has never been an up-or-down election anywhere in the Phoenix-area on light rail. I believe that the issue was always sold as part of a larger mix of transportation projects. So if you remember how thery had to sell the idea of a new stadium for the Cardinals - by saying it was really to attract the Super Bowl and BCS and that the Cards would just happen to play there on weekends - perhaps we can call the Phoenix light rail system the "Cardinals Stadium of Transportation"

    2) I've seen alot of discussion about the bad public policy of publically subsidzing home ownership and university education by falsely associating their mere posession with success rather than their unsubsidized posession indicating underlying factors closely correlated with success. Sort of like a cargo cult. My guess is that alot of the push for light rail was from people who would rarely if ever ride but saw its existence as confirming the Phoenix-area as being world-class (see Lyle Lanley)

  3. David:

    My wife and I live in Washington DC and ride the bus there fairly regularly. Admittedly, the white percentage on the buses seems low, but I don't have much data about that. My peers tend to be more comfortable on the metro than on the bus - personally I prefer the bus.

  4. DrTorch:

    Never ceases to amaze me how the left continues to push for institutional racism (min wage, bad public schools, zoning regulations) while labeling everyone else as "racist" and they never get called on it!

    Geez, you'd think at least one bleeding heart black studies prof, or even a motivated journalist would put the links together.

  5. ADiff:

    I would think anyone who familiar with the history of the Mexican 'intelligencia' would understand how this works. One of the main purposes of such is to create a trendy, 'edgy', and distinct, argument for policies seemingly at odds with established power (rent seeking, anyone?) but actually mutually reinforcing and effectively leading to the same ends, i.e. supporting established interests by marrying them to the interests of the privileged lumpen proletariat (his flawed analysis makes Marx's terminology no less useful at times).