You know that it's a bit uncommon for white people to take the bus in L.A. when a “how to” guide is published. In 10 Things to Know About Taking a Bus in Los Angeles, Liz Shannon Miller depicts a ride on the Los Angeles Metro bus system as an exotic and thrilling experience.
“I've been asked two or three times whether I'd gotten a DUI – for many, that's the only logical reason a white girl with an iPad would be taking the bus at all,” she writes. Lots of L.A. people do take the bus regularly. But among 1 million daily users in L.A., most don't have Miller's skin color. Why?
]U.S. Census data show that Los Angeles public transit riders are among the least-representative, demographically speaking, of the city in which they live. White people comprise 32 percent of all L.A. commuters regardless of whether they drive or ride, for example. But only 11 percent of public transit riders are white (and only 9 percent of bus riders).
Yet in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago there's only a few percentage points difference between those cities' total white populations and the percentage of white people who use public transportation.
So what's the beef with public transit, white Angelenos?
Some say it's the stigma of taking public transportation, especially the bus. Four years ago, bus rider Jacqueline Carr got a lot of attention for postings in her then-blog, Snob on a Bus. She told the Los Angeles Times:
“I felt like I was too good for the bus. … I think there's a social understanding and a construction around that if you take the bus, you take it because you don't have money. There's a social standard. Obviously I had bought into that.”
But Jarrett Walker, who has designed transportation systems in multiple cities, says stigma and social standing are not what's keeping L.A.'s white folks in their cars.
In a blog post, he points out that white residents are more likely to live in low-density areas where bus service is not common or practical. Meanwhile, the population of the area served by Metro is well over 70 percent people of color, “which means that the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect.”
Walker tells L.A. Weekly:
“There is no reason to believe that Angelenos are irrational about their transportation choices. … I believe a transportation system is reflective of its usefulness. The focus should be on making a more useful system. Do that, and [increased] diversity will be a side effect.”
Walker argues that the way to get bigger ridership more reflective of Los Angeles is to increase density along L.A.'s transit lines: add special transit lanes for buses (as the city is currently creating on Wilshire Boulevard) and push for transit-oriented developments (TODs) that feature high-density buildings filled with offices and housing near the major transit routes.
But others doubt that creating extra density along the routes will dramatically change L.A.'s ridership demographics. Given the choice, wealthier consumers (who are disproportionately white) may not ditch their cars.
As L.A. Weekly detailed in “What's Smart About Smart Growth,” during L.A.'s long rush hours, buses are stuck in the same snarled traffic that cars are, but unlike buses, your car doesn't pick you up late and ruin your chances of making your next transit connection. One cartographer using Metro data in 2011 found that many bus surface-street routes average around 10 miles per hour.
The National Complete Streets Coalition, which advocates for encouraging bicycling and getting buses moving by redesigning streets and transit stops, argues:
Buses get stuck in traffic, and their progress is further slowed by the constant need to merge back into the flow of traffic after pulling over to pick up passengers. Stop-and-go bus service discourages use, increasing traffic congestion by those who choose to drive instead.
Wendell Cox, who served for three terms on the late Mayor Tom Bradley's Transportation Commission, is among those who criticize the push now underway in Los Angeles, and led by Metro and top elected officials, to create dense new business/housing corridors that theoretically will feed those who live and work there onto the transit lines.
He agrees with Walker that race is a distraction – “It doesn't make sense to focus on the demographics” – but he also thinks that building TODs near transit stops is a waste of taxpayer money.
He says that unlike New York, San Francisco or Chicago, L.A. doesn't have job concentration in a single downtown area. It has several downtowns. So while building housing along the Gold Line between DTLA and Pasadena may help a few more professionals get downtown, there are relatively few of them to justify the costs.
“The densest area of downtown L.A. only represents 2.5 percent of the city's jobs” Cox says. So in almost all cases, it makes more sense to drive to work for those who can afford a car.
Unless residents who live in the transit-oriented developments that have been popping up along the Red Line, Gold Line, Blue Line and Expo Line have jobs in locales directly accessible by rapid transit – rail or bus – they probably will continue to drive.
“I am a proponent of public transportation where it makes sense. But Los Angeles, in most cases, is a place where you can't compete with the convenience of the automobile,” says Cox.
As long as the decision comes down to what's the quickest commute, both Cox and Walker agree that most who have a car – regardless of race – will get behind the wheel.
Walker still sees great hope for getting people in L.A. to ditch their cars if the transit system is made more practical and wide-reaching.
It's worth noting that the white commuter/blogger featured in the L.A. Times piece only started taking the Metro bus when the lease on her Jetta expired.