What roads and rails tell us about class and power

Sam Smith, 2009 – One of the least examined indicators of how power is distributed in our society is its transportation system. In America, transportation policy – like other things – is heavily weighted towards the elite and powerful. But we hardly ever discuss or debate it.

For one thing, travel habits vary by class and status. A federal study in 1995 found that people earning more than $50,000 a year traveled seven miles more a day than people earning less. People over 65 traveled 23 miles less a day. Non-drivers traveled 26 miles less a day.

And transportation spending reflects such differences, most strikingly in the amounts spent to subsidize the travel of wealthier suburban commuters compared with inner city non drivers.

And the trend is not changing. Obama’s stimulus package included four times as much for high speed rail for first class passengers than for all other types of rail and bus travel was barely mentioned.

One of the reasons it’s hard to understand this is because nobody talks about it. I learned this early in the planning for a subway in Washington as a lonely critic of the proposal. Some of my concerns had nothing to do with class or ethnicity such as the fact that subways didn’t compete for space with cars (unlike light rail) and that only a small percentage of those working in new development inspired by Metro would actually ride the rails to get there, so street traffic – as has proved to be the case – would actually increase.

But a surprising number of factors involved class and power. For example, the subway was approved the same year as the 1968 riots and begun the year after. It would allow white DC residents to escape the troubled city yet still use – and travel safely to and from – it for work and entertainment.

Interestingly, the first route went from the suburbs through an almost all white section of a two-thirds black town to the center of the city. I called it the Great White Way and dubbed the much later route to heavily black Anacostia the Underground Railroad. But you would hear not a word about this on the TV news or in the Washington Post.

The subway, while not competing with the automobile, did compete with bus lines replacing them with more expensive underground travel. In one or two cases these bus lines were actually making a profit. As time went on, and the Metro did not do as well as predicted, more and more bus routes were adjusted to force people onto the subway. And, as transit service for white commuters improved, that for inner city residents deteriorated.

Besides, it was clearly a one way system. If you lived the suburbs it would take you within walking distance of your downtown job. If you lived in the city and worked in the suburbs, you could take the new system out to the burbs and find yourself miles from work.

Now, more than 30 years after the Metro began, we finally have a study that confirms many of these concerns and it’s not just about one system. It’s about how we plan transportation policy all over America and how some get favored and some get screwed, and why we’re about to have high speed rail for some and still have lousy bus and train service for many more.

Kytja Weir, DC Examiner – Metrorail riders are more likely to have a college degree and earn higher wages, while those who ride the transit system’s bus service are more likely to be minorities and not own a car.

The demographic breakdown of Metro riders, published last week by the transit agency, paints a picture of the divide between who uses what is intended to be an interlocking system. The statistics date from . . .
Education levels vary, with 80 percent of rail riders having at least a college degree compared with 59 percent of Metrobus riders. Similarly, the median income of Metrorail riders is $102,110, while Metrobus riders earn a median $69,620 annually.

One of every five Metrobus riders does not have a car in his household. Meanwhile, only one in every 50 Metrorail riders reported being carless, with the typical rail rider reporting two vehicles per household.

More than half of Metrobus riders are black, Latino or Asian/Pacific Islander. But only a quarter of Metrorail riders are such racial or ethnic minorities.

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