Sunday, April 9, 2006

Public transportation – that’s for losers, right?

   I flew to Baltimore/Washington airport this weekend and had to make my way to downtown D.C.  The BWI airport is now the busiest of the three in the greater Washington area, even thought it's about 25 miles from the White House - further out than Congress-friendly little Reagan National and corporate-office-park-friendly Dulles.  For an out-of-towner arriving at BWI, the question is:  How to get to D.C?  Conveniently, the Washington Metro system has a nonstop express bus that runs 15 miles to the Metrorail station at the Greenbelt suburb, where one can then quickly hop a direct train for downtown.  The bus costs $3; the train about another $3.  Alternatives include renting a car, having someone pick you up (there was a double-column of illegally parked cars in front of the "No Waiting" signs; I persuaded a middle-aged woman in a Hummer to at least leave the bus stop), or taking a taxi, which costs about $70 to D.C., including tip.      
   As usual, the express bus was mostly empty.  I make this ride often, and this weekend's riders were typical - a handful of college students, a couple arriving from another country on vacation, and a few assorted others, including a disproportionate number of African Americans.  As the bus whisked me toward Washington, I wondered: Why is such a comfortable, efficient, and very inexpensive means of transportation so unpopular?  I number of factors contribute, including ignorance (America buses are poorly advertised), concerns over schedules (there was no posted schedule at the airport bus stop), and the nearly reflex notion that covering ground must be done by private automobile.  In addition, author Jim Motavalli has written cogently about the cultural bias against bus riders - train riding is somewhat better - as "losers" in society.  Poor people ride buses; if I ride the bus, I must be like them in some unhappy way.    
   Americans will learn to ride the bus, I contend, only if our bus systems become more efficient, cleaner, safer, and better-advertised.

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Comments

May I recommend for further reading a very good article describing the socio-economic distribution of travel mode choice:

Pucher, J. and Renne, J., 2003. "Socioeconomics of Urban Travel: Evidence from the 2001 NHTS." Transportation Quarterly, 57:3, Summer 2003, pp. 49–77.

One can find the paper here:
http://policy.rutgers.edu/papers/14.pdf

In particular, readers might be interested in Table 8: Modal Split by Income Class, and Table 10: Income Distribution for Each Mode's Users. Also of interest: Table 13: Variations in Modal Choice by Race/Ethnicity.

Posted by: Kurt Paulsen | Apr 10, 2006 11:53:46 AM

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