the atlantic wonders if transit is failing white people

How do you react when you read the following sentence?

In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color. 

This supposedly shocking fact is the starting point for Amanda Hess's confused and aggravating piece in the Atlantic today, which argues that somehow transit is failing because it's not attracting enough white people.  "As minority ridership rises, the racial stigma against [buses] compounds," Hess writes.  Sounds alarming!  But who exactly is feeling this "stigma," apart from Ms. Hess, and how many of those people are there? 

Read it again:

In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color.

Now, how does your reaction change when I point out that in the 2010 census, just under 28% of the population of Los Angeles County is "non-Hispanic white," so over 70% can be called "people of color."  Now what if I tell you that as always, transit is most concentrated in the denser parts of the county, where the demand and ridership are higher, and these areas happen to be even less "non-Hispanic white" than the county at large?  (Exact figures can't be cited as this area corresponds to no government boundary.)  So the bus system, weighted by where the service is concentrated, serves a population of whom much, much more than 70% could be described as "people of color".

Please don't treat these figures as too precise.  The claim that "92% of Los Angeles bus riders are people of color" is impossible to fact-check because two of its key terms are ambiguous. 

  • Does "Los Angeles" mean the City of Los Angeles or Los Angeles County?  They're both big but very different.  Remarkably, though, both are over 70% "people of color."
  • Likewise there are many definitions of "Los Angeles bus rider" depending on which transit agencies you include.  I suspect Hess got her figure by looking just at LA Metro, rather than the many suburban operators who are also part of the total Los Angeles bus network, but it's hard to know. 
  • And by the way, I'm assuming that "people of color" include what the Census calls "Hispanic whites," as it has every time I've heard the term. (To the Census, anyone of European ancestry, including from Spain centuries ago, is "white.")

So to the extent we can track Hess's statistics here's what they say:  Los Angeles bus ridership is mostly people of color because Los Angeles is mostly people of color. 

But Hess wants the nonwhiteness of Los Angeles bus riders to be a problem, evidence that the transit agency — at least on the bus side — is somehow failing to reach out to white people. 

Racism has sometimes had a role in the history of U.S. transit planning, and there's a Federal regulatory system, called Title VI, devoted to ensuring it doesn't happen again.  But racist planning — discriminatory service provision aimed to advantage or disadvantage any ethnic group — is not only immoral but also a stupid business practice.  Diversity is the very essence of successful transit services — not just ethnic diversity but diversity of income, age, and trip purpose.  Great transit lines succeed to the extent that many different kinds of people with different situations and purposes find them useful.  As a planner, I want every line I design to be useful to the greatest possible range of people and purposes, because that ensures a resilient market that will continue even if parts of it drop out for some reason.

So why is it a problem that in massively diverse international cities we don't have "enough" white people on the bus? 

I happen to be in Los Angeles at the moment, on a brief and busy trip.  Tonight, after dark, I took a pleasant walk across downtown — from Union Station to 7th & Flower — pausing to note how safe I felt on streets and squares that were synonymous with crime and violence when I was a child.  Few of the people I saw were white like me, but the folks relaxing and listening to music in Pershing Square seemed like citizens of a decent city capable of joy.  (In a mean moment, I wanted to call my late grandmother and say: "Hi, Gramma! It's 10 PM and I'm in the middle of Pershing Square!"  I wanted to see the look on her face, back in 1980 or so.  She would probably have called the police and demanded they rescue me.)

Then I took the bus back to my Chinatown hotel, Metro Line 78, well after dark, and marveled at all the dimensions of the diversity.  Some people looked poor, others seemed prosperous and confident, but a strong social contract was obvious.  I read clues suggesting a huge range of professions, situations, life choices, and intentions.  And if Amanda Hess hadn't been so insistent about it, the fact that I was the only white person on the bus wouldn't have occurred to me, and certainly not occurred to me as any kind of problem.

Yes, there are plenty of people, still, who feel more comfortable riding with people who look like them, in a vague way that encompasses both race and class signals. But how much does this desire influence service planning?  How long should it?  Questions worth debating, I suppose.

Among young people out in downtown Los Angeles at night I see mostly interracial groups of friends.  I have no illusion that the whole city is like this, but it's striking nonetheless.  About 18 years ago in the New Republic — too old to be linkable — I read a story about how "post-racial" young people in Los Angeles are, how they are used to cultural diversity and uninterested in racial divides.  If any cultural observer could discern that then, how much truer it must be now.

Go ahead.  Try riding one of the well-lit, air-conditioned buses of inner Los Angeles.  It's not full of people just like you.  But neither is the city, and that's the glory of it.

65 Responses to the atlantic wonders if transit is failing white people

  1. B.T.Carolus July 11, 2012 at 4:25 am #

    I sort of have to disagree with you Jarrett. Yes, Hess’s article wanders off into the weeds after a while, and the issue is probably class/income more than race, but the perceived stratification between poor people who take the bus and middle class people who drive is a serious hindrance to increasing ridership in LA. Basically, most of the people I know in LA consider public transportation something that the county offers the poor to be nice to them. I’m far beyond that now, because I had to start taking the bus as a teenager (not because I was poor, but because my parents decided they weren’t going to chauffeur me everywhere I wanted to go), but just about everybody I know who lives in LA, my age, younger than me, older than me, considers the bus system to be for the poor and therefore dangerous because of the type of people who ride it. I’ve tried to be an evangelist for the bus. But when I suggested that other people in my high school take the bus/train to some place in LA they wanted to visit (Pasadena, Universal City, downtown) the reaction from both them and their parents was always that it was too dangerous to let them use the bus, and that the parents would need to drive the kids in. Then of course, once they have their own cars and can drive with their friends (there is a waiting period before teens can drive/ride together in California), there is no incentive to use the bus at all, because why would an adult with enough money for a car and gas ever ride the bus?
    My parents and I also received a lot of negative feedback, including from my own appalled grandmother, when I started using public transit and telling people about it (remember, I was a high schooler, not an 8 year old). When I was younger there were several times when I was flat out told by my parents’ friends that I needed to be careful and watch that I wasn’t assaulted or kidnapped while on the bus. My parents were also told by their friends that they were putting me in danger. Of course all of this was crazy, and I’ve never once felt in danger on the bus in LA, but try convincing sheltered, car-driving Arcadians of that. I also value the fact that I learned early how to deal with and dismiss creeps, something that a lot of my more sheltered friends in their mid-twenties still can’t do.
    I’ve long thought that Metro (and foothill transit) need to combat that image of the bus as dangerous and the resource of the poor if they want to start making a dent in the commuter traffic coming toward LA from eastern LA county. Basically, the middle class people there aren’t going to start riding the bus until they start thinking of it as something that is available for them, not something that is there to help poor people, but beneath them to use and probably dangerous to boot. (The other thing Metro could do is actually explain the bus system, and how to ride, to these people, but that’s another issue.)

  2. David Bickford July 11, 2012 at 5:34 am #

    Interesting reaction to the Hess post. As I commented on Atlantic Cities, I also disliked it — but for different reasons. I thought Hess was reviving tired bus vs. rail debates instead of seeing the value that both play in a good transit network. Maybe the main problem was that the Atlantic Cities post seemed to wander. Its thesis was unclear, leading to objections from a variety of perspectives.

  3. Ben Smith July 11, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    This article made me think of the 35D Jane St bus in Toronto. This branch serves one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in the city, before crossing the city limits to serve an industrial park in a wealthy Italian suburb. Did I mention that this route conveniently ends a couple of kilometres away from a suburban mall including a major bus terminal (both of which are located on Jane St)? Don’t want them scary blacks from the disadvantaged neighbourhood terrorizing our privileged Italian teenagers after all.
    I once got a chance to ask a transit planner involved in this line’s structure about this. He said that there wasn’t demand for people in this neighbourhood to come up to this area. However, I believe he misses the point. The point is about creating mobility, an objective relatively easy to reach thanks to the region’s grid of arterial roads. To end a major bus route a couple of kilometres away from a major trip generator and connection point along its route is poor transit planning at best, and environmental racism at worst.

  4. Jo Walton July 11, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    My son and I were in LA in January and we took the bus and the metro and found them convenient and good value and I didn’t consciously notice the racial mix which means it was pretty much the same as in Montreal and that I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I’m white.
    But the thing I did notice about the transit in LA was that it was incredibly crowded every time. If they’re going to encourage more people to take it, they need more vehicles! And maybe really separated bus lanes.
    And I think B.T. Carolus has a good point. One of the things that makes transit work in cities where it works is large numbers of people of all classes taking it for granted as a sensible option. If your friends look at you aghast when you tell them you took the bus — which happened to us in LA too — then there actually is a problem.
    It’s hard to see what the agency could do to change this. Actual people talking about it as normal can help in the long term. For instance, I almost always take Amtrak when I’m going anywhere in the US. I’ve noticed that in ten years of doing this, some of my friends have gone from being astonished that such a thing is possible to occasionally taking it themselves when it’s convenient.

  5. Neil July 11, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    I can understand class mattering, though not race. I realize that in some places, the two are more closely tied than they are where I live, but it’s still valuable to separate the two concepts.
    If there isn’t a critical mass of “transit by choice” riders, then there’s both a social stigma and a perceived danger to taking the bus, and it will be difficult to grow ridership beyond those who already take the bus because that’s what fits into their budget.
    Of course, this may have nothing to do with current service design (though it probably has roots in poor service decades ago) and the solution would then be more about marketing than transit planning.

  6. MLD July 11, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    @B.T. Carolus
    If they wanted to talk about class/income divides, then make that the focal point. But they focused heavily on the race aspect instead.
    Also they make the mistake of picking someone who is a “choice” rider (and she is) but doesn’t own a car, so she probably isn’t counted as a “choice” rider by the transit system.

  7. Tom West July 11, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    The obsession in the USA with the colour of people’s skin never fails to amaze and depress me.

  8. Electricyvr July 11, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    I found Hess’s article aggravating for a slightly different reason. She seems to imply that any effort to improve transit for whites (presumably equivalent to better off people) will come at the expense of worse service for non-whites (less well off people). Thus she seemed to be advocating that transit’s role is (and should be) social welfare in its narrowest possible definition. This is obviously a very discouraging perspective for anyone who views transit in a more holistic way – as a means of supporting land use and transportation patterns that are environmentally sound, efficient, equitable, and that deliver a higher overall quality of life.
    What is also sad is that Hess’s opinions encourage divisive thoughts within the transit community, figuratively paving the way to victory for a more unified road lobby.

  9. Horacio Hernandez July 11, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    I must ask what is Hess’ or the statistical (in this case) definition of color? Would hispanics or latinos be thrown in the statistic? Anyway, how is it relevant in this case if ‘color’ and income are not being directly compared? So whites = choice riders, while everyone else rides by discretion, (aka captive riders)?
    Exactly, but when trying to intergrate the two (as MLD said) one has a heavier focus over the other. In my opinion, that made the article fallacious in that aspect.
    The TTC would likely think they are doing you a favor crossing to Vaughan in the first place.

  10. Horacio Hernandez July 11, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    Just wondering, how old were you when you started using public transit, and how old are you now? I assumed the mentality was the independent (cool) kids would walk, bike, skate, use transit or a combination of those, while the sheltered (dweebs) kids forever relied on their parents. I know I wouldn’t be caught dead having my parents drive me in high school.
    Regarding an incentive to use transit, I myself being young, I would find the overall cost of car ownership: insurance, fuel, matainance, and anything extra greatly outweighing the cost of a transit pass. I mean who wouldn’t want an extra hundred or two at the end of the month, or were parents paying that too?
    And about combating the image of the bus as “dangerous and the resource of the poor”, Metro considers it rail and BRT as accomplishing just that.
    You also brought up Foothill Transit. Since it has existance, it has accomplished that exactly by seperating from the SCRTD, suburb to suburb service, its Commuter Express (400 series)routes. Later, Foothill would provide the Silver Streak as a premium service, literally seperating local routes from Downtown LA.
    And not to deviate far off topic, Foothill has always provided suburban bus service. It shows moreso now than ever with local bus cuts, seperation between local and commuter services, and with fares higher than neighboring agencies.

  11. Horacio Hernandez July 11, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    If it is of any interest to anyone, I been using public transit my whole life, and started using it independently at the age of seven, or nine years ago (I did say I was young). Now that I have the ability to own and operate a car, I chosse not to, because it is not worth my time of money, despite the fact that I now reside in the Riverside County suburbs.

  12. John Bassett July 11, 2012 at 11:14 am #

    As one of those white people on the bus in LA, I must say I notice a few more of us every year. Cars cost an awful lot of money to own and operate. My partner and I are both homeowners and professionals, but two car payments and double the insurance and maintenance – it was too much. So between my bike and the bus, we get by just fine with one car.
    As a white person, I am accustomed to being a minority in LA. Maybe that’s what Hess does not really grasp. You get accustomed to the idea that almost everybody here is from Mexico or Central America. It’s no big deal.

  13. Tom July 11, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Two additional comments about the Toronto 35D route:
    First, the route crosses a fare boundary at the city limits, so anyone who wants to go from Toronto to the mall Ben mentioned and back would have to pay 4 fares, not 2. This may be the source of the low demand that the transit planner mentioned.
    Second, the TTC 35D runs into Vaughan under contract with York Region Transit, who pays the TTC to provide service on the southern part of Jane St in the city of Vaughan. But oddly enough, YRT runs their own route 20 either very close to or on Jane St, connecting northern Vaughan with York University (in Toronto, just east of Jane St) Why would YRT have two routes with that much overlap between them? It would make more sense to run just one route, probably with a branch or two, at a higher frequency. This will probably change with the subway extension into Vaughan in the next few years.

  14. anonymouse July 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    I think the more interesting demographic statistic here is not race but whether or not riders have a driver’s license (which is a proxy for both access to a car and socioeconomic class), which is a statistic that the MTA has collected and published at some point, and they showed that the bus lines were to a large extent carrying those with no alternative, while the rail system had a higher proportion of potential drivers. Mostly, this is just a matter of buses being inherently slower than driving, while rail can be faster than driving during rush hour (and indeed, the demographics of rail riders vary considerably depending on time of day and day of week).
    The other thing to remember about LA is that it’s still a very fragmented city, in part due to the car culture. You don’t really look at what other people in cars are like, and you can’t really see their neighborhoods behind the freeway soundwalls. If you just drive from your white neighborhood to other white neighborhoods, then you’ll think that the city is a lot more white than it actually is, because all you ever see is white people. Transit, especially LA’s long grid lines, goes across all kinds of neighborhoods, breaking down these barriers and forcing people to confront the diversity of their city.

  15. Phantom Commuter July 11, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    Hess sounds so dated. She is obviously a “creative class” transplant from one of the more segergated East Coast cities. Things have changed. It’s now “cool” to ride Metro. Let her stay in her Westside bubble with all the other yuppies.

  16. Mark Elliot July 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    I agree that the piece conflated race and class in a way that clouds the key point, but I don’t disagree with the overall framing: that proportionally high ridership among people of color even further troubles political support for transit, and that insufficient public investment over the long term erodes service quality and undermines value. Value seems to me to be the crux. Because race and class are highly associated (education), perhaps non-people of color have access to better value elsewhere. The ‘choice’ riders.
    I won’t quibble with the demographic figures; I need only consider my own experience on a major bus line. At various times and days, the 92% “people of color” observation (as general as it is) seems right. It is a high-profile, high-ridership line: the Rapid 720 connects coast to interior with newer, articulated stock, shiny station kiosks, and making limited stops.
    I am white, culturally white, and different in that regard from many other riders. Not many like me are riding. Even at peak work times (employment wasn’t really addressed and should have been). Having traveled the northeast commuter lines and NYC subway for many years, I’m accustomed to both culturally homogenous and heterogenous transit environments. Both offered good value if in different ways.
    On value, this particular line is a mixed bag: a workable alternative to driving or biking, but crowded, dim, noisy (TVs) and very, very bumpy. Probably above average for Metro, all told. But I would simply rather ride a bike for the 5-10 miles that I usually travel because I find the overall experience, uh, unpalatable.
    Not so in countries where there is a solid constituency for rail, and consequently solid political support. (And maybe it works the other way too, as the article suggests.) Value improves greatly with speed, regularity, and reach. It’s essentially an efficiency thing, and efficiency in mass transit feels like value.
    Metro in LA doesn’t meet that standard, so ‘choice’ here is more a function of limited or suboptimal alternatives rather than the experience itself. From that perspective, I too don’t know what Metro can do to make the bus inviting. Perhaps throttle those other options through parking pricing, bus-only lanes, etc. (Hess mentions the latter.)
    I think Hess could have gotten to the politics & value issue more directly by compacted the context (and it did range around a bit geographically) at the top. But I appreciate the thrust of the piece.

  17. Kenny July 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    This is definitely something I’ve noticed quite a bit when riding the bus in LA. When I take the 754 to USC, I often stay past Jefferson and get off at Exposition. There are many occasions on which I’ve noticed that every single person who looked visibly white got off the bus at Jefferson, so that even though the bus is still crowded (standing room only) there is not a single white-looking person on the bus once it passes the main USC stop. On the other buses I ride regularly (the 2, the 4, and the 704) the crowds aren’t normally quite as big so the ratio isn’t normally quite as extreme.
    I hadn’t made the connection that LA was substantially more than 70% non-white though – I think as other commenters pointed out, because of working at USC and the places I end up hanging out, I see a much whiter sampling of LA than is really representative, except when I’m on the bus.
    Somehow, the racial mix on the bus wasn’t as obvious to my partner, even though he’s white. I’m not sure whether the fact that I ride much more often than him makes this seem more or less expected.

  18. Andre Lot July 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    I problem I see with buses is that they rarely have a two service class systems. Regardless of lame ethnic discussion, I think class and status are important in the discussion.
    Many people, probably me included if I lived in Los Angeles, would be more inclined to use transit more if premium options with all-seat rides, more spacious seats, English-only announcements/panels, were available even at fares 3 times those of the ones charged.
    Part of the benefits of car use is exactly that you can, up to a point, isolate yourself and provide yourself more comfort if you have a more rewarding (financially) career. Buses and streetcars don’t offer that opportunity for you to spend more to get premium service.

  19. anonymouse July 11, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    @Andre, that’s something where I’m sure you could find some actual empirical data, because I’m sure someone somewhere has tried these two-class systems. I know the Paris Metro used to have first class cars, but got rid of them quite a while ago, and the RER also had first class until a decade or two ago. In the UK, metro and inner-suburban services only have class, while outer suburban and long distance service have Standard and First Class. And in Russia, there are a few premium-fare suburban express trains. In general, though, there are two trends here: one is that higher capacity means less differentiation, in terms of speed or comfort, or anything else. The other trend is one of more differentiation on longer-distance services, probably because comfort matters more with a longer journey. This is also related to the first trend in that more people travel shorter distances, so the short-distance services need the capacity more.

  20. BP July 11, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    I’m calling shenanigans on Jarrett. I don’t believe you stepped on that bus and didn’t immediately notice the racial homogeneity. Even as a black male, I’ve never ridden a city bus without being struck by just how minority heavy it actually was. Anyone saying they don’t notice race when they ride the bus is either lying or isn’t too observant. The relationship between race and transit ridership is one of the most fascinating aspects of urban sociology. Noticing it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
    One of the points Hess makes is that many potential choice riders stigmatize bus systems for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that buses are full of poor people. That’s a shame, but its true. And if I’m a choice rider uncomfortable with the bus’ low-income riders, walking onto the bus and looking at a sea of black/brown faces isn’t going to assuage those concerns nor change my perception buses. This bus may be the most economically diverse in the world, but unless everyone in there is wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase many people will undoubtedly still see “poor” when they see “black”. And I don’t think that makes them racist. We just aren’t as a place as a society where we can walk onto a city bus full of blacks and Hispanics and not immediately think poverty (which is probably good thing, because that’s usually what it means).
    Yes, it’s important that we tease apart race and class in order to fully understand issues like these. But it’s also important that we appreciate how deeply related these two things are in our society at large and in our individual psyches. The problem isn’t just that buses primarily serve a poor demographic. The problem is that the way we recognize that reality is by stepping on a bus and seeing its racial homogeneity.

  21. Jarrett at July 11, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

    Not sure where you're coming from but you're dead wrong. 
    First of all, Los Angeles buses are not racially homogeneous in any way, unless they happen to be passing through one of the few remaining areas that are largely single-race.  All kinds of races are on the buses.  And I expect there to be relatively few whites because there are relatively few whites in LA.  I'm quite comfortable being a racial minority.
    Second, when I look around the bus to evaluate how safe it feels, race is noticeable but simply not relevant.  What matters is whether there's a diversity of people who mostly look like they're part of a social contract — such that their presence is a deterrent to anyone who might act out.  If I got on a bus where there were few people except a bunch of guys in the back who were obviously together and looking really menacing, I might get off, but that would have nothing to do with the race of those people.  It would have to do with their behavior.
    Racial stereotyping — including stereotyping whites as people who are terrified of other races — is a tragic distraction from almost everything that matters in improving transit, and I for one will not contribute to making it any more distracting than it is.

  22. BP July 11, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

    I never said you personally attributed anything negative to the race of your fellow riders. I believe you completely when you say you eschew racial stereotyping and look for other markers to determine your comfort level on a bus. I just don’t believe you when you say you didn’t immediately notice race and wouldn’t have noticed race at all unless the Hess article had primed you to think about it. You may not have been uncomfortable with it, but I think you should have noticed it.
    We all should notice race. Whether its seen in a positive, negative, or neutral light its one of the ways people understand their world. Racial dynamics in cities are important. As academics or even people remotely interested in urban studies we do the field a disservice by claiming to be race blind.
    Now what I did argue was that many choice riders may not have moved past unconscious racial stereotyping the way you have. Numerous psych studies support that thesis (here’s one: This is partially why there is such a negative stigma attached to buses, and that stigma has broader implications for crafting successful public transit policy. I think that was part of what Hess was arguing. I tend to think she’s right.

  23. Jarrett at July 11, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    Thanks for driving this conversation.
    So you say I "should" notice race.  What exactly "should" I notice about race when I board a bus?  And why exactly should I care?
    Are you saying I should be aware that this bus contains 6 African-Americans, 2 whites, 5 Latinos and 2 Asians?  That I should care about the various racial categories?  That would be impossible even if it were useful, because Los Angeles has something like 100 ethnicities now!  It's one of the great international melting pots of the planet, where I expect to meet people from every country in the world.  It's also been a melting pot for long enough that there have been generations of interracial marriage and offspring — all further blurring any racial category systems that you might want to cling to. 
    It's no longer even true that race is visually obvious.  Are you sure you could distinguish a Latino from a Persian if he was at the other end of a bus, maybe looking down into a book minding his own business?   Could you tell if he was half-Persian half-Latino as opposed to half-Persian half-African?  Maybe you could because you've sharpened those skills, but I can't and I don't hone those skills because race is just one of many kinds of beautiful diversity, and not necessarily the most interesting or relevant anymore.
    I understand that this looks completely different if your frame of reference is a highly segregated city like Chicago, or like Los Angeles used to be.  But in Los Angeles is trending away from hard segregation of neighborhoods and toward more and more mixture, and I think that's wonderful. 
    As for the prevalence of racial stereotyping, yes, I know it exists and that I assume you'd agree that people of many races are capable of doing it in different ways.  I just don't see what relevance this has to designing great transit systems when the diversity of ridership is one of the keys to transit's success in serving the whole city.  If you're implying that racial stereotyping by whites is a particular concern, we'd need to know how many whites really do this.  Whites who love life in inner-city LA probably mostly don't, because extreme racial diversity, interracial friendship, and interracial couples with mixed offspring are the norm of daily experience there.  And with whites dropping to barely a quarter of the population, I'd also need to know why we're should be so especially worried about their needs and supposed prejudices, as opposed to everyone else's. 
    You say again that race "is part of why there's such a negative stigma attached to buses"  By whom?  Where?  Show me studies tracing the shape and extent of this supposed stigma, carefully sorting out how much of it is about race as opposed to class or behavior/demeanor, and whether it's exclusively a white sensation or something that others feel.  How common is this stigma among the white population of LA?  Often, when I hear about this "stigma," it sounds like people are just projecting their personal anxieties onto the population.  That's certainly the impression Hess gave; she seemed to just assume that all whites immediately recognize these feelings in themselves.  We don't. 

  24. BP July 11, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

    Race matters in part because this unfair stereotyping exist. Residential, transit, and school segregation keep large swaths of citizens from interacting with people of other races in a meaningful way. The only way to dispel ignorant stereotypes is to encourage diversity and meaningful exchanges in areas with entrenched segregation. When we see that segregation on buses, or in schools, or in neighborhoods its should always prompt us to ask questions and begin to think of ways to encourage integration.
    I’m going to defer to you on LA. I don’t live there and don’t know the city or its bus system well enough to argue with you about its diversity. If it’s actually the interracial/racially harmonious melting pot that you say it is, then fantastic. Hess must be wrong on that front.
    But I do know New Haven. I know that when I get on the city bus in one the whitest areas and see only black faces at the bus stop and on the bus, I can’t help but question whats going on? What does that mean for the cities segregation patterns? Is there a way we can create a more diverse ridership to get more political/financial support for the bus system? Is this transit system adequately connecting minorities to the places they work? Could the money for proposed streetcar be better spent updating the bus system that already exists along its route?
    If LA is actually as integrated as you say it is then people in cities like New Haven, and Chicago, and Miami should strive to emulate diversity like that within their own transit systems. They shouldn’t get on a bus and turn a blind eye to the stark racial disparities in front of them. Because, whether we like it or not, race still matters.
    Before I end I just wanted to establish that I don’t think it’s only white people that hold unfair stereotypes. They exist across all races and manifest themselves in different ways. And they all need to be dispelled. I hope I didn’t say anything to make you think otherwise.

  25. Jarrett at July 12, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    If your experience is conditioned by life in a historically bi-racial city like New Haven instead of a multi-racial one like Los Angeles, I can now understand your perception.  I'm not saying LA is always harmonious.  I am saying it's so multiracial, with so many races and so many interracial people, that your binary categories won't help you there, and can only cause you to posit exclusion and discrimination when what's happening is far more  complex and quite possibly benign.  Again, whites are barely 1/4 of LA County, so I don't see much problem with there not being many of them on the bus.  That has no relevance to the work of a great transit system, which is to attract a diverse ridership by being useful compared to the alternatives.

  26. Eric July 12, 2012 at 12:33 am #

    I don’t always notice, and certainly don’t care, if the passengers on my bus are tall or short. Why should I notice or care if they are black or white?

  27. CF July 12, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    It’s impossible to leave race and class out of this discussion, when transit agencies so often base routes and schedules on them. What’s wrong with acknowledging that more people of color than whites ride the bus?
    I’m from a city where whites make up 60% of the population. When I lived in my hometown I, a white woman, rode the bus everywhere I needed to go, and I was often the only white person. Soaring gas prices and the cost to own and maintain a car just aren’t worth the significant chunk of a hard-earned paycheck.
    Like many places, the bus system in my hometown skips over white neighborhoods. I had to ride my bike 5 minutes from my apartment to the bus station, situated between a cemetery, large parking lot, and Section 8 housing. Unfortunately, there are a lot of murders at this bus station, and I was warned by someone at the local transit agency that a nice girl like myself shouldn’t be there or even ride the bus period. This came from one of the presidents of the transit agency. Nice, eh?
    My job was planner in the local city government. My boss was the transportation manager. A new light rail system recently opened and the city went crazy for this thing. People who had never ridden transit in their life were so excited and rode it just for fun. The public started to wonder if the buses could connect from the light rail to popular destinations like the airport. The transit agency worked with my boss and came up with a plan for a temporary route to the airport. If it was successful after a three month trial, the route would become permanent. The bus would start at the dangerous bus station, you know – the one in the cemetery – and go through a few neighborhoods on the way to the airport. The bus goes nowhere near the light rail station. I sat down with my boss and asked why they chose that particular route. He said that the City and the transit agency didn’t want to bother with the costs of a new route, so they designed one they knew would fail. Unfortunately, people living in Section 8 housing probably don’t have much of a reason to go to the airport unless they work there, and who is going to risk waiting in a very dangerous, ugly bus station hidden from the road by a cemetery and huge parking lot at 5am to jump on a bus to catch a plane?
    It’s in our best interest to design transit for everyone and to acknowledge that race and class still play a major role in urban design. Just because race and class are sensitive issues doesn’t mean that we should pretend they don’t exist.

  28. B.T.Carolus July 12, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    I started riding the bus when I was 14, ten years ago. Incidentally, my first bus was the Foothill transit 480/481, essentially the bus pictured at the top of Hess’s article, and the bus that the Silver Streak basically replaced (the 480 into LA was a premium service, too, because there were heavy extra zone charges when it hit the HOV lane after El Monte). I hadn’t really had a need to take the bus before that, because my dad (who grew up in Europe, hence his different approach) encouraged us to bike everywhere. Of the kids in my social group, school, etc. when I was in late elementary school through junior high, I am the only one who thought of her bike as a legit way to get around the city (Arcadia) rather than a recreational vehicle to be pulled out during times of boredom. Every one of my friends stopped riding their bikes in high school (and most never upgraded from their kid sized bikes), even though many of them lived within an easy riding distance of school. They also complained and still joke about how I was always inviting people to accompany me on bike rides. I wanted to go places and wasn’t going to wait around for my mom, so I often went myself, or with the one friend I could convince. There was a sort of intermediate period for most of my classmates, between junior high and junior year, when they were totally dependent on their parents, but waiting eagerly to get their licenses. And then we were juniors when a new law was passed that put a 6-month waiting period in place between a minor receiving their license and being allowed to drive teen passengers. Because of that, a lot of the girls in my high school didn’t even bother to do the learning permit thing until they were 17.5 or even 18. A few guys got their licenses, and then they drove everybody else around for senior year. They borrowed their parents’ cars (almost every driver in my senior class had a gas card from their parents as well, and nobody had a job), or their parents gave them a car. Incidentally, I was the “dweeb” and the whole reason my father felt compelled to stick me on the bus was because he didn’t want to drive me daily to a special program for gifted high school students at CalState LA that first summer.
    One thing you should keep in mind when considering transit choices, people make decisions based on their perceptions. Part of this has to do with perceptions of what/who the bus is for. Part of this is perception of self, and how the self should interact with the world. When you come from a place where nobody you know has ever used the bus as a way to get around, and everybody you know drives the moment they are able, it doesn’t necessarily occur to you to take the bus. In fact, when my dad first told me that I was going to take the bus into LA, I thought he was bonkers, which is why I feel like I understand this mindset. Taking the bus isn’t even a possible option for most of the people who live in this area, because they perceive themselves to be people who are drivers, as opposed to those other people who are unfortunate enough to need to take the bus. They perceive cars as necessary, and will arrange their lives around the car and keeping the car. Unless something happens that changes these perceptions, these people will continue driving, occasional gold line trip not withstanding.
    “And about combating the image of the bus as “dangerous and the resource of the poor”, Metro considers it rail and BRT as accomplishing just that.” If metro (and foothill) really think of BRT and rail this way, metro is being incredibly stupid, and they’re still not getting the message out. Commuters in the north SGV, for example, basically think of the gold line as a fun day trip for sometime in the summer when you feel like visiting Olvera Street or maybe China Town for the day. Or maybe they want to have a nice dinner out at Traxx. They have no idea that there is a rail network, or that they could transfer to the red line at Union Station (or that LA has a subway, I have dropped that bombshell many a time). They also have no idea that they could catch a bus from Union Station or from any metro station to get to a more specific location. They also have no idea that they could just jump onto a bus going through their neighborhood and it would take them to Sierra Madre Villa. No, they drive their cars to the train. This is not a legitimate way to get the people that live in this area (and commute every day) to start actually using the bus as a real mode of transportation, either as a regular part of their commute or even as an alternative way to get around.
    Yes, Foothill has always provided (pretty crappy, non-comprehensive) coverage of the eastern Los Angeles county suburbs. I started on foothill buses, but I think I got fed up with them after two years. I had some serious issues with their customer service and their drivers not honoring my student bus pass that I won’t go into. But I also realized that, because of the part of the county that I lived in, the only way for me to get into, say, Pasadena, on a foothill bus was to back track into Monrovia and transfer. Foothill serves as an ok way to get from the close suburbs to LA, or from the far suburbs to Pasadena (if you live on a line, or can walk long distances, or have a car). But they don’t give great local coverage (check out Irwindale, Azusa, and Covina on their map). My brother, for example, was trying to take transit to his job in conjunction with his bike, and he basically can’t because there isn’t service where/when he wants to go. This is not a good way to convince people who can drive that transit is a legitimate alternate form of transportation. It is a good way to make people think that public transit is basically a conduit to take you between a parking lot/garage and downtown LA, but that’s not enough to get people to switch over, because they’d rather just drive to a parking garage in LA.

  29. Horacio Hernandez July 12, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    Thank you for the insight, and please don’t think I was calling you out. If many others share the same perception of public transit as you do then something really has to change.

  30. Jarrett at July 12, 2012 at 8:27 am #

    CF.  I don't share your certainty that routes and schedules are based on race.  Sometimes this happens because of a Title VI compliance problem, but that doesn't mean the original service plan had any race-based motivation.
    You really nail down the self-contradiction at the end.  As a transit planner, you tell me I should be aware of race but design services for everyone.  If I'm designing services for "everyone," how exactly should my awareness of race affect my design of the network?  Give me an example of how this would work in an ideal world. 

  31. Jarrett at July 12, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    BT Carolus (but relevant to several comments). 
    On this topic it's common to see comments that narrate a personal story and then use that to justify a claim that "everyone" feels a certain way.  This, I suspect, is a large part of how the notion of a vast "stigma" around buses was invented.  You're projecting the feelings of people you know onto a large population.
    This is a topic where lots of people claim to "know" what public opinion and knowledge are.  If people in San Gabriel Valley didn't know what the Gold Line is for, or though it was for fun day trips in the summer, the ridership would be far lower than it is.  Show me surveys before you tell me what "everyone" thinks.  (This is actually relevant to several comments!)  This is my complaint about Hess's piece.  She posits a "stigma" around buses but cites no evidence for how big it is, or how many people feel it, or why it should be an overriding consideration. 

  32. Bay Area Transit Planner July 12, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    I could tell my own personal LA suburban story of transit ignorance, but in light of your comment at 8:36, I will focus on numbers instead.
    You site Hess’ figure that “92 percent of bus riders are people of color” and counter that “just under 28% of the population of Los Angeles County is “non-Hispanic white.”” For me your numbers have the opposite of the intended effect – they make Hess’ figure all the more striking (assuming it is accurate). Apparently whites in LA County ride transit at less than 30% of the rate they would be expected to, based on their proportion of the population. If the difference is because they don’t live in the areas that are served by transit, as you imply in the next sentence, that only goes to show that LA is much more racially segregated than you are admitting in this post or your various replies. It might not be white/black segregation as in Chicago or New Haven, but white/mixed segregation is still segregation.

  33. Jarrett at July 12, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    For most of the use of the word in American history, "segregation" meant government policies, or government-tolerated actions, that are specifically designed to keep races separate.  You're proposing a very different definition. 
    If by "segregation" you just mean that every portion of the county doesn't have exactly the same distribution of population by race, well, that's true everywhere, and it's an inevitable result of people making choices in a free society, and it's going to happen even when absolutely nobody has anything remotely like a racist intention.  New immigrant from particular countries, for example, will continue to cluster for mutual support and linguistic community, not because anyone is forcing them to.
    What happens now is that classes self-segregate, in a way that's simply unavoidable.  Some areas are expensive to live in and have no mix of housing types, so only wealthy people live there.  Yes, whites tend to be wealthier on average so these areas are more white, but policies requiring this have been illegal for decades and there are now enough wealthy "people of color" that these wealthy areas will inevitably become more diverse, especially as the white population continues to plummet as a percentage of the total population.  These also tend to be low-density areas where transit can't be very effective anyway, so there's nothing wrong with there being little ridership from these areas; as I argue in my book, it's geometrically inevitable.
    So why bring race into it?  Why does race, as opposed to class, matter?  And what, exactly, is the problem we're all supposed to worry about?

  34. BP July 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    I’m still not sure why being aware of race and designing transit systems for everyone necessarily amounts to some self-contradiction. If I want to make a bus system thats accessible and comfortable to everyone, I might want make bus schedules and route maps available in Spanish if I know I serve a large Latino population. Or, if I know I’m going to serve a large senior population, I might want to equip my busses with features that make them more handicap accessible. There are countless reasons why you would want to tailor some aspects of your system to individual demographics to attract the widest possible ridership. I actually can’t imagine another way to design a system that aims to serve everyone. Let me know why I’m wrong.

  35. Andre Lot July 12, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    I concur with Jarret in that, in this specific case, “race” is just a bad proxy for “class”. And I also think as large swaths of people born and raised on post-segregation US (think of people born in the late 1970s or later), class, not race, will become more relevant over time.
    Now back to two service class systems: on heavily trafficked lines, frequent or not so frequent, there is strong pressure in terms of perceived unfairness of underused train cars – for instance – for 1st class while many people are standing on 2nd class. Also, without further differentiation of the passenger experience, merely better (or guaranteed) seats are not enough on themselves.
    I think that, maybe, solutions like PRT or similar things that are reaching later stages on their development might help to create a two- or even three-tiered transit system where people, according to their ability/willingness to pay, can still have more comfort choices instead of a one-size-fits-all model. That could be a major boon to attract choice rider without any “war on cars” venom thrown around.
    I actually think the elasticity demand-price per mile on public transit used for commuting might be actually higher than the one for air travel, for instance. People are usually willing to get a bit less service/space to save on air fares, because they see flight not as a recurrent event (those who travel often also spend more on fares for better service/schedule/connections etcc).
    Faced with a choice of better daily commute, they are probably willing to spend more per additional unit of comfort. But, for that, there would be a need to have some technologically feasible model that allowed, on transit, the equivalent of buying an overpowered SUV with seat electric heating and 9 cup-holders (and all the status associated with a brand) when a compact Sedan would deliver a just marginally less comfortable trip in the same time by the same route.
    Going back to Los Angeles, I think it could be massively shifted to non-car commutes if there was a meaningful way for people to use transit systems that allowed, while commuting, to keep the same social distance they keep from certain groups of people (like rowdy teenagers listening rap loud on a bus stop) they already avoid during other daily activities (such as having breakfast at some design-cafe or cupcake store instead of McDonalds).
    While avoiding someone because of their phenotype is a stupid idea, avoiding people whose behavior you don’t like should be an entitlement if you can pay, or out-pay, for it. This happens in housing (many neighborhoods are relatively expensive not because of location, services, crime statistics or quality of housing stock, but because people pay a premium to avoid living close to – for instance – neighbors without education whose children run amok in the streets talking expletives or with a fatalist mindset not oriented to success you’d rather avoid exposing your own child to.

  36. Jarrett at July 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    BP.  Good transit systems do all the things you suggest, but not one of the examples you mentioned is about race!   I completely agree that you want to communicate in appropriate languages, respond to disability etc etc.  But those are all race-blind activities. 
    Language may seem like it's about race, but it isn't. 
    Businesses use Spanish not because there are a lot Latinos, but because there are a lot of people who are comfortable in Spanish and not English.  That's only a subset of Latinos (many Latinos fluently bilingual and some have grown up in English-only environments).   It may also include some folks from Spain.  Yes, address communication barriers around language, but that's different from race.

  37. BP July 12, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    What about a situation where you’re rolling out a new transit system and crafting a PR campaign to publicize it. After the first few weeks of implementation you notice that ridership numbers aren’t what you expected, and you dig deeper to find out why. Turns out, the PR campaign isn’t reaching African Americans in high enough numbers because as a group (even across class lines), they tend to watch very specific channels and TV shows, shop and specific stores, and listen to specific stations that your campaign isn’t targeting. In a municipality with a ~40% African American population, this doesn’t bode well for the organizations bottom line. Would it be self-contradictory to take race into account in this scenario given that the systems ultimate goal is broad ridership?

  38. Andre Lot July 12, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    @BP: I personally think providing too much non-English public services delays assimilation of non-English speakers. For that reason I think US-public services, except on the immediate safety is concerned, should be delivered in English and, if that is the case, other languages should be clearly displayed in a secondary matter (never with the same contextual information, never as a “at-par” option in menus, never in the same font size.
    But the excessive deference to languages other than English in US is a problem that goes well beyond the status given to Spanish language on Los Angeles transit

  39. Jarrett at July 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    BP.  Of course advertising looks at race, but market research is always looking for what indicators create the most meaningful population segments for targeting.  That won't always be race, especially in a city with so many interracial families.

  40. BP July 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm #

    Andre Lot
    Sure, but thats a different argument. I don’t see anything wrong with reserving less space for Spanish instruction in our transit system. I probably disagree with you about the normative value of bilingual public services, but I don’t see any reason to have that debate here.
    I was just presenting that as an example of a specific demographic that one might want to consider in their attempt to create the perfectly accessible public transportation system.

  41. BP July 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    Ok, cool. I’ll bow out and let others keep the conversation going if they’d like. Thanks for running a responsive and intellectually engaging blog. Keep it up.

  42. Mike July 12, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    I don’t really think this issue has to do with race much, but more with the fact that the LA transit system carries mostly poor people, and has failed but is getting better at attracting choice riders, many of whome in LA do happen to be white.
    This is an issue across the United States, where public transit mostly carries the poor people and therefore does not attract the average resident. This has implications for attracting funding, etc for transit, and political support.

  43. Wanderer July 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    The problem is that, even in multiracial LA, many white people still take the apparent presence/absence of other whites, and take it as a marker of whether bus transit is “OK” for them. I guess at least some of us whites can’t read the class status of non-white folks.
    Your question, Jarrett, about passengers relationship to the social contract is really more salient. That “transit culture” aspect has always seemed to me remarkably good in LA–better than some other places. Sometimes loud, but rarely wrong. Some friction is really about class norms–is it OK for passengers to sell things on trains or is that getting in peoples’ space?
    The composition of LA buses and trains do reflect the character of the areas they serve. Overall, the ridership is probably less non-Hispanic white than the population, but there are lots of white passengers, especially west of La Brea (and at the Vermont/Sunset Red Line station).

  44. Kevin July 12, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    Just thought I’d toss a little more data into the conversation:
    L.A. may be a melting pot but it is by no means homogeneous.
    That said, I’d love to see this conversation continue in formal capacity. Would be great if Jarrett or Summer could moderate a more in-depth and considered exploration of these issues. There are lot of folks out there thinking about and researching this topic. It would be great to see this move out of the comment section and appear above the fold.

  45. Alon Levy July 13, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    BP, Jarrett:
    I don’t know LA at all, but I’ve been on the bus a couple of times in New Haven, and I was either the only white person or almost the only white person on board. (BP, the line I’d ride is the J-Whitney.) However, I think the difference between the two cities’ size explains a lot. It involves segregation, but not the kind that Chicago and New York are infamous for.
    New Haven is a small city. Moreover, if you’re white, you’re probably there because of Yale; since universities tend to dominate their members’ lives even outside pure work, this means all local destinations you care about are in roughly one place, and chances are you live nearby because the housing is cheap enough for your salary. You may have diffuse regional/intercity destinations you want to go to, but other than New York none of them is thick enough a market to warrant much transit investment.
    So you can adequately travel on foot and by car, and if you can’t afford a car you can just travel on foot. The range at which buses are the most effective, the neighborhoods in between the areas within walking distance of the Green and the suburbs, is neighborhoods that anyone affiliated with Yale has no real reason to live in.
    Of course those in-between neighborhoods aren’t cool; you can see what I said about the core connector idea, mercifully killed after some nosy city aldermen complained it wouldn’t serve urban neighborhoods beyond the Green.
    Los Angeles is different, because chances are you don’t work within walking distance of where you live unless you’re very rich. This creates a class of people who have a reason to ride the bus other than poverty. Of course the legendary traffic congestion ensures that you can get serious ridership out of modes of transportation that can bypass the congestion, which buses don’t and some rail lines do.

  46. Jack Horner July 13, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    Fourth point of ambiguity –
    Does the statement mean ’92 per cent of the people who ride buses [at any time] are people of colour”?
    Or does it mean ’92 per cent of bus trips are made by people of colour’?
    Failing to distinguish people (as individuals) from trips or boardings is a very common annoying habit in transport reports. Often it’s obvious that ‘riders’ actually means ‘trips’, but sometimes it isn’t obvious and the difference matters.
    Let’s all promise, when we mean trips or boardings, to say trips or boardings.

  47. Jarrett at July 13, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Jack.  Good call.   This is almost certainly from either the census transportation question (in which case it's about person trips but only about journey to work) or else it's from some survey by a transit agency.  Transit agencies can count boardings but will have trouble counting person trips until smartcards are universal; however those methods don't keep track of race.

  48. July 13, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

    LACMTA’s surveys show 91% non white ridership – – taken as a random survey of people on a bus.

  49. EngineerScotty July 13, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Over at Portland Transport we did an article largely in response to the Atlantic Cities article (as well as a rather obnoxious right-wing screed from Reason on the same topic, which I won’t link to here). I would certainly agree that focus on race is wrong-headed; class and car ownership are more interesting criteria to look at. Race approximates these in many places; but the correlation is far from exact, and the subject brings with it tons of baggage that is simply not needed.
    That said, a problem in several North American cities (though definitely not modern day Los Angeles) is the existence of rapid transit lines without underlying high-quality local service (generally bus in North America). Some cities with overcrowded, infrequent busses have nonetheless spent money building rapid transit lines. And many others, including Portland, have found themselves in the position of having to cut service due to budget cuts, and having to direct the brunt of the cuts on feeder lines and the frequent bus network due to service commitments made to the FTA.

  50. FAT Viscount July 14, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    This brings up a question that has been bugging me for years: whenever I search for a hotel in the LAX area on booking engines, especially on “name your price” bidding sites like HotWire or Price Line, my hotel choices have been anywhere from 100ft to 2 miles from the nearest practical transit stop. Given the size and variety of Metro LA’s tourism industry, what is the best way to encourage booking engines to offer transit as search criteria (say within 1/4, 1/2, or 1 mile of at least 1 bus every 30 minutes, every day)?

  51. Jarrett at July 14, 2012 at 8:43 am #

    FAT Viscount.  Whenever I book hotels, which I do a lot.  I start with a Google Maps search of hotels in my desired area, and put that side by side with the map that Expedia or Orbitz or whoever is showing me.  I often find good deals that are not on those aggregators at all.  Jarrett

  52. Spokker July 15, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    While most violent crime is intraracial, the uncomfortable truth is that black on white crime happens more often than white on black crime, which is even more amazing considering the representation of each group in the population. Which is even more amazing considering whites have been said to have fled the inner city for racist reasons.
    Blacks are disproportionately criminal for reasons that differ depending on who you ask. I don’t think people care much about those reasons anymore, but just want to avoid large concentrations of blacks because of this apparent hostility. In the past you wouldn’t blame a black guy if he refused to go into white places in fear of being attacked, so I don’t blame a white person who doesn’t want to go into black places for fear of being attacked or otherwise bothered.
    Notice what the FBI says.
    “Stranger homicides are more likely to cross racial lines than those that involve friends or acquaintances
    For homicides committed by —
    a friend or acquaintance of the victim, less than one-tenth (8%) were interracial
    a stranger to the victim, one-quarter were interracial”
    People see the astounding increase in roving flash mobs of blacks attacking whites ( and/or ripping off stores and everyone but the most whacked out social construct-promoting white privilege-spouting suburban elitist white is disturbed by this. They just cannot say what I just said in polite company, but they say it in private.
    It has nothing specifically to do with public transit. We could be talking about street fairs or housing. The same issues persist.
    Anyway, it is kind of funny how Jarret’s colorblindness is appalling to both anti-racists and racial realists alike.

  53. EngineerScotty July 15, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Racism doesn’t stop becoming racism just because you think it is justified, Spokker. The claim that “blacks are disproportionately criminal” (or any claim that some undesirable attribute is a fundamental trait of some racial group) is an unequivocally racist statement, even if you happen to think it is true.
    Were you to limit yourself to simple recitation of statistics, you’d be OK. Certainly, it’s true that African-Americans are more likely to be involved in violent crimes than are whites (either as victim or perpetrator); it’s also true that they are more likely to be impoverished. These things are all fair game for honest discussion.
    But the way you phrased it crosses the line in several ways–you seem to imply that being “criminal” is something inherent to blacks. You then follow it up by referring to anecdotal tales of “roving flash mobs of blacks attacking whites”, and linking to a dubious website (even though that website doesn’t mention race anywhere than I can see, though I didn’t click on the videos), and you engage in the usual whining that “honest discourse” on the subject is being suppressed. No, honest discourse on the subject doesn’t traffic in base generalizations drawn from anonymous anecdotes. And honest discourse seeks to understand and explain correlations between group identity and social pathology, not elevate these into ironclad “laws” and/or justify discrimination as public policy.
    All in all, you seem to be channelling John Derbyshire.
    At this point I should probably invoke Friedman’s Law (named after Texas humorist/songwriter/politician Kinky Friedman): Anyone who preface a statement with “I am not a racist” is lying.

  54. Spokker July 15, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

    “I read a story about how “post-racial” young people in Los Angeles are, how they are used to cultural diversity and uninterested in racial divides.”
    There is a very real Hispanic/Black divide in South LA as more Mexican immigrants move in. It has been perceived by some blacks that Mexican immigrants are pushing them out. There was a good story about this from CNN that I found on YouTube, but it’s gone now, no doubt due to a copyright claim. Many blacks who are able have fled to the Lancaster/Palmdale area. They call it black flight.
    I find it interesting because it is a racial conflict that whites are not even involved in, yet we continue to push the notion that only whites can be racist.

  55. Spokker July 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    “But the way you phrased it crosses the line in several ways–you seem to imply that being “criminal” is something inherent to blacks.”
    It’s something that’s a problem for modern black culture.
    Despite having structural characteristics similar to and sometimes worse than blacks (income, education, poverty, etc.), Hispanic whites do not die or kill at nearly the same rate as young black men do, though young male Hispanic whites are more criminal on average than young male non-Hispanic whites. That ordinal ranking is generally sound.
    While the structural explanations are nowhere near without merit, they probably cannot explain all of the black-white gap in homicides. At some point you will have to look at culture as this study suggests:
    The study finds that if Hispanics had all the structural characteristics of non-Hispanic whites, the homicide rate gap between Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic whites would completely disappear. But the same is not true for blacks as just over half the gap is erased using the same methods. The authors hypothesize for future research that there is an interaction between structural and unmeasured cultural factors. Their example of possible race-specific measures of culture? Gang membership and gun ownership. And no, it’s not legal gun ownership for those keeping score :)
    “You then follow it up by referring to anecdotal tales of “roving flash mobs of blacks attacking whites”, and linking to a dubious website (even though that website doesn’t mention race anywhere than I can see, though I didn’t click on the videos)”
    They are not anecdotes. They are documented crimes. It can be difficult to determine race because newspapers have a policy of not publishing race or ethnicity of suspects, so you need a video.
    “All in all, you seem to be channelling John Derbyshire.”
    The most interesting thing about the thing that got Derbyshire in trouble (“Avoid large concentrations of blacks.”) is that people already do this consciously and subconsciously. I live in a racially diverse neighborhood and apartment complex (Hispanic, white, Asian, Indian, Arab, etc.) but there is a low concentration of blacks. Did I do this on purpose? I moved here when I was a liberal little anti-racist. I wonder.
    “At this point I should probably invoke Friedman’s Law (named after Texas humorist/songwriter/politician Kinky Friedman): Anyone who preface a statement with “I am not a racist” is lying.”
    I said no such thing and I will not say such a thing. If I cared about being viewed as a racist I would not have posted such things, even if I truly believed them. I just know I will never, ever be offered a job at a public transportation agency. I would have a hard time getting into the WMATA even if I were not seen as a racist.
    Now *that* is a truly racist organization.

  56. Spokker July 15, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    By the way, instead of arguing about whether LA is diverse or not, just do yourself a favor and check out the New York Time’s racial demographics map based on real census data.
    Put in an LA zip code and have a blast.

  57. Bay Area Transit Planner July 16, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    @ Spokker
    “Stranger homicides are more likely to cross racial lines than those that involve friends or acquaintances
    For homicides committed by —
    a friend or acquaintance of the victim, less than one-tenth (8%) were interracial
    a stranger to the victim, one-quarter were interracial”
    Since most people associate disproportionately with people of their own race, this statistic is completely meaningless. Put another way, strangers are more likely to be interracial than friends and acquaintances, period.

  58. EngineerScotty July 16, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    A whole lot of stuff to unpack here.. but let’s start with fundamentals–namely, what exactly is “racism”?
    Some on the left have advocated a “racism is power” definition; in which racism doesn’t exist without a power structure behind it. A corollary of this definition is that in the US, only whites can be racist as only whites possess the necessary political power (in most cases) for bias to have any pernicious effect. The phrase “reverse-racism”, employed by many and generally referring to bias directed at whites, is an acknowledgement of this definition.
    I reject that definition. In my book, racism is simply the belief that one race is inferior to, or otherwise less desirable than, another. Note that this definition admits the possibility of minority-on-white discrimination, as well as black-on-Latino, Latino-on-black, or whatever else. So I’m not part of the “we” that continues to push the notion that racism is entirely a white phenomenon; outside of a few noisy postmodern academics, I’m not sure who exactly is in that “we” anyways.
    Second, you seem to fail to understand what an “anecdote” means. Anecdote doesn’t mean false; anecdote (and anecdotal) means unmoored from any statistically valid context. Citing instances of X happening can support a claim that X sometimes happens; but it cannot (by itself) support any stronger claims. You seem to be trying to use tales of “violent flash mobs” to make some stronger claim concerning African-Americans.
    If your claim is simply that some whites are suspicious of blacks and will seek to avoid them (including not using transit if it is perceived to have high levels of black patronage), I won’t argue–there’s plenty of evidence for such views among many white people; as someone who covers public transit in the context of Portland, OR; I see racist arguments against transit expansion all the time. (Mainly from suburban right-wingers trying to keep light-rail out of their communities).
    If your claim, however, is that such views are justified, then I beg to differ–at least so far as they are framed on race.

  59. Spokker July 16, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    “Citing instances of X happening can support a claim that X sometimes happens; but it cannot (by itself) support any stronger claims.”
    I did not use anecdotes or confirmed news stories, like this one ( to support stronger claims. I used a Rutgers study to support stronger claims, and I often use FBI crime statistics as well. I used this ( on the Streetsblog version of this story.
    “(Mainly from suburban right-wingers trying to keep light-rail out of their communities).”
    You won’t hear those arguments from me. Gangbangers and thugs use automobiles to commit crimes. Race and crime has nothing specifically to do with transportation. It’s just another arena in which these issues play out.
    If anything, the stations are well-lit and full of security cameras. I have no problem riding transit. I’m just as vigilant as reasonably possible when I get off transit, though the same things can happen when you get out of your car to go to the ATM.
    “If your claim, however, is that such views are justified, then I beg to differ–at least so far as they are framed on race.”
    Here are my claims so we are on the same page.
    -Poverty is worsened by the war on poverty, which disproportionately affects blacks (end the war on drugs while you are at it).
    -The war on poverty has resulted in worse outcomes for blacks, especially young black men.
    -Young black men are disproportionately criminal due to an insipid version of modern black culture this poverty has wrought.
    -Economic scholars such as Walter E. Williams have some of the right ideas to reverse these alarming trends.
    -None of this has anything specifically to do with public transportation but it’s just another arena in which these issues play out. I think transit is reasonably safe and I ride it because I am a railfan, but people of all races may not want to be exposed to such poverty on the bus or train, especially in areas where the personal automobile is superior for most trips.
    “Since most people associate disproportionately with people of their own race, this statistic is completely meaningless.”
    But it certainly begs the question, if we were suddenly randomly dispersed across the American landscape without regard to race and ethnicity, would interracial crime increase or decrease? In other words, would greater diversity increase or decrease crime, or are we better off disassociating with each other?

  60. J.D. Hammond July 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    I’ve enjoyed Amanda Hess’ writing about gender in the past quite a bit. I think her focus on “race” and “class” as identifiers has a great deal to do with her prior experience writing extensively on identity issues. I think it comes naturally, then, for her to frame social issues in terms of identity and affinity groups.
    Given that you seem to write a lot about the quality of the user experience, Jarrett, I don’t understand why this seems to have particularly upset you. I fear you and Amanda may be talking past each other, but I also think I’d be interested to see a debate on transit and identity.

  61. Jarrett at July 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    JD  See my piece in Atlantic today.  The race/class frame has the effect of encouraging despair.  Jarrett

  62. Nathanael July 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    “Certainly, it’s true that African-Americans are more likely to be involved in violent crimes than are whites ”
    *Reported* violent crimes.
    There’s a well-known phenomenon of greater arrest rates when black people are involved, and a greater rate of “let off with a warning” or “not prosecuted” rates when they aren’t. This probably has stupid historical racism reasons behind it.
    But it means I don’t entirely trust the stats.
    If you’re running strictly from homicide rates, they’re probably more trustworthy… except that there’s also a well-known historical phenomenon of racial bias in choice of homicide suspects, too.
    So…. you can accurately say that more black men *are victims of violence* based on the stats, but everything else is untrustworthy.
    Though the war on drugs was arguably specifically *intended* to imprison black men, the selective enforcement there is extremely well documented, and it has certainly had that effect, so there’s that.
    *As always* class is more important than color.

  63. EngineerScotty July 17, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

    : You won’t hear those arguments from me. Gangbangers and thugs use automobiles to commit crimes. Race and crime has nothing specifically to do with transportation. It’s just another arena in which these issues play out.
    Glad to hear that.

    ::”If your claim, however, is that such views are justified, then I beg to differ–at least so far as they are framed on race.”
    :Here are my claims so we are on the same page.
    -Poverty is worsened by the war on poverty, which disproportionately affects blacks (end the war on drugs while you are at it).
    Depends on what programs you refer to by the “war on poverty”. Many programs which alleviate temporary suffering, especially in economic downturns, are beneficial. Many long-term programs can create long-term dependence thereon; there’s also the issue of the permanently unemployable due to issues such as mental illness, obsolete skills, need for childcare, criminal history, and the like. How society reacts to a stable family whose breadwinner has lost his/her job and finds themelves unable to pay the rent, may well be different from someone who is chronically unemployed, has substance abuse problems, and a rap sheet.
    The WOD does not help–and in many cases, as Nathaniel notes, it seems designed to impoverish and disenfranchise African-Americans.
    -Young black men are disproportionately criminal due to an insipid version of modern black culture this poverty has wrought.
    So-called “gangsta culture” is indeed a problem; though it is a recent one (the past several decades). I would not make the arrow of causality unidirectional; nihilistic culture and large-scale social pathology are mutually reinforcing.
    How to fix this problem, I don’t know. Far too many people seem to advocate the solution “keep ’em away from me”; and a good number further believe, as did Derbyshire, apparently, that the existence of a correlation between skin color and the pathologies of the ghetto, means that discrimination against blacks is good public policy.
    It’s worth noting that rural white poverty is causing more and more degeneracy in certain populations. This is a more recent phenomenon, as outsourcing has resulted in much economic upheaval in rural communities and small town, exacerbated by the current downturn. Many believe that the rise in reactionary politics in such communities is a direct result. We haven’t seen “gangsta country” music become popular (though the genre has always had its outlaws and scofflaws and its tributes to various vices); but we have seen a dramatic increase in the use of methamphetamine–a drug which is having a similar impact on poor rural communities as heroin or crack do on urban slums.
    As white poverty is generally rural or suburban in nature, it has a lesser relevance to an urban transport blog than does black poverty. But it’s there and getting worse.
    -Economic scholars such as Walter E. Williams have some of the right ideas to reverse these alarming trends.
    -None of this has anything specifically to do with public transportation but it’s just another arena in which these issues play out. I think transit is reasonably safe and I ride it because I am a railfan, but people of all races may not want to be exposed to such poverty on the bus or train, especially in areas where the personal automobile is superior for most trips.
    And I think that’s the bigger point. Many people want to avoid poverty and the pathologies that associate with it. Race is a poor proxy for this.
    “Since most people associate disproportionately with people of their own race, this statistic is completely meaningless.”
    – But it certainly begs the question, if we were suddenly randomly dispersed across the American landscape without regard to race and ethnicity, would interracial crime increase or decrease? In other words, would greater diversity increase or decrease crime, or are we better off disassociating with each other?
    If the number of interracial interactions were to increase, it’s safe to say the number of those interactions which involved a criminal act would increase as well. Intra-racial interactions (and the unpleasant subset) would decline; how this would work out in the wash, I have no idea.
    OTOH, this hypothetical would have the beneficial aspect of slum-busting; the worst social conditions occur when there are large concentrations of poverty in one place. Governments can circumscribe these areas and write them off. Reputable merchants leave, and predatory businesses move in. Tax bases go down as demands for service go up. The police are all from outside the neighborhood, have no stake in the place, and soon assume the role of an occupying force. One statistical area you leave unexplored, but is equally important, is official violence. Law enforcement is far whiter than the general population, as is the political class. And one political major party in the US has a significant and powerful faction within it that is virulently racist against dark-skinned minorities (particularly blacks and Hispanics)–it may not quite be open about it (the n-word still is not acceptable in US political discourse; “kenyan socialist” and similar terms being tolerable substitutes).
    This discussion is getting a bit distant from transit, obviously.

  64. Spokker July 18, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    “*Reported* violent crimes.
    There’s a well-known phenomenon of greater arrest rates when black people are involved, and a greater rate of “let off with a warning” or “not prosecuted” rates when they aren’t.”
    Uniform Crime Report data and National Crime Victimization Survey data are highly correlated, even across racial lines. So while it’s easy to say what you just said when you only have the UCR data, the victimization survey data says otherwise.

  65. Spokker July 19, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    “This discussion is getting a bit distant from transit, obviously.”
    I suppose it is. As I said, it really has nothing to do with transit and I was responding to something Walker said on another forum about poverty having nothing to do with race. I think it does in a roundabout way.
    If you’d like to continue this in another arena, please let me know. Otherwise, have a good one.

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