race, racism, and transit planning


I should not have taken the phone call from LA Weekly.  As soon as the reporter said that he wanted to probe "why so few white people ride transit in LA", I should have said no, I will not give any more oxygen to the divisive and pointless conversation that the question is trying to encourage.  I had already given the factual answer to that question in my article on "bus stigma" in the Atlantic Citylab, and I should have simply referred the reporter, Chris Walker, there.

Still, there's nothing wrong with the LA Weekly article:

[Jarrett] 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 of course, this was too much for Breitbart News:

According to Jarrett Walker, a designer of transportation systems for a number of big cities, the Los Angeles bus system is designed in a way that offers better service to non-white Angelenos. No one uses the word racism, but the dog whistles in this clinical explanation will chill your spine:

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."

What say we just stop with the word games, Los Angeles. 

 " And fancy language like "the number of white bus riders is not far off what we should expect" is just another way of screaming "honky."

What can one say?  Well, this:

This is transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker, author of the book Human Transit and the blog humantransit.org. The author of this post clearly knows nothing about my work, though he could have looked me up easily enough, and like many race-obsessed folks he seems to know nothing about the law of supply and demand, or the nature of how organizations succeed.

If anyone wants to understand my actual views on this matter, see the original article of mine: http://www.citylab.com/commute…

Like any organization that seeks any kind of success, including every private business, transit in LA tries to respond to the demand for its product. It does this by focusing on areas where the nature of development makes it easy for transit to succeed. It's a mathematical fact that transit is more useful in places where density is high, the local street network is well-connected, and where walking is easy. If white people in LA are more likely to live in areas that are not like this, transit is not being racist in not serving them.

You know what I love about LA? It's way less obsessed with race than its media is. I suspect most Angelenos would never have asked how many white people ride the bus, because it's not an interesting question. As a white person I couldn't care less, and most of the white people I know couldn't care less. LA's prosperity arises from people working together, and getting where they're going together. Racial resentments get in the way of that.

Conservatives need to chose between their commitment to ethnic resentments and their commitment to prosperity. In an age of global collaboration, you can't have both.

I can now imagine a horde of commenters saying:  "You're giving the merchants of hatred too much attention, Jarrett.  Breitbart News deserves to be ignored."  Yes, they do, but when ethnic hatemongering gets as much attention as Breitbart News does, there has to be a response on the record, and now there is.

9 Responses to race, racism, and transit planning

  1. Tom West June 25, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    The obession with rcae in the USA angers and saddens me.

  2. Low Headways June 25, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    Good response, spot-on.
    A suggestion for the future: if you find yourself having to link to a cesspool like Breitbart, you should run the URL through DoNotLink, which links to it without giving them the satisfaction of added web traffic.

  3. calwatch June 25, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    The Breitbart article is more of a tongue in cheek critcism of all “disparate impact” studies and arguments that liberals make, not specifically dealing in transit. Although in the transit business, the Obama administration has greatly stepped up enforcement of Title VI. Transit agencies are required to post legalistic Title VI notices, service changes have been cancelled because of failure to analyze the racial balance of lines being changed compared to the rest of the system, and fare increases have to be analyzed by racial impact, even when those changes make logical sense.
    Pre-Obama, there was no mandated Title VI review of fares and services based on racial mix. Adding Title VI review takes up resources which could be used for planning better service for all. And, there are examples of changes which might have been good for the public as a whole, but restricted due to disparate Title VI impact. For instance, extending BART service by one hour on Friday night, while delaying the start of BART service on Saturday morning by one hour to maintain the work window, was rejected due to Title VI disparate impact on low income and minority riders. http://www.bart.gov/sites/default/files/docs/Night_Service_Survey_Results.pdf

  4. Tom West June 25, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

    Title VI doesn’t prevent you from making changes that disproportionately effect one race, providing you can show it’s based on objective criteria.
    For example, a transit agency can reduce service on routes based on some ridership/hour threshold, even if that affects one race more than another.

  5. Jeffrey Bridgman June 26, 2014 at 6:15 am #

    Bravo, Jarrett!

  6. Joe Busman June 26, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Fewer white people take transit, because more are likely to live in rural areas and if they do live in the city, they live in the exurbs where there is better schooling. However, this trend is changing as Millennials (who don’t care about schools since they don’t want families anytime soon) are taking advantage of low housing costs in the inner-city, and yes, they are riding transit more. I’ve seen more white people taking transit in LA a couple years ago than when I went to USC in 1987 and was the only non-black or non-Latino on the bus. Should transit serve middle-class whites in the exurbs? Well, in the case of Vegas, they do, and you can argue that the entire LA Metro subway system was one gigantic investment to help get middle class whites (tourists as well) out of their cars.

  7. EngineerScotty June 27, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    Breitbart and their ilk are intent on “proving” how whites, rather than being a privileged group in the US, are in fact an oppressed minority.

  8. Mike June 28, 2014 at 6:30 am #

    I don’t fully agree that fewer white people take transit because they live in less transit friendly areas. That is true to an extent, but not the full picture. There are plenty of dense, walkable, transit friendly neighborhoods and suburbs with little or no transit service.
    In the majority of American cities, including Los Angeles, public transit is not attractive enough to attract a large number of choice riders. So transit systems are left carrying people who are too poor to own a car. In most American cities poverty is usually higher among minority groups than the white population. Which is the reason less white people are seen on the bus.
    So the question should not be based on race, but rather ask why transit is only attracting mostly poor riders? In American cities, usually upwards of 80% of transit riders are poor. This is in contrast to other countries like Canada and Australia, and Europe, where upwards of 80% of riders are not poor.
    What do these other countries do differently? They provided a viable transit option to all areas of a transit service area, regardless of income levels, and density (this does not mean very low density areas get a bus every 5 minutes. But they get a viable service).
    Government regulations like Title VI aside, planners are partly to blame for this issue in America. If you pull out a map of most American transit systems, you will see transit networks designed with the sole purpose of getting poor residents from the inner city to jobs out in the suburbs.
    Transit in most cities does not even attempt to provide a service which can get anyone regardless of income to wherever they want to go.
    You even see this in New York City, where suburban bus routes in Nassau County, for example, are designed mainly to get poor NYC residents to jobs in Nassau County. The ridership figures even prove it, with the majority of riders not even representing the demographics of Nassau County. It is rare for a suburban NYC resident to use transit, or for their kids to take the bus to mall, etc.
    For this to change, planners have to stop making excuses to not serve everyone equitably regardless of race or income level.
    The solution I feel is that American cities must move towards coverage goals, and not serving areas based on race, poverty, or density solely. If a transit service area is mandated to serve 95% of the population and jobs within a 5 or 10 minute walk of a bus stop. Then you will see more mixes of people using transit, because middle class areas will actually get viable transit service. Not to mention those too poor to own cars will have access to much more destinations than they do now under Title VI protection.
    Title VI has serious flaws. For example, a transit agency can be in compliance if it has bus routes serving all minority neighborhoods, but not one bus route in a white area. However the residents in the minority neighborhood can’t get to jobs in the white only area, if there is no bus operating.
    We must get away from race, poverty, and work at building transit networks that serve everyone. Otherwise transit will never rise to becoming a viable travel alternative for everyone, regardless of race, income, or social standing.

  9. ajedrez January 4, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    @Mike: Another thing to consider about Nassau County is that the neighborhoods that have decent bus service are often/usually minority areas. The most cost-efficient bus line (N40/41) connects Hempstead, Roosevelt, and Freeport (and Mineola, which is a white neighborhood). The only lines to get 24/7 service are the N4 & N6, which run from Jamaica to Freeport & Hempstead respectively. (Albeit passing through a lot of white neighborhoods in between). The Hempstead Transit Center is probably the biggest bus hub (maybe tied with the nearby Roosevelt Field Mall).