Useful New Term: Captive Driver

The insulting and generally inaccurate term captive rider — for someone who supposedly has no choice but to use transit — still shows up in transit studies now and then, but it seems to be receding.  I’ve certainly tried to do my part to drive the stake into it.

But sometimes the best way to undermine a misleading or prejudicial term is to promote an analogous term.  So I loved this exchange:


Yes, much of my life I’ve been a captive driver, in that I’ve been forced to live and work in landscapes where there are no reasonable choices for how to get around.

One of the worst things about being a captive driver is having to drive when you know you really shouldn’t. I’m careful with alcohol, but there are times when I’m just tired, or irritable, and there’s no choice but to drive.

I know several older people who are captive drivers. They know they probably should stop driving soon, but their happiness and even sanity may require them to stay in the house and garden that they’ve known for decades, even though that’s a place where transit isn’t viable. (And they often lack the smartphone skills to use Uber or Lyft, or have disabilities that those companies can’t handle.)

Captive drivers are everywhere. Will they rise up to shake off their chains?

5 Responses to Useful New Term: Captive Driver

  1. bettybarcode October 8, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

    Automobiles are yet another technology that promised freedom but ended up inducing dependence. “You can go anywhere with a car!” became “You can’t go anywhere without a car.”
    I suspect that our smartphones are the same.

  2. Dexter Wong October 8, 2016 at 9:52 pm #

    You mean instead of talking about transit dependent people we should be talking about car-dependent people?

  3. P October 9, 2016 at 12:48 am #

    What about captive planner? A planner captive to roads obsessed politicians.

  4. Alon Levy October 9, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    I dislike this terminology, because it’s seductively similar to the concept of transit-dependent riders but in fact talks about something completely different. A captive driver is someone who lives in an auto-oriented area without other options. A captive transit rider is not someone who lives in a transit-oriented area where driving is difficult; I suppose you could refer to middle-class Parisians (or Stockholmers, or Londoners, or New Yorkers) as captive transit riders because of the sheer difficulty of driving and parking here, but that’s not the standard usage of the term. It’s certainly not the case in the US, where outside New York, transit riders are typically too poor to be able to drive.

    In analogy with captive transit riders, a better notion of a captive driver is someone who can’t afford to take transit. Well, driving is universally (or almost universally) more expensive than taking transit, but in two ways the opposite can be true:

    1. Building transit systems today requires large government expenditures, which are affordable in rich cities like Paris, or in cities that receive large outside subsidies like Berlin, but not so much in poor ones like Lille or Marseille. Freeways are expensive too, but two- and four-lane roads with grade crossings aren’t. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the Southern US , the cities that are spending more money on rail are ones with an industry cluster, typically richer cities, like Austin, Charlotte, and Raleigh, and not cities whose economies are based on attracting transplant factories with low costs and low prices, like Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville. The tax hikes required to build a decent transit system are anathema to poor cities stuck in a race to the bottom.

    2. Moving to a city with good transit is expensive. There aren’t a lot of cities out there with both good transit and low market-rate rents. The major Canadian cities sort of qualify, but Toronto and Vancouver aren’t really cheap (Canadians even think they’re expensive), so it’s just Montreal. Berlin qualifies, but has low wages and high unemployment. Tokyo certainly qualifies, but you’re not moving there if you’re not Japanese, and in Japan even small cities have at least decent transit. The US has exactly one city with decent transit, and it’s infamously expensive; among the cities with bad but existent transit, Chicago and Philadelphia are pretty affordable, but the neighborhoods with both decent transit access and decent job access are gentrifying fast.

    • Jacob Mason October 10, 2016 at 8:54 am #


      Both are captive, but captive by different means, and I think that a term that includes both is completely reasonable. If you don’t have a choice, you don’t have a choice.

      And before you go too far about unaffordable big transit cities, I suggest you look at this map, which includes both housing and transportation costs, since in a big city with good transit, while housing costs are higher, transportation costs drop significantly:

      The big, transit-friendly cities are often WAY cheaper than their suburbs.