Segregation exists on the buses in L.A., but why? / by Clarrie Feinstein

In Los Angeles, 92 percent of bus riders are people of color. Their annual median household income is $12, 000. A monthly pass for the metro bus and subway system is $100 and a daily one-ride is $1.75. That’s not cheap. But why do mostly people of color take public transit? Why is there such  disparity in L.A.? 

 LA bus (Flickr.com)

LA bus (Flickr.com)

In 2009, Jaqueline Carr wrote a blog called, Snobs on a Bus which attracted significant attention. Her central thesis was, in L.A. there is stigma around taking the bus. The sentiment may be true but is difficult to remedy a culture of supposed “snobbish” attitudes. Taking public transit in L.A. is still classist – if you take the bus it means you have less money. Or so, Carr explained in her blog. Class is intrinsically tied with race, and also contributes to racist attitudes for public transportation in L.A. The Atlantic argues there is “lopsided investment” in transportation that aids white travelers. Investing in the bus system allows greater diversity of riders than the rail system.  

The U.S. Census data shows that L.A. public transit riders are among the least-representative of the city in which they live. White people account for 32 percent of all L.A. commuters regardless of whether they drive or ride. But only 11 percent of public transit riders are white. 

A probable reason, according to LA Weekly, is demographic density. White residents live in more suburban or affluent neighborhoods where there is lower population density. Naturally, bus stops are not placed in lower populated regions. 

 LA traffic (Flickr.com)

LA traffic (Flickr.com)

Because of urban sprawl L.A. does not have one central downtown, but many. The layout of the city lends itself to a car-led society. L.A. has become ubiquitous with the word, traffic, because the city’s population is the largest in the U.S. and cars are the main mode of transportation. But buses are not immune of the road blockage. The city could potentially designate bus lanes in order for buses to bypass traffic and pick-up passengers from bus stops faster. The buses could be upgraded and have improved seating comfortability and air-conditioning. The bus-rider experience could vastly improve, and more people would feel inclined to use it. In some ways, the bus could be “destigmatized”. 

 LA subway map (Pinterest) 

LA subway map (Pinterest) 

But would this make car riders choose the bus over their car? Unlikely. In New York City and San Francisco there is minor disparity between white people and people of color when taking the subway. However, in New York City more people of color take buses because the MTA does not effectively run on a grid system in Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx, making bus use the faster option in those boroughs, where fewer white residents live. 

So why is L.A.’s transit system segregated? A lot has to do with access – what is affordable? Is it cheaper to take the bus or own a car and spend gas money? Gas spending per month is more than a $100 metro pass, guaranteed. With people of color disproportionally earning less than their white counterparts, taking the bus is the viable option. The social stigma around bus use is a very probable assumption. But the solution to the problem is extremely complex and requires an entire culture shift around transportation in L.A. For now, the car culture is alive and well.