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Mass transit blues


Standing on the Corner, Waiting for the Bus


by Brent Silva



I'm waving my arms. I'm screaming. I practically step out into traffic. All futile: In the end, the bus passes right by me. Ah, missing the last bus—one of the many joys of public transportation.

At one time, like many people in suburban California, I owned a car. Until about seven years after I received my driver's license I had access to a working vehicle. I didn't think that I took it for granted, but it wasn't until my finances left me with no way to repair my broken car that I realized how wrong I was about my own understanding of the mammoth problem of transportation.

I travel about eight miles from home to work, five days a week. I ride a total of three buses, belonging to two different bus companies. It takes about an hour and a half. I also have to walk about two blocks from my last bus stop to my office, because the bus system only has one stop near there. When I had use of a car, the whole trip took about 15 to 20 minutes. Never mind. I still love public transit, in spite of itself. If it wasn't for public transit, I'd have lost my job, and my apartment months ago.

Public transit's current state is a long way from its golden age. Prior to the 1920s, public transit services were originally run by private companies. However, during that same period the popularity of the automobile was increasing. During the late twenties and early thirties, street car tracks were being paved over to accommodate automobile traffic. Even in Los Angeles, widely considered one of the greatest public transit systems of its day, trolley cars were scrapped because buses were more compatible with its ever growing intra-city highways. Affordable, consistent, and clean (because they ran on electricity) Redcar trolleys were a thing of the past—replaced by diesel fume belching buses.

During the Depression, pressure was increased on transit systems to deliver mobility to the workforce at a low price, and a spate of bankruptcies ensued. (The fact that the economy was in bad shape didn't help things.) But metropolitan governments found that bus service was a critical part of maintaining their industrial infrastructures, so they stepped in and began to run the buses themselves. For many displaced workers, the public bus system was an all important lifeline. Without it, many would not have been able to find even temporary employment, or even get to the welfare office. For their benefit buses were kept running, well into the night, until early in the morning (to accommodate 2nd and 3rd shift workers). They also brought people to the densely packed downtown areas, where passengers could easily reach their workplaces and other businesses on foot.

As jobs and housing began to move further and further away from the city center during the 1950s, public transit had to spread itself thin trying to service an ever-increasing area of urban sprawl. The decline of vibrant downtown areas and public transit are inexorably linked. By the 1950's the golden age of public transit was over. These days, like many public services, most of the bus companies in California are owned by private corporations, operating with a subsidy from the local government. The private sector influence is not very obvious on the surface—how does one tell whether one is dealing with government or corporate bureaucracy? But here and there, if you look closely, you can spot some unsettling evidence that the public transit system is no longer run for the benefit of its customers. Its service is often erratic, its employees surly, its prices too high (I pay $5 a day to get to and from work—that's $25 a week, which is more than I paid for gasoline for my car).

We passengers almost never take it out on the bus driver though. There's good reason for that. The drivers are the voice (or at least, the disapproving glance) of authority on the city bus. In my experience they are mostly benevolent, if not downright chatty, when it comes to dealing with the public. Regardless of who they work for, they are undeniably like ourselves.

There's a certain type of person who feels compelled to talk to the driver. Even if you yourself are not so inclined, I highly recommend at least listening in on these conversations. You'll probably hear all kinds of worrisome things about their jobs. The lack of sick time, the frozen wages, the constant involuntary overtime—a microcosm of gripes that could have come from the mouths of a thousand labor union organizers. What could have been a cushy civil service job is instead the same old, shitty corporate wage-slavery that you yourself have to deal with. It's the worst of scenarios: a run-down, constantly cash-strapped public service, mixed with the heartless management style of corporate profiteering.

There are a few organizations pushing for public transit reforms, but it tends not to be their sole focus. Environmental groups try to make sure that public transit is at least available, but their focus tends to be to present it as an alternative to commuters who are tired of sitting in traffic. Unfortunately, with its erratic service, multiple transfers, and limited service hours, public transit isn't all that attractive. Service could certainly be improved by raising the rates one pays for traveling by bus, but that would be contrary to the best interests of its core customer base. Living wage advocates would never agree with such a solution.

The fact is that public transportation, while mostly run by private corporations, faces the same problem that other public services face: Lack of funding. What's sad is that there are ways to fund important social programs, other than raising prices. Every election year you can be certain there will be at least one bond measure on the ballot. For the most part, these tend to be for libraries, or schools, or even sporting arenas. And during the mid to late nineties, these measures were stunningly successful. But there were very few bond measures regarding public transit. I believe that a well organized, well publicized campaign on behalf of a bond measure to benefit public transit has the potential to be just as successful.

In the end, I'm not angry at the bus driver who passed me by because I'm trying to recognize her for what she really is. A heroine on wheels, pushing the galley-ship of the working class through the throngs of middle-class pricks who won't even look at the bus, lest some of its working class mystique nudge them out of their own precarious social standings into the hell of low-wage employment.

They deliver the cheap workforce that business relies on to keep the profits coming and the stock prices up. The high price of public transit ensures that the lower class who ride it can never build up much of a savings. But since their corporate masters will never show any gratitude to them, maybe we should. Even if you never ride the bus, give them a break: Don't cut them off, don't honk at them when they stop to pick up passengers. After all, they're partly responsible for keeping your hamburgers at 99 cents apiece.



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Posted January 4, 2003 4:14 PM






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