The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Public Transit Trends: What a Bus Ride Can Tell You About Race and Class


Two weeks ago, I started a discussion about the relationship between cities and public transit. I outlined the different public transportation models that I’ve seen broadly employed in big cities, sprawling cities, mid-size cities and small towns, but now I want to go more in depth to talk about two intersecting issues that effect public transit across the nation: race and class.


Riding the bus is one of the best ways to understand race and class differentials in a given city or town. By watching who gets on which routes, at which places, and at what times of the day, you can begin to notice the demographic make-up of your city. This information tells you what sort of jobs people have (night-shifts, office jobs, etc.) as well as what neighborhoods they live and work in, and how segregated those areas are. But public transit doesn’t just demonstrate how our cities are divided by race and class, it can also create those divisions.

Two Examples

I know I mention these cities a fair amount on The City Space, but New York City and Washington DC offer excellent fodder for an examination of the relationship between public transit, race and class. While I’m not a transportation expert by any means, I feel comfortable speaking about public transit in these places because I’ve used it a lot, and the corresponding issues seem to come up frequently in discussions with friends. Stick with me on this example—it’ll make sense in the end.

Let’s start with New York City. Here, the subway costs $2.50 no matter where you’re going. $2.50 buys a trip from the Far Rockaways to the heart of Manhattan, lending a certain equality to the daily commute. $2.50 also buys a homeless person a warm place to sleep on a cold winter day. In New York, everyone from grandmas to babies in strollers, from politicians to actresses, takes the train. $2.50 is by no means a bargain, but it can take anyone almost anywhere in the city.

In Washington DC on the other hand, you pay for the subway based on how far you’re going. Depending on where you work and live you could easily pay $10 a day just to commute to and from your job. Given the cost of living in the District, its pretty standard for people to work in the downtown (where most of the jobs are), but live on the outer edges or suburbs. This forces the average Washingtonian to spend a considerable amount of time and money on public transit.

Here we see two large cities with similar transit systems, but different prices. Like most cities, New York and DC are divided racially and economically already, but New York’s flat rate allows for wide-spread, economically accessible transport throughout the city. Conversely, DC’s distance-based pricing places a greater economic burden on residents who live in lower income areas, usually far from the city center. DC’s public transit has exacerbated existing race and class divisions.

What About the Bus?

Now let’s add another twist. In addition to the subway, both cities also provide bus systems. In New York, the system is small—mainly servicing the handful of areas not connected with the subway line. In DC, however, buses are everywhere. At $1.60 per ride, the bus is a cheaper option than the subway, but it takes a lot longer with city traffic (especially given that certain bus routes are notoriously unreliable). Because of the cost difference, lower income residents—often people of color—tend to be bus-riders while wealthier people take the subway (or drive). I saw this on bus rides home from my church near Southeast DC (a predominantly lower income, African American neighborhood) or up to my boyfriend’s house in Columbia Heights (another more affordable, largely minority area). Such routes were filled with a far different swath of people than my morning commutes into the heart of the city on the subway.

I chose to ride the bus when I could because it cost me less. But it also took me far longer. This was a fair sacrifice when I had time on my hands and no one counting on my arrival at any specific hour. However, I couldn’t imagine taking those buses home at the end of a long work day only to pick up kids from school, make them dinner, get to bed at a decent hour, then do it all again at 6am the next morning. For thousands of DC residents, riding the bus is the only affordable option. This results in a segregated public transit system and an additional time burden for low-income residents.

Public Transit Across the Nation

I started out talking about the differences between New York and DC public transit, and how the DC pricing model creates a higher economic burden on low income residents. But now I want to consider the broader applicability of this concept for numerous cities where cars are the more expensive transit option and buses are the method of transit for lower income people. Like riding the subway in DC, driving a car in any city demands distance-based expenses through the purchase of gas. Low income residents are excluded from car ownership because of these costs, not to mention the incredibly high initial cost of purchasing and ensuring a vehicle. Thus, buses are the main option for low-income residents who are also often people of color.

In Los Angeles, for example, buses have a 92 percent African American ridership although African Americans only make up 9 percent of the overall LA population. Riding the bus is the most economically viable option for many African Americans, who have the lowest median household income of any racial group in the LA area. However, partly due to their perceptions of the bus as a “poor person’s ride,” wealthier residents who can afford a car decline participation in the public transit system altogether. And without the money or clout to advocate for improved systems, bus riders often remain marginalized.

In my opinion, cheap, fast and accessible public transit—like that in New York City—should be available to every resident of a given city, regardless of race or class. Obviously a vast system like New York’s doesn’t make sense in smaller cities, but the central idea of a flat fee that pays for transport via bus or subway to and from any part of a city could alter economies for the better. It would connect diverse neighborhoods and lessen the burden of transit costs for individuals. Yes, public transportation funding comes from taxes, but if buses and subways served everyone equally, this wouldn’t be such a politically divisive point. During a time of increasing class divisions and lack of access to jobs, it has never been more important to strengthen public transit in our cities and towns

My favorite podcast, Strong Towns, recently posted a debate on the proposition: To be successful, a city must have transit. The arguments were quite nuanced so I won’t elaborate much on them here. (You should listen to it.) In brief, though, those on the pro side stated that if we look at the vast majority of today’s thriving cities, they have transit because without it, a large portion of the city’s residents would be cut off from its economy and its livelihood. In the most successful cities, you can hop on the bus and get where you need to go—no matter what you look like or how much money you make. That’s the kind of transit we need in our cities.

Where do you see the intersections between race, class and public transit? What does the ideal public transit system look like to you?


6 thoughts on “Public Transit Trends: What a Bus Ride Can Tell You About Race and Class

  1. Pingback: Public Transit Trends: From Cities to Towns | The City Space

  2. Terrific and well though-out post. I’d be interested to get your thoughts on bicycle commuting, which is growing in popularity not just among affluent whites but working class minorities as well; though the quality of the bike or smoothness of the ride may vary, bicycles are a great equalizer in their commuting cost (free).

    I’d also, to play devil’s advocate, question your assertion that “DC’s distance-based pricing places a greater economic burden on residents who live in lower income areas, usually far from the city center … DC’s public transit has exacerbated existing race and class divisions.” This is, of course, true for most cities, and I’m probably nitpicking on parochial details here, but beyond DC’s obvious black/white divide east/west of 16th street, the second most pronounced demographic split has been the higher economic classes hugging the suburbs (NoVa and Maryland) and the working class stuck within the District (with the exception of PG County). This is changing, of course, with younger white-collars pushing entrenched minorities further into Northeast, but if we’re only talking subway, I’d venture to argue that minorities are paying less for transit than their Bethesda brethren or Courthouse counterparts, and that tiered subway pricing is probably BETTER for them than at a flat rate, which would subsidize those living further out.

    All that said, Northeast DC is largely unserviced by rail, with the orange/blue lines stretching due east and the green/yellow barely crossing the 15th Street divide, which is, I would imagine, the key driver of tremendous bus usage among most of DC’s blacks (cost being only a secondary motivator).

    Not having ridden other cities’ transit systems well enough to posit that this is or is not unique to DC, I’ll only say that not just the cost, but the availability of rail versus bus, is another dimension well worth exploring.



    • Excellent points. Yeah I definitely agree that DC is not unique (probably New York is the unique one) and you’re certainly right about suburban vs inner city racial make up. As for bike commuting, I’ll have to educate myself a bit more. Thanks for contributing, as always.


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