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Carless in North America: Ten examples of disadvantage in public transportation

August 17th, 2015     by Denise Reich     Comments

Illustration: Anja Javelona

A recent Buzzfeed quiz about privilege asked an interesting question: if the reader had to rely on public transportation. It’s an issue that doesn’t seem to be brought up very much, but perhaps it should be. While mass transit is fast and efficient in many parts of the world, if you don’t have your own vehicle you’re at an extreme disadvantage in many parts of North America. The challenges can be substantial, particularly for women, the disabled, and the elderly.

I don’t have a car. I don’t know how to drive, and due to some extreme issues with depth perception, it’s never going to be safe for me to be behind the wheel. I’ve lived in cities where public transit has been affordable and convenient; in the past I’ve also been fortunate enough to have jobs within walking distance of my home. I currently reside in a major American city that has an extensive mass transit system with daily ridership in the millions. There are still significant problems with it.

Taking mass transit isn’t a horrible fate, and it does offer advantages over driving, such as less expense and uninterrupted time to read or study. Walking is a wonderful way to decompress, and I will often choose it over taking the bus. However, due to the dominance of car culture, living without ready access to a vehicle does present numerous problems even in many cities with great public transit systems.

1. My employment options are limited.

A lot of job postings in my area, even for sedentary office-type positions, require applicants to have drivers’ licenses. Others specifically require a “reliable form of personal transportation,” which usually translates to a car. I am restricted in the distance I can travel to get to work due to the logistics of public transportation. A person in a car might be able to commute 90 miles in two hours; I can only go about 15. My hours are limited, too: getting to or from work in the very early morning or late evening may be impossible because the buses or trains don’t run at those hours.

How to help: Employers can make work more transit-friendly by providing flexible schedules and/or telecommuting opportunities or reimbursing the costs of transit passes for employees. In some cities employers can also sign up for programs that allow their workers to purchase transit passes with pre-tax dollars. If you’re working for a company that doesn’t provide these things, consider talking with your boss about it. Even if you don’t personally use mass transit, it might help your colleagues. If you’re posting a job ad, consider omitting that drivers’ license requirement. It can potentially eliminate many qualified candidates.

2. I’m more likely to be attacked or sexually harassed while traveling.

For drivers, there’s always a risk of car jacking or assaults in parking lots, among other things. However, someone who walks or takes mass transit is in immediate proximity to a lot of other people, so the odds of being attacked go up. Since most transit runs infrequently at night, I might be waiting for my bus or train on a desolate platform or a dark street corner for extended periods of time. For people of colour, the odds of walking home or waiting at a station without being harassed, questioned or attacked in some way are even slimmer. Many individuals of colour have been questioned, arrested, assaulted or murdered simply for walking down the street. Sexual harassment is also a major problem on public transportation around the world.

How to help: It’s important for transit passengers to report any incidents they see or experience, and to assist those in need. Some transit systems offer apps that allow riders to immediately connect with local law enforcement via quiet text message and provide photos and videos, such as TransitWatch in Los Angeles. Document incidents on websites like Hollaback. Contact your local transit company to ask what they are doing about violence and harassment. Contact elected officials, too, and ask them to advocate for safer public transportation.

3. I’m more likely to be blamed for being attacked or harassed while traveling.

If someone is car jacked it’s highly unlikely that they will be asked, “Well, why were you driving at night? Why didn’t you drive with a friend? You shouldn’t have been there to begin with.” When a walker or public transit passenger is attacked, however, they are often castigated for being on the bus, train or sidewalk in the first place, particularly if they identify as female. Women are told not to walk alone; not to walk or take the bus at night; not to travel through “bad neighbourhoods.” We’re even advised to sit in certain sections of the bus (near the driver). If someone hurts us, the blame isn’t placed on our assailants. It’s placed on us for having the audacity to attempt to get from Point A to Point B without a car.

How to help: Speak up when you read or hear victim-blaming statements. Put the blame where it’s deserved: on the perpetrators!

4. There’s a huge stigma against mass transit passengers in a lot of places.

Right now it’s terribly trendy for well-off folks in my city to blog about how they braved the subway to get to an art walk or wine tasting. Of course, those individuals also have a car and/or the money to use a ride-share or taxi whenever necessary; the subway’s a novelty they can take or leave. Aside from that, a lot of people don’t think well of mass transit passengers.

My city is expanding its train lines. Affluent communities have fought tooth and nail against it, claiming that more public transportation will bring a “bad element” to their neighbourhoods. Classist, racist and ableist stereotypes and slurs abound in descriptions of public transportation passengers. There are even gradations of prejudice against transit users: if you take a commuter railroad you might be okay. Subway users are somewhere in the middle; bus riders are considered the lowest of the low.

How to help: Let people know you proudly ride public transportation and shatter stereotypes! Speak up when you hear or read others making ableist, racist and classist statements about transit users (or in general…). There are numerous national and regional organizations that provide a voice for riders, such as Transport Action Canada. Consider joining one. If your friends don’t know about public transportation, invite them to take the bus or train with you.

5. Not every area is served well by mass transit.

Even in places like New York City, which are known for excellent public transportation, not every part of town is well covered. I knew plenty of people in NYC who had to rely on “dollar vans” to get home because their neighbourhoods were poorly served by mass transit. In some areas buses run once an hour; in others they stop running on the weekends. It’s not uncommon for bus and train service to stop at some point in the evening, leaving people stranded if they miss the last Pumpkin Coach home. Moving to an area with better transit coverage is often financially or logistically impossible.

How to help: Lobby your elected officials and transit company to provide better coverage to under-served areas. Write an editorial for the local newspaper or news website. Take a petition in your neighbourhood. Attend your local city council meetings and speak about the lack of transit coverage in your community.

6. I have less time.

Traveling by public transportation can eat up a lot of time. Even trips that are fairly simple by car can become convoluted on mass transit. As an example, the nearest train station to me is about 15 minutes away by car. Via mass transit it requires two buses and takes about 40 minutes. Traveling for hours every day can be extremely draining. The extended periods of time that many people spend commuting by public transit cut down on available hours for work, school, seeing families and friends, and other important matters.

How to help: More frequent buses and trains, more routes and more reliable service all decrease the time spent in transit. All of these things require increased public funding. See step #5!

7. It makes ordinary tasks much more difficult.

I’m fortunate to live within walking distance of a library, post office and pharmacy. However, a lot of other errands require traveling on at least one or two buses. I’ve taken to ordering groceries and other things online because I just can’t drag them on the bus, especially now that I am sick. And some tasks are impossible. My local recycling centre, for instance, is only accessible by car, which means I can’t use it.

8. Having a social life isn’t always easy.

Every invitation has to pass the Economics and Mass Transit Tests. Can I afford it? Can I get there? Will the buses still be running? Do I have enough money for a ride-share or taxi, if need be? Am I feeling well enough to walk a mile or two? There have been a lot of events I’ve had to pass up because I’m on my own and there’s just no way to get there and back by mass transit, or the travel time is so long that it’s unreasonable. Being chronically ill makes this even harder; there are many days I just don’t have the energy to spend hours on the bus and I have to pass up things that I’d really like to do.

This also results in a lot of resentment when people cancel on me at the last minute. I once spent three hours traveling one way to a rehearsal for an important dance event. The woman running the rehearsal forgot to show up, so everything was cancelled. Her flake-out meant that I wasted six hours in transit, and yes, I was upset about it.

How to help: If you’ve made plans with someone using mass transit, understand that it’s taken a while for them to get there, and they really need you to show up. Be understanding if an event is too late, too far away or too expensive for a friend to attend.

9. Everything is engineered for people with cars.

Many events ask participants to refrain from bringing purses or bags; we’re told to leave our things in the car. What if you don’t have a car? There’s no accommodation for that. I’ve done projects that offered reimbursement for mileage or parking, but no compensation for mass transit fare or ride-sharing expenses. Sometimes events run late; those of us who take mass transit either end up getting stranded or walking out before it’s over so we don’t miss the last bus.

When people give me directions they usually try to tell me about freeways; I have to stop them and ask for cross streets and building numbers so I can plug them into a Trip Planner. I can forget about anyone giving me mass transit directions; they’re usually not even aware which bus or train lines are nearby.

How to help: If you’re holding an event, be mindful that some of your guests may be using mass transit. Choose locations that are easily accessible by bus or train whenever possible, and provide up-to-date directions for public transportation as well as driving. Have a coat check or lockers if you will not allow personal belongings in the venue. If you’re reimbursing for gas or parking, cover public transit or ride sharing expenses, too. If your event runs late, consider organizing ride shares or asking those with cars to consider helping mass transit riders going in their direction.

Some major venues and special events now offer special public transportation services. If there’s an event you love and they’re not linked up with public transit, give them a call or send an email to make some suggestions.

10. No, biking is not a viable alternative a lot of the time.

There aren’t a lot of bike paths in my city. There are a lot of fatalities involving drivers and bikes, and cycling in traffic is so daunting that a lot of people understandably don’t do it. Cycling isn’t always feasible for other reasons. What if you have a physical or mental challenge that makes riding a bicycle in traffic unsafe or impossible? Do you have a place to shower and change your clothes after you’ve biked 20 miles to get to your workplace? Are you going to be alert enough to safely bike home after a long day? What if you have to carry a lot of stuff with you? Can you afford a bike that is safe to operate in traffic, with several speeds and hand brakes? Can you afford a good lock for it? Are there secure storage areas for your bike at home and work? All of these things come into play.

How to help: Employers, schools, businesses and apartment buildings can help facilitate bicycle use by providing secure bike storage areas. As an individual you can join advocacy groups for cyclists and talk to your elected officials and department of transportation about adding more bike lanes and better safety measures on roads shared with drivers.

Mass transit is good for the environment and good for society. However, more needs to be done to ensure that it’s good for the people who use it every day.

Tags: body politics

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