We are in the twilight years of car culture. Few young people associate the car with freedom the way their parents and grandparents did. That sort of freedom — of open roads that can take you where the crowds aren’t — has never scaled. The romantic Americana of Route 66 has been replaced by the daily gridlock of overbuilt highways. Not only is commuting by car the source of many environmental ills — recent revelations that car companies have been hiding their products’ actual tailpipe emissions from regulators suggests they are worse than we knew — it produces a set of social problems that leave people feeling isolated and angry. Despite many improvements in car and road safety in the past few decades, the number of car-related fatalities has stayed relatively steady since 1975, hovering between 30,000 and 50,000 a year.
The car has become the opposite of liberating: a dangerous and expensive hassle that has reshaped the landscape in its image, creating isolation and dependency for everyone, with or without one. Families must maintain a fleet of vehicles to complete ordinary tasks within a suburban landscape designed to keep everyone marooned in individualized convenience. Instead of having life’s necessities within walking distance of neighborhoods or public transportation, there are unmaintained sidewalks amid endless tracts of ranch houses and big-box stores surrounded by huge parking lots.
The car has become the opposite of liberating: a dangerous and expensive hassle that has reshaped the landscape in its image
Cars themselves are no longer portals to the unknown, to be customized at the owner’s discretion; they are festooned with elaborate electronics that preclude the possibility of home repair, let alone modification, and they are equipped with monitoring devices that make them fully trackable (and susceptible to being hacked). When young adults get to drive the family car, they are still under the parental thumb, having their speed governed and their location monitored remotely.
As car culture has become more obviously stultifying, some have begun to romanticize train travel — the kind seen in onscreen evocations of the 1950s, or remembered from trips abroad: clean, dignified transit that is easy to navigate and implicitly on time. Even the U.S.’s dangerously derelict passenger-rail service is now represented as an ideal setting for writerly repose: For three years Amtrak offered a residency program for writers who wanted to be inspired by a transcontinental train ride. Like fresh produce or regular access to a doctor, the material benefits and dignity-conferring potential of trains has been restricted to a select few, even though these same benefits multiply when more have access to them. Trains should be the great equalizer, letting everyone get to where they need to go, but in the U.S. they are becoming cosmopolitan status markers.
At the other end of the spectrum from the train is the bus. In a 2009 U.S. Department of Transportation survey, Los Angeles commuters ranked big diesel-electric commuter trains as the most desirable form of transit, with light rail, a category that includes subways and fixed-rail streetcars, right below them. At the very bottom was the humble bus. One might expect that bus rapid transit systems — conventional bus service modified to work more like light rail, with dedicated lanes and station-side ticketing — would be more popular, but they ranked barely above ordinary buses. When researchers asked why bus rapid transit ranked below light rail “even though they are essentially the same mode at approximately the same level of investment,” respondents chalked it up to “perceptions of other riders.” Though they function almost exactly like streetcars, bus rapid transit is stigmatized precisely because they serve a larger swath of the population. “Bus-based public transit in the United States,” the L.A. study concluded, “suffers from an image problem.”
That image problem — which, as will be explained below, stems from the deliberate association of buses with poverty and racialized minorities — informs the way Lyft and Uber have chosen to introduce their own versions of what is essentially conventional bus service. Lyft describes its “Shuttle” as the option to “ride for a low fixed fare along convenient routes, with no surprise stops.” Uber calls its service a “Pool.” Alison Griswold, writing at Quartz, notes that the path taken by the bus mentioned in Uber’s blog post announcing the service “is almost identical to the route traversed by the M101 bus in New York City.”
Uber and Lyft are not the first organizations to proactively brand their fleet of vans in such a way that they are not associated with the 30-foot long vehicles run by city or regional authorities. Colleges and universities often operate “shuttles,” and anyone can rent a “trolley” with arched windows and faux-antique wood benches for weddings or corporate events. American cities like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore also run “circulators” among local attractions and corporate districts, often financed by business improvement districts that select the stops, schedules, and routes to maximize their attractiveness for tourists and office workers and minimize their usefulness to the poor.
Why the euphemisms for “bus”? These transparent efforts at rebranding may seem like innocent or silly word games, but they speak to the perpetuation of a racist, classist history that has shaped the infrastructure of cities and helped stratify the life chances of people living in them. In an L.A. Times profile of Logan Green, Lyft’s co-founder and chief executive, he is described by a childhood friend as “a power user of public transportation. He’s one of the only people I know who knew how to take a bus in L.A.” After college, Green became the youngest member of the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District’s board of directors. There he learned that many people — perhaps because, like his friend, they do not know anyone who uses the service — don’t like to see tax money diverted to public transit.
Since their invention, ride-hailing platforms have been under fire for facilitating discrimination. For instance, a multicity study in 2016 found that black riders waited longer for rides and drivers with black-sounding names faced twice as many canceled ride requests. But the popularity of these platforms has also had a detrimental impact on public transit, causing a similarly discriminatory harm. The euphemistic language platforms are now using suggests this is not coincidental, but part of the same project: to attract riders away from public transportation and further discredit it to pave the way for transit’s full reprivatization. Indeed, some cities have seen a dropoff in ridership as the platforms compete directly for middle-class riders, placing an additional strain on public systems. It also puts pressure on organized labor as well, as ride-hailing apps replace a heavily unionized transit workforce with private contractors — 30 percent of whom, in a 2018 study, were found to actually lose money after expenses. (That study has since been largely retracted; a statement by the lead researcher concludes that it is more likely that most drivers make about $8.55 an hour.) Under the auspices of app-driven convenience, city bus service can be reborn under new names, reoriented toward the goal of profit rather than equal access.
To understand the symbolism of the city bus, we must first look at its predecessor, the electric streetcar, which dominated mass transit in the early 20th century. Since it was introduced before the mass marketing of automobiles, streetcar service — unlike the bus service that would come to replace it — did not develop in the car’s shadow as a subordinate alternative. It was state-of-the art transportation technology that every passenger could ride for the same low fare. Nearly everyone rode it.
In 1887, a former Navy officer named Frank Julian Sprague operated the first commercially viable electric streetcar system in Richmond, Virginia. By 1903, the U.S. had over 30,000 miles of electrified rail. Streetcars became, as the historian George W. Hilton wrote, “one of the most rapidly accepted innovations in the history of technology,” much as ride-hailing apps would encircle the globe in a similar time span. And also like ride-hailing companies, the rising streetcar industry was ruthlessly competitive. In Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth T. Jackson describes the corporate consolidation: “In Philadelphia 66 different street railway companies were incorporated between 1854 and 1895. By the latter year, most of them had combined to form the giant Union Traction Company.”
Under the auspices of app-driven convenience, city bus service can be reborn under new names, reoriented toward profit rather than equal access
The popularity of streetcars would reach its zenith in the early 1920s. After that, ridership declined slowly but profitability fell off a cliff. Streetcar lines were operated by private companies who signed decades-long leases with local governments that dictated fare prices, service frequency, and maintenance requirements. But these agreements meant that fares stayed at a few cents even as repair costs ballooned. Many contracts even stipulated that streetcar companies pay part of the cost of street repairs. As the 20th century progressed, this would mean streetcar operators would be paying for the infrastructure of their main competition.
In the span of 60 years the U.S. built and dismantled the biggest streetcar network in the world. The conventional telling of this history has it that the streetcar could not compete with the Model T. But that presumes that the car’s self-evident superiority made it America’s destiny. In fact, cars were reviled in towns and cities, where they disrupted crowded streets and brought a surge in pedestrian deaths. Political cartoonists often depicted cars as vengeful gods or chariots for the angel of death. A 1907 issue of Puck ran a cartoon of cars circling a flame labeled “speed madness” with a caption that read: “The moths and the flame.”
As historian Peter D. Norton explains, car companies had to stave off the anti-auto backlash with PR. They mounted a campaign called Motordom: a series of national ads and advocacy campaigns run through local motor clubs that blamed pedestrians and careless drivers for fatalities rather than cars themselves. From this view, cars weren’t a social incongruity that threatened the way of life people knew; they were the inevitable future, an evolutionary step toward greater individual freedom. Getting in the way of a car, the campaign suggested, was to impede progress itself, and to own a car was a solemn responsibility in pursuit of a better world.
By the end of the 1920s, the car’s reputation as an agent of progress was more or less secured. Then the lobbying commenced: The American Road Builders Association was formed in 1943. By the 1950s, according to Jackson, “it had become one of the most broad-based of all pressure groups, consisting of the oil, rubber, asphalt, and construction industries; the car dealers and renters; the trucking and bus concerns; the banks and advertising agencies that depended upon the companies involved; and the labor unions.” It helped persuade the federal government to use public money to widen and pave streets. Its crowning achievement was installing Lucius D. Clay, a member of General Motors’ board of directors, as the head of a 1954 presidential committee to study the need for a national highway system. This was like making an arsonist the fire chief. President Dwight Eisenhower would eventually sign the interstate highway act into law, establishing a non-transferable pool of money to build and maintain highways. Through eminent domain, the government bulldozed Black, Jewish, Asian, and Hispanic enclaves to erect elevated expressways that would let predominantly white men drive more expediently from their jobs downtown to their suburban homes. In a sad bit of historical irony, city leaders clamored for highway exits to be built in their towns, mistaking it for a fire hose of money when it was, in fact, a siphon.
The rise of the automobile transformed the conception of American democracy itself. Historian Cotten Seiler calls this car-based worldview the “republic of drivers,” a sort of automotive take on the Habermasian public sphere, “a political imaginary of anonymity and autonomy that finds expression in practices and landscapes of automobility.” From drive-ins and fast food to the less tangible feeling that you could traverse the continent on a gleaming highway, to participate in American culture was to be a driver.
The car was, indeed, a liberating force for many people, including African Americans, ameliorating the isolation of those who lived in rural areas and offering an alternative to Jim Crow transit companies. (The Montgomery Bus Boycott targeted not only a racist southern municipal government but also a for-profit transit company based in Detroit — GM’s National City Line.) But as the urban environment was rebuilt to accommodate the automobile, the ideology of what cars could do and whom they were meant to do it for came into sharper focus.
As cars became more widely employed, they became more instrumental in reproducing the white supremacist society that produced them. To deny nonwhites the agency and autonomy cars could bring, media outlets began to depict black people as intellectually incapable of operating motor vehicles. “Representations of African-Americans as technologically incompetent,” observes historian Kathleen Franz, discussing the interwar years, “reinforced a belief in white superiority at a time when the white middle class was feeling the threat of cultural fragmentation and blacks had started gaining middle class status.” In part based on these racist representations, many auto insurers refused to cover black motorists. Without insurance, drivers typically had to provide proof they could cover the cost of an accident.
Even if black drivers could clear these hurdles, they would have a hard time taking long journeys. Most roadside businesses up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 refused to serve them. Even the National Park Service, according to Franz, announced to rangers in 1922 that “while colored people could not be openly discriminated against, they should be told that the parks have no facilities for taking care of them.” Black motorists organized against this discrimination, publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book from 1936 to 1957, which listed motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other services that would serve black people.
But the hurdles to black car ownership, combined with the explicitly racist home ownership laws of the suburbs, helped establish conditions in which car ownership was experienced not just as freedom, but as whiteness.
As the auto was finding its ideological place in American society, automakers were moving against the already pinched streetcar companies. In Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay reports that from 1932 to 1949, General Motors “would help persuade 100 electric systems in more than 45 cities to scrap their street rails.” GM, along with Mack Truck, Standard Oil, Firestone, and Phillips Petroleum formed its own streetcar company, National City Lines, that bought up failing lines and, rather than maintain them, slowly converted them to buses. And when these bus companies began to fail, municipal governments started buying them to bring them under public ownership and to preserve their service.
From funding propaganda to shift social norms about who belonged in the street, to reconfiguring the regulatory environments that determined what made for a financially viable use of the right of way, GM remade American geography in its own image, destroying streetcar companies and the reputation of public transportation along the way. Some historians and legal scholars find that framing too conspiratorial. Urban studies scholar Martha Bianco, for instance, argues in this discussion paper that “the failure of public policy should be assigned as much blame — if not more than — the machinations of the diesel-bus industry for the substitution of inferior motor buses” for streetcars. Regulatory agencies’ modernization requirements, she argues, saddled transit companies with unmanageable debt and hampered their ability to adapt.
It’s true that the regulatory requirements dictated that mass transit be both cheap and well-maintained. It may not have been a conspiracy, but it was a grand example of the state’s preference for private sector profit and racial segregation over general public welfare. Had the federal government offered long-term financial support for public transit like they had for the highways, things might have been different. Instead, the emerging patchwork of public transit authorities had to reach for the short-term survival offered by cheap buses, which would prove susceptible to fluctuating gas prices and increasing car traffic, instead of the long-term public planning of electric streetcar systems.
With white flight to the suburbs fully under way and local tax receipts falling, city leaders appealed to the federal government for help in modernizing the streets and rails that were left behind. What they got was a temporary fix: The Housing Act of 1961 authorized a series of federal loans but offered little else. Without reoccurring funds, the new public transportation authorities began life in debt and hemorrhaging money.
These sabotaged municipal bus systems were part of a larger set of systemic failures faced by cities throughout the 1960s and ’70s, what came to be known as the “urban crisis.” The abandonment of cities by white people and their capital sent city governments into an economic tailspin. Police were dispatched to control rather than protect urban ghettos, and when black and brown people took to the streets to demand basic services, the media portrayed their anger as the reason for rather than a reaction to the dysfunction of the city.
Deindustrialization’s impact on blue collar workers is often depicted as a white working-class problem, but as Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, it hit black families earlier and harder because before jobs went overseas, they went to the suburbs: “The growing spatial mismatch of jobs had a profound impact on African Americans trapped in ghettos. A study of urban black fathers found that only 28 percent had access to an automobile. The rate fell to 18 percent for those living in ghetto areas.” In 1970 over 70 percent of black men living in cities held blue collar jobs, by 1987 it had fallen to 28 percent. Transportation policy reiterated these conditions.
The bus is an afterthought, a mark of shame; neither a status symbol like the car nor a truly shared form of transportation as the streetcar had been
While the auto was being framed as the vehicle of white freedom and individual success, the bus — in transit systems typically administered by a syndicate of companies who benefited directly from private automobile ownership and later perpetually underfunded local governments — represented, by contrast, the failure to achieve self-sufficiency. The bus is an afterthought, a mark of shame precisely because it is neither a status symbol like the car nor a truly shared form of transportation as the streetcar had been.
Obtaining a car was necessary to gain access to the spoils of America’s postwar wealth. For everyone else there was the bus, whose mainstream introduction as a public utility coincided with cities’ fiscal insolvency and thus became inextricably linked with poverty and government mismanagement. This is the “image problem” that Uber and Lyft are now trying to navigate when they brand their own bus-like services.
The racialized history of the bus is a uniquely American story, but the U.S. is adept at exporting its culture to the rest of the world. That is at least part of the reason that, when Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, began a mass transportation initiative, he made a point to give the bus rapid transit system a brand: TransMilenio, which he talks about in liberatory terms. In a lecture at Portland State University, he showed a slide of a congested highway with bumper-to-bumper cars next to dedicated buses zipping along in dedicated lanes, calling it a “powerful symbol of democracy.” When a bus full of people of all walks of life zooms past a “$100,000 car, that’s democracy at work,” he says.
Modes of transportation don’t merely move people from place to place, but they tell a story about riders and their society. How you get to work may imply something about your buying habits and social class to advertisers, but public transit groups individuals into broader collectives. They offer not individual anonymity and autonomy but group subjectivity and social welfare.
Not so with Lyft and Uber, whose business models rely on collecting data on individuated users and using that data to not only plan routes but to segregate riders into service tiers. The Financial Times describes Uber as the “most lossmaking private company in tech history,” with negative cash flow in the billions. Like the overleveraged streetcar companies that operated their lines at a loss in anticipation of riders buying the surrounding real estate that the companies were also selling, Uber still loses money every time someone uses their service. It is assumed that, like Amazon, these companies will become profitable once they achieve massive economies of scale and enjoy near-monopoly rates. But as financial analyst Hubert Horan has observed, “in the hundred years since the first motorized taxi, there has been no evidence of significant scale economies in the urban car service industry.”
If scale can’t save them, maybe dividing and conquering the market could. Rather than offer similar services to as many people as possible, we may see history repeat itself, as competing syndicates of automobile manufacturers, ride-hailing companies, and data analysis firms reorganize the transportation status hierarchy to include different-size vehicles driven by human and machine chauffeurs. Uber and Lyft have already begun to partner with automakers to test self-driving vehicles, thus opening the door for the same cast of characters that made up Motordom and the American Road Builders Association to remake U.S. transportation again. Exactly how the new symbology of status takes shape — does driving your own car have more or less status than having a robot driver? — is inconsequential to the overall effect: the maintenance and exploitation of race- and class-based hierarchies for profit.
This effort to articulate social hierarchies has fueled the bus-but-not-a-bus services. Ride-hailing companies are offering a rebranded experience of bus riding that might attract a more affluent clientele than the conventional bus while also cutting costs and increasing per-mile revenue. The services could also be funded through targeted ads, like the ones described late last year in an Atlantic article:
Picture a not-too-distant future where a trip across town is available to anyone who will spend 15 minutes in McDonald’s on the way. Not a fast-food fan? Then for you it’s Starbucks, a bookstore, the game parlor. Rides with a child stop at the Disney store, while teenage girls are routed via next decade’s version of Zara and H&M. Unlike today’s UberPool, with its roundabout routes and multiple passenger pickups, “UberFree” [the article’s imaginary service of the future] features tailor-made routes and thoughtfully targeted stops.
It goes on to imagine an algorithm-fueled streetcar experience where real estate agents advertise homes for sale and politicians drive voters to economically depressed sections to paint their opponents as bad for business. In this way ride-hailing companies will doubly profit from discriminating among its users, mining data from the poorest and selling identity back to them in the form of something that could be called Featured Destinations.
The specter of the bus always comes after the meteoric rise and crash of a new transportation technology — in this case, ride hailing as we know it
Ride-hailing services’ anti-bus branding indicates that they want to continue selling segregation as a kind of freedom as their forebears did. As affluent whites rediscover their love of the city and suburban housing prices fall, ride-hailing companies are well positioned to offer an algorithmically powered ride through what sociologist Douglas Massey calls an emerging “mosaic of segregation.” This new urban geography is defined by enclaves that are defined by not only race and income but education level and political ideology as well. Social media scholars may be divided on the significance of “filter bubbles,” but urban geographers are unanimous in noting how we have sorted ourselves physically into like-minded cloisters. Physical segregation is a prerequisite for administering poverty to racial minorities in such a way that it is easily ignorable by white society. The sorting power of algorithmic transit will drive this phenomenon further, not hedge it.
To say that Uber and Lyft are reinventing the bus is actually much more frighteningly accurate than detractors probably intend. The specter of the bus, it seems, always comes after the meteoric rise and subsequent crash of a new popular transportation technology — in this case, ride hailing as we know it. In its place we might find a new array of buses, privately and publicly owned, that will execute new and more precise means of segregation. And here we should think of “bus” not as a high-capacity vehicle making scheduled stops, but as a racialized transit mode that is stigmatized so that some will seek to escape it —a transportation system socially constructed to shame some users and enhance the value of consuming some other, more profitable option.
If the mid-20th century saw the rise of the republic of drivers, then the early 21st century will be marked by a new republic of riders. Whereas the republic of drivers derived its ideological allure from longstanding myths of American individualism, the republic of riders will leverage the same nation’s equally fabricated story of attainable luxury: that Americans live the biggest and best lives that money can buy.
The degree to which services like UberPool and Lyft Shuttle are beneficial to the common person’s flourishing will be determined by political fights over their time-saving and dignity-conferring potentials. If these services and whatever grow out of them remain dedicated to creating profit from segregation, then we will repeat our racist transportation history. If we collectively demand that these new services be equitably distributed such that everyone can afford them and be proud to be seen riding them, then we will have achieved something much greater. We will know if the reign of the republic of riders is just if any rider can proudly say, “I took the bus today.”
This essay is part of a collection on the theme of PRIVATIZATION. Also from this week, Natasha Young on robot caregivers.