Thursday, June 12, 2008

Class and Mass Transit (Part 1 of 2)

Right now, there’s a battle going on in Cheviot Hills over a proposed light rail line from Downtown to Santa Monica that will run through the community. The Cheviot Hills residents are making safety arguments against the line—cars will be hit at crossings, kids and dogs won’t be able to cross the tracks safely. These arguments don’t hold much water, of course—San Francisco, Portland, Philadelphia and hell, LA itself (the Gold and Blue Lines) manage to have light rail without mass killings of children and animals. It’s not a matter of safety, it’s a matter of class — where do you stand on the socio –economic ladder?

Gas is heading towards $5 a gallon and the word green is being used as a verb, yet mass transit still isn’t being used by the majority of Angelenos. The reason why isn’t simply convenience — when I worked at UCLA, it was both cheaper and faster for me to commute by bus, yet the two other people living in my apartment building who also worked at UCLA still drove to work. Why? People want to be thought of as being environmentally conscious, but as Thorstein Veblen pointed out in The Theory of the Leisure Class, people consume goods and services as a way to signal their social class. And mass transit sends out all kinds of class signals that are problematic for the majority of people in Los Angeles.

So if you’re the average middle-to-upper middle class person in LA, buying a Prius is a socially acceptable way to demonstrate your commitment to the environment. Sure, a Prius isn’t actually all that fuel efficient and it has that pesky battery that eventually has to be recycled so that it doesn’t poison a landfill. But if you’re driving a Prius, you are letting the world know that you are likely college educated, politically liberal, have an interest in the environment (even if you don’t actually know much about environmental issues) and you can afford a down payment and monthly loan payments for a brand new car.

Biking to work is another socially acceptable transit option. It’s not only “green”, it lets people know that you’re fit and it gives you a chance to blow $1,500 on a titanium bike with Shimano gears. Conspicuous consumption, but because you’re not polluting the environment, you can feel smug about spending all that money.

If you look at it in this context, mass transit is a vastly inferior option. Riding the bus doesn’t give you the options for all that class-based signaling. There is no special gear needed to ride the bus, no big outlay of money required. In other words, no way to signal that you belong to the middle or upper class and are not one of the poor masses who are also riding the bus with you.

And speaking of those poor masses, when you ride the bus, you are in a space that puts you all on equal ground. Normally, when middle or upper class people encounter poor people, they do so in a rigidly proscribed context. If you’re at work, the poor people you meet tend to be service workers, people with a clearly defined and inferior status to your own. Many of them even wear uniforms to more clearly delineate the difference.

But when you’re on the bus, it’s an uncontrolled environment. Those poor people don’t have to be polite or deferential to you. And this is a dangerous situation for someone who is middle or upper class. Not physically dangerous (though of course people in those classes do fear being assaulted if they encounter poor people outside of an employment context), but dangerous in the sense that by mixing with the poor, they lose class status. And as Veblen pointed out, losing class status is comparable to death. People will go into debt, even risking bankruptcy, in order to avoid losing class status.

So what does this all mean for mass transit and for communities like Downtown? More on this in the next post.


Anonymous said...

While I'm sure that your social commentary explains a portion of the phenomenon that is the L.A. "car culture," I don't think, from my experience at least, that it truly hits the larger issues that undercut mass transit in L.A. And the only reason I bring it up, is because the social status argument is an easy way to forget that there are other issues that CAN be addressed and changed.

And those issues are a) the fact that mass transit in L.A. is largely disjointed. There isn't any uniformity in the "system" of mass transit, and with the exception of the places along the red and gold line, it's not exactly easy to get around all of l.a. And when a system isn't uniform, it discourages increasing usage. Because, in Cities like NY, DC, even Chicago, people KNOW that the train or mass transit can get them damn near anywhere in the City. The system is usually more user friendly. So while in L.A. "sometimes" it's easier to use mass transit, you're only gonna catch the people that are committed to mass transit out of principal (like myself) or out of necessity (those without cars).

b) L.A. is so spread out geographically, that using mass transit at times can double the time of your trip. Thus, when you have people of "status" normally, "time is money", and so spending an extra hour or two on the bus/train sometimes just isn't worth it for them economically. We need to figure out ways to create commercial "nodes" so that long trips become unnecessary throughout L.A., and make those "nodes" interconnected by functional and compatible transit lines.


Li said...

Hi Chuppie,

You bring up two excellent points, and I agree that LA needs to create a more integrated system and have more employment centers throughout the region. But regarding your first point, I think that the social factors are a big reason why we we don't have an integrated system.

For example, extending the subway down Wilshire to Santa Monica would seem to be a no brainer, yet it hasn't happened because of community opposition. Part of that opposition comes from the "we don't want those poor brown/black people brought into our neighborhood" mentality. But it's also because the middle class communities in LA don't see themselves as stakeholders in mass transit--they won't use it so why should they have to deal with the expense and inconvenience of building it?

Also, LA is spread out but there are transit lines that work well and are nearly as fast as driving, yet middle class people for the most part don't use them. For example, when I worked at UCLA, I took the bus to work because I lived only two blocks from the bus stop, the bus was free with my UCLA ID and I didn't have to pay $58/month for parking. Also, because I didn't have to park my car and walk from the lot, the bus trip took exactly the same amount of time as driving. Yet the two women who lived in my building and also worked at UCLA drove to work. They were shocked when they figured out I was riding the bus and they offered to drive me to work, I think out of pity.

Of course, with gas at almost $5 a gallon, all this may change and change a lot more quickly than I ever expected (see my next post for details).

Anonymous said...

I'm not discounting the social aspect of the transportation argument. I just think that in the list of things that have the largest impact, the social stigma of mass transit falls way down the list.

I've seen communities "stop" mass transit lines in other communities (washington DC is notorious for this kind of nimby-ism). I'm not so sure that is the the most powerful force in the l.a. transit conversation. For example, Supervisors Knabe and Antonivich are vehemently against the subway/transit line down wilshire. And the reason they are has nothing to do with the phenomenon you described; instead, it's because transit money is finite, while transit needs in L.A. is practically infinite. The east side politicos want their fair share of transit moneys to "fix" the transit problem and provide better public transportation on the east side; The west side wants the 405 and the other freeways "fixed" expanded, more carpool lanes. The foothill cities want the gold line extended and the 710 freeway to go through the hills of south pas and link up with the 210. There's not enough money to go around.

Hell, there's not even enough money currently to MAINTAIN the existing freeway systems. The reality is L.A. hit it's boom after the invent of the automobile. So we're talking 60 some odd years of infrastructure built for the car (and some would say with help from the lobbying of car manufacturers), including the destruction of the Red Car in L.A., which, had it been maintained and built upon, would have had a legacy that would take care of at least half of our current transportation problems.

Angelenos are in love with their cars. They are loathe to give up on them. It is more to do with how l.a. was built up (or, more accurately, "out"), then the social aspects that normally come into play in other areas. While it may play a part, and be an undercurrent, I think it is more a symptom of the problem, as opposed to the underlying "disease."

Looking forward to the next post. :)


love and hate los angeles said...

Li, I totally agree and it is a very valid argument.
As a person that has been using public transportation since 2005, I see and sense it all the time.
But it is all about peoples perceptions and what they want to project to others.
I have noticed in the last year more white collar commuters on the buses and trains.
Like the character played by Matt Damon in the TALENTED MR RIPLEY, he says- " I rather be a fake somebody than a real nobody."
It really makes you think.
But now with the high cost of gas and other stuff, people are really considering alternative transportation methods and letting go of the "ego", that which prevents us from growth and moving forward.."fear,doubt and worry".

love your blog-great observations and insight. :)

Li said...

L&HLA, thanks for the kind words--I really appreciate it!