Bus Stigma - What It Is and How We Can Reduce It

A Detroit Department of Transportation Bus lays over at the Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit. Christopher MacKechnie

Bus Stigma – What It Is and How We Can Reduce It

In general, bus stigma is the belief that people who ride city buses are a lower class of people than those who drive their own cars. Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, once famously stated that a man who still found himself riding buses after his mid-twenties could count himself a failure. By making that statement she vocalized the bus stigma that works to limit transit ridership in many cities by fomenting a belief that only those with no other choice – the “losers” of society – ride the bus.

This stigma extends to a belief that bus transit equates to no transit – i.e. in Los Angeles it is commonly stated that West Hollywood has “no” transit. West Hollywood is served by two of the busiest bus routes in Los Angeles – the 4 and 704 on Santa Monica Blvd, along with other heavily used and frequent bus routes like 2, 30, 105 and 212.

Bus stigma is a commonly cited reason as to why we should be building light rail lines instead of bus rapid transit , and indeed, when rail lines open the clientele on average makes a higher income than bus riders do. It is interesting that in American cities with a long tradition of rail – New York, Boston, and Chicago, for example – there is not the same bus stigma as is found in cities that do not have any rail lines such as Detroit. It would be interesting to study whether bus stigma in a place like Charlotte, NC declined after their first rail line opened.

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In my opinion, transit agencies need to be examining bus stigma and how to reduce it if they are to have any hope of increasing bus ridership to a level that would allow our cities to achieve a more sustainable future.

Obviously, as transit becomes more like a business it will be more important to reduce stigma, as no business can be truly successful if there is a general public antipathy towards its product. Other transit experts believe that we should not talk about bus stigma. For example, Jarrett Walker says transit agencies should not worry about bus stigma because public beliefs are beyond their control to change and the kind of people that vocalize these beliefs the most will never ride transit no matter how good it is. Instead, transit systems should work to improve their systems to better serve the existing people who use it.

While better serving the transit dependent is probably the most important goal of transit, without addressing the underlying anti-bus attitude we will merely be delaying their future car purchase, not eliminating it, as well as not increasing the number of green passengers who choose on their own initiative to forego automobiles. In addition, an anti-bus attitude can hurt transit at the ballot box, potentially robbing transit of needed funds.

If we are to reduce bus stigma, we need to start at the bottom – the individual passenger – rather than at the top through such efforts as lobbying.

The best time to get people to change their mode of transportation is at a major life change. For example, college is a great time to get people to start using public transportation, as many colleges are in congested areas with limited parking. UPASS programs , by providing free rides to students, can start a lifelong transit habit.

In any case, generational changes in ways of thinking about transportation will work to lessen bus stigma in future years even without any transit agency intervention. The youth of today are waiting to get their drivers licenses and are buying fewer cars than they have in the past. Technology has made both waiting for the bus and paying for the bus far less onerous than in the past, and car sharing and transportation network companies have made it easier than ever to live without owning a car.

Of course, people without a car are the most likely to use transit – including the bus. Evolving attitudes have caused even the most die-hard automobile-oriented cities to reconsider the need for transit, as places like Indianapolis; Oklahoma City; and Raleigh, NC have made plans to significantly improve their transit offerings in recent years. The tide is turning, and in thirty years we will look back at bus stigma as unfortunate thinking from unenlightened people.