Sunday, August 19, 2012

Undoing alt transportation's negative public image

Me, trying to stay cool and dry, rapidly losing concern that I might be mistaken for a homeless American.
I've related in this space on numerous occasions that I first began using alternative transportation to get back and forth to work in 2001 in order to better economize and have more money left over at the end of every month to save or spend on priorities other than gas for my car.  Bike commuting came much later in Flagstaff in order to help makes ends meet in a high-cost of living town.  In both cases, I've run into a lot of negative stereotypes about people who travel other than by car, and have been more than surprised at some people's assumptions, and, on occasion, out-and-out prejudice, against those of us who are car-less, car-free or merely car-lite.  A certain large, bald, loud, middle-aged guy for whom the Louisville media seems to have a perplexing fondness referred several years ago in a local tabloid to people who ride the city bus as "losers".  We don't know each other so he couldn't have been referring to me but I wondered if he meant any of the really cute and smart architects  I used to flirt with, the numerous students from St. Francis High School (aka: the School of Thought), the staff of the many downtown hospitals or municipal services or simply your average Route 17 rider  just trying to get to work and eek out a living at a minimum wage job with no benefits.  WHAT A JERK! 

Several years ago in Flagstaff, I was in the ladies room at City Hall repairing my hair and makeup after an unusually sweaty bike ride to work.  After a patronizing expression of sympathy from another woman in the bathroom about having to clean up in the bathroom, I thought to myself "She thinks I'm homeless!"  Part of me wanted to follow her outside and assure her that I wasn't homeless but I also felt indignation that she would jump to that conclusion.

At Tempe Campus.  I keep reading that 20somethings are less in love with auto ownership than the generations before them.
This week NPR featured a story about how the City of Phoenix is planning for increasingly high temperatures and hit on the topic of commercial and residential development along the Valley Metro Light Rail route.  Metro posted a link to the feature on their FB page and it elicited a number of comments, including a few from one poster that were idiotic.  I'll let you, the reader, decide who I am referring to.  I decided to delete his name and undo the link to his FB page to avoid hassles. 

2 · ·

  • You and 10 others like this.

    • RS:  how the light-rail helps bring losers to phoenix, I'm sorry you only make 18k a year but at some point these people made the choice to lower there expectations of life. If its too hot for you MOVE. I see the people that ride the light rail, and every now and then when I take it to Tempe so I don't get a DUI when I go home, I fear for my life. Plus at 33 miles an hour whats the point??
      Tuesday at 9:09pm ·

    • SA:  Hey (blank), I thought you loved riding the lightrail! ;)~
      Tuesday at 9:12pm via mobile ·

    • RS: lol
      Tuesday at 9:12pm ·

    • RS: if i wanted to buy crack I'd ride it
      Tuesday at 9:13pm ·

    • RS:  i love how the main fb page for the light rail show normal people. How about they take some new pictures at random times.
      Tuesday at 9:14pm ·

    • SA:  Now (blank), only upstanding citizens ride the light-rail. Downtown workers nd all!
      Tuesday at 9:26pm via mobile ·

    • Trinity Marler This is a great article! Let's start today, build more miles, and increase frequency and let's get a different mindset here in Phoenix that doesn't always involve a car.
      Tuesday at 11:03pm via mobile · · 5

    • Bryan Bazley The light rail is a great investment back into the city. Would like to see Phoenix get back to it's public transportation roots. Every big city relies on efficient transit
      Wednesday at 2:49am · · 4

    • Marc Mackie Really interesting,the light rail extensions are gonna be massive.
      Wednesday at 6:54am · · 1

    • Lennox D. Punch Jr. Interesting idea... But it will be a tough sell to get your traditional single family home builders to invest into building in urban areas and to build up. This city is going to continue to sprawl until some type of legislation is passed to curtail the sprawl.
      Wednesday at 9:03am · · 2

    • Sean D. Sweat Significant land-use changes that should stem from introducing local rail transit are the only hope for Phoenix's future. If we aren't able to leverage the opportunity that rail transit has now given us, this city will decline into a poverty-stricken ecological nightmare with some of the worst social inequities in the country.

      All aboard Metro!
      Wednesday at 8:23pm · · 1
Anyway, I decided to stay out of the conversation and most of the posters just ignored the dumb stereotyping and left thoughtful comments.  But I couldn't help wonder how prevalent is this type of, not only negative, but hostile, perception?  I can understand fear of the unknown if you've never ridden public transit, but why the ugly looking-down-your-nose, and feeling comfortable enough with it to post it on a FB page? 
I don't have a job but it looks this guy, JB, does.  And a cool hat and bike.
Yes, I am pretty sure there are people looking to score drugs on the light rail.  A lot of homeless people are probably hopping on to escape the high heat, too.  I heard several years ago and any one of us is a job loss and three months away from homelessness, and since I can escape the heat  in my air conditioned house, who am I to  denigrate someone who lacks that option? 

Lots of college kids on board now that ASU is starting back up.
Frankly, I chatted with a very nice 50ish man at Central and Van Buren Station, I'm pretty sure a sometime laid off, formerly middle class guy now living in a shelter.  As with most people I meet on the rail, we talked bikes and he told me he used to own a Gary Fischer.  So sure, I see some homeless people riding the rail every day.  Some of them have bikes laden down with everything they own, often very ingeniously so.  I don't take their pictures because it seems insensitive and exploitative for this format.  

Bike section getting a little cramped.
Most of the people I see riding though are still lucky enough to have a job and represent every income level.  I also talked bikes with cute architects yesterday.  Architects love public transit, it seems.  So do yoga instructors - we bemoaned our sports related injuries that prohibited us from hanging our bikes in the bike section of the car. 

Surprisingly, I see a lot of middle aged, yuppy guys on board with their bikes.  This one looked expensive.
Yes, I rambled a lot in this post and didn't come up with a single answer. Alternative transportation still has a good way to go before it is embraced by the majority of the public. Even those who agree it is a good thing might be wary of actually taking the step to use it out of concern about what others will think.   If you bike, take the bus, ride the rail or walk rather than drive a car to work or wherever else you need to go a fair number of people will wonder . . . did you lose your license due to a DUI?  Are you homeless?  Are you too poor to own a car?  Are you just another pinko, tree-hugging, liberal, elitist?  I've guess I'm sorta that last one.  I AM about to begin my Masters in Social Work after all, and I'm not entirely sure how that perspective will affect this space so be prepared.


G.E. said...

Such a complex subject, and I have definitely been on the receiving end of the looks and/or comments. I don't know why some people assume that if we're on a bus, or riding a bicycle, it's not out of choice, but rather necessity (due to any number of things you've pointed out already). How do we change this perception? Honestly, I think it will happen slowly, over time, as generations coming up continue to choose not to drive, and instead live in more metro areas with public transportation and bike/walk-able streets.

Chandra said...

Very nice post about a rather complex topic.

One of my fancier coworkers saw me drive our car one day and exclaimed, "I thought you didn't have a car and hence you rode a bike". Given how much debt people have, in comparison to their "savings", you are absolutely right: many americans are only a few months away from being homeless. It is not the fault of the government or the current president or the one before that or any such a thing. It is simply a question of wanting more and more.

I like public transportation and I am happy to see another person who likes it. I hope to live some place, where I do not need a car, if I choose not to have one.

Peace :) said...

Great post about a subject that affects us here in Australia too, in much the same way that you describe. My experiEnce of Europe is that they think differently about public transport, but then their system is much better than ours. That may hold some of the solutions to this perception of traIns buses and bikes being for those who are poor, if our governments chose to make the systems better, more would use them.

Greg F said...

The bigger question is why do you care what other people think? If you are that concerned about perception while you ride get your self an alien looking helmet and bright lycra clothing. Not a single co-worker will think you are homeless, just getting in your workout.

If the lady that saw you fixing your hair saw a gym bag with a yoga outfit sticking out of it would you have jumped to the conclusion she thought you were homeless?

Either let it go or play the game.

David Bickford said...

One important way to remove the stigma from "alternative transportation" is to stop calling it "alternative transportation." That phrasing implies that the use of a car for every single trip is inherently normal and that everything else is on the margins.

My own experiences:

-- My coworkers and friends think it's cool that I commute in part via light rail.
-- My coworkers and friends think it's cool that I commute in part via bike.
-- My coworkers and friends pity me if they see me waiting at the bus stop near my office and sometimes pull over to offer me unwanted rides.

The recent addition of a bike to my daily commute has reduced my usage of the bus for the last mile, so the last event occurs much less often. Even when I do take the bus, usually due to extreme heat or rain, very few people I know have room in their vehicles for a bike, so the unsolicited offers of rides have largely gone away. Regardless, these experiences reinforce my conclusion that the bus is far more stigmatized than rail and bicycling.

As for the Facebook comments, it amazes me how much people are willing to embarrass themselves by displaying their ignorance and prejudice via a medium that disallows anonymity. At least we know who the commenters are and make decisions about whom to associate with (or not) based on the quality of comments.

DAN said...

Good post. I constaly get asked if I do not have a licence from DUI or DWI. (drunk and driving) I do Have a Minnesota state driver licance. I try to model as much as I can a positive cyclest.

She Rides a Bike said...

Thanks for all the comments, especially considering I really struggled to clearly articulate what has been running through my mind the last couple of weeks. New city, new observations I'm trying to figure out.

Greg F, I actually don't spend that much time worrying about what other people think about me - at least not enough to let it alter my decisions. Growing up, my sisters probably prayed I'd be a little bit more concerned with what other people thought but usually, I just couldn't help myself. I think at the moment I'm attuned to the perception of alt-transit (my apologies to David Bickford) because of the affect that perception might have on transportation funding. With bus and rail ridership increasing (and rail ridership outpacing expectations) and the economy being what it is, I think we need to make it a funding priority. I dispair at comments that minimize the hardships of the homeless, unemployed and poorly paid who truly depend on public transit and pedestrian and bike infrastructure to get around.

Jimio said...

Yes I ride a bike because I lost my job. I also got rid of my car because I save tons of money on no car insurance, gas and maintainance. And get this! I get exercise on my bike [Never got much exercise while driving my car] Plus I stay healthier so I avoid medical bills. But the best thing is I get to see people up close and go much farther faster than walking and can stop my bike and take some close up photos that can't be done in a car. My bike is my transportation, exercise and my hobby all in one. So let them think what they will, I know in my heart Im doing whats good. -Jimio

She Rides a Bike said...

I'm w/ you Jimio. I prefer living life at street level, more up close and involved. Thanks for sharing some personal info. I think our culture needs to be more open about how tenuous our employment and financial circumstances are today. I've learned to say "I can't afford it" and make changes accordingly rather pretend its all puppies and rainbows. The upside is that I've learned a lot about what I really need in life.

phillip wright said...

I liked using public trans. I used to commute to usc from the ie and along the way I'd see folks getting off work, etc. I'd ride from la downtown and ride to 32nd street. I miss those days and think of them often. I never felt so tired and so energized after getting home, showering, and into bed. I have since moved but I remember those days and am thankful that I had an option to utilize public transportation.

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