Transportation and Socioeconomic Class

During EMBARQ‘s Sunday session at the Transportation Review Board’s annual meeting I noticed that one of the day’s ongoing discussion topics dealt with the relationship between transportation policy and class politics. Transportation policy affects all citizens, but it does not always do so uniformly. The commonly held view (as Måns Lönnroth succinctly put it at the event) is that “buses are for poor people; cars are for the middle class.” This supposed truth often drives political decision-making, and can impede sustainable transportation solutions. Understanding the unequal benefits and burdens created by a particular transportation initiative is thus a critical concern. As a number of observers noted on Sunday, political-economic issues are so important that project success often relies more on gaining the support of the middle class than on engineering.

It was particularly interesting when Måns used this analysis to explain the success of the transportation systems in cities like New York, London, and Paris. These metropolises are often cited as success stories in the move to make transportation sustainable. But we often forget that these cities were constructed in the “BC” (“Before-Car”) era. At the time, large-scale public transport systems had the clear support of the car-less middle class, reducing political frictions.
Today, however, a global car culture can put mass transit at odds with the politically influential middle and upper classes. EMBARQ’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Mexico City provides a good example of this phenomenon. Despite the great success of the project, Adriana Lobo, director of the Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico, noted that efforts continue to make the BRT more attractive to middle-class users. While 5% of current riders were actually previous car users, many drivers complain that the BRT line is unattractive and makes their car-commute more cumbersome. Yet Lobo described how in all but one section of the BRT line, car commute speeds have increased and time in traffic has been reduced. Making drivers aware of these effects of BRT implementation, and taking their aesthetic preferences into account, should help enlist the support of the middle class.

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