Oh Goody, “Fresh Ideas” in Urban Transportation

Techies commuting in San Francisco sometimes have to wait for one or two stuffed buses to pass before boarding one with room to carry them from Marina or Mission downtown. This obviously takes away from time they could be devoting to disrupting things, which is obviously terrible.

My old-economy, twentieth-century brain is thinking that buying more buses, hiring more drivers, and expanding the SF Muni system to make more seats on more buses for everyone would be the way to go to resolve this problem.

How wrong I am! The answer, as always, is a private startup!

These buses are going to have fancy coffee and WiFi, and they’ll go where the people who can pay $6 per ride want to go, instead of stopping at other places along the way where “the public” might try to get on board.

Don’t worry, this isn’t creating a price-based filter to keep poor people out while shunting the wealthy into a private and more desirable alternative. It’s “reimagining” transportation!

“Urban transportation is an area of extreme impact that still desperately needs fresh ideas,” said Banister, previously a co-founder of IronPort and an early adviser and board member at PayPal. “As a private player, Leap has the flexibility to reimagine mass transit, creating new ways to get people where they need to go while also enjoying the journey.”

Truly, a new idea that no one’s thought of before.

Cartoon John T. McCutcheon, 1905

Cartoon John T. McCutcheon, 1905

The history of public transportation has always been intertwined with conflicts that have arisen from sharing urban space across the social boundaries created by class inequality and institutionalized racism. Who gets to “enjoy the journey” has been a fraught question. Robin Kelley’s work in Race Rebels offered an innovative and influential look at transit in the Jim Crow south as a theater for acts of aggression and resistance that replicated the Jim Crow system in microcosm and allowed Black southerners the opportunity to resist it in small ways that became a large and transformative social movement. As Kelley writes,

Examples of black working-class resistance in public spaces offer some of the richest insights into how race, gender, class, space, time, and collective memory shape both domination and resistance (56)

These small experiences created an infrapolitics–an implicit script of action that helped to define and shape daily life in Jim Crow Birmingham. I don’t want to diminish the significance of major events like the Birmingham campaign of 1963, but the contested question of who would enjoy the ride to work on a daily basis was as much a part of the fabric of life in Birmingham as the actions of Bull Connor or the determination of the city’s business elite to resist integration.

Elsewhere in the South, Kevin Kruse in White Flight has analyzed a different dynamic–white abandonment of Atlanta’s buses after desegregation in protest. However, Kruse’s evidence shows that white disdain for integrated public transit–the problem being that whites no longer “enjoyed the journey” on terms of white supremacy–was hardly a Southern problem:

A northern man warned Chief Jenkins about what would happen to Atlanta’s desegregated buses as whites fled in fear. “As of today, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland public transportation systems are shells of their former place in public utility…. They are almost abandoned to the private car—bumper to bumper, one man to a vehicle—definitely to avoid Integration.” (115)

Even today, certain residents will joke that MARTA, the  Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority which operates buses and rail in Fulton and DeKalb (and soon Clayton) Counties, stands for Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. Throughout the country, as Amanda Hess notes at Citylab, transit ridership is laden with racial and class stigma that discourages “choice” commuters, leaving regular riding the domain of “captive” commuters. Ditto for DJ Waldie, citing the work of urban planning scholar Steven Spears on cognitive barriers to transit ridership. And, as recent work by Robert Bullard and others in Highway Robbery shows,

Transportation planning has duplicated the discrimination used by other racist government institutions and private entities to maintain white privilege. The transportation options that are available to most Americans to day were shaped largely by Federal policies as well as individual and institutional discrimination…. Transportation decision-making is political. (20)

Part of the decision-making process lies with the San Francisco Muni system. Like other transit agencies, though, they face severe budgetary constraints on expansion. And the private decisions of individuals and entrepreneurs–to shun a public system but flock to a private and elite alternative, or to invest in a private and for-profit system rather than promote the public one as a tacit statement on civic participation by the new tech elite, are political too. In the long run, those diffuse private decisions will be just as historically consequential, and the motives and purposes of the people making them are fair game for analysis. Here, in a photo from one of Rebecca Solnit’s London Review of Books diaries from San Francisco, two protesters try to stop Google employees from enjoying their ride:

They seem to be making some kind of point, or even resisting the daily infrapolitics of an increasingly socially segregated city. Of course, this is San Francisco and there’s no racism here, so maybe my analogy is flawed….

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