Buses exist in every nook and cranny of the country, but whether any particular bus is embraced or rejected by the local culture has a lot to do with who’s riding that bus – and who isn’t.
School buses are the most ubiquitous and least controversial. The only people who ever ride a school bus are children – and the only children on a local school bus are local children. The one exception that proved the rule involved the ill-fated government mandated integration of children from poor school districts to middle class districts. Race and social status (or the lack thereof) determines which buses appear benign to the general public and which are rejected as immoral and undesirable.
Buses that shuttle tourists around for sightseeing adventures (as seen here in Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia) are also pretty well tolerated. Aside from a few spots where local residents are irritated when fifty Norwegian pensioners rumble by their front doors there isn’t much push back. These are paying customers who also occupy hotel rooms, eat out, and buy souvenirs. It’s a clean industry. What’s not to love?
A slight twist on the same theme includes regional tour buses that bring people for particular events or destinations: casinos, museums, theaters, conventions, sports events and so on.
Next there are the bus services that shuttle people to the airport, or provide transportation to the elderly and special needs folks. Some of these services are publicly financed, usually through grants from the federal or state government. Some of these buses are paid for by hospitals, hotels, or other organizations. No one has much of a problem with these buses.
Next come employee shuttle buses. In a suburban office park context these are embraced with tremendous enthusiasm. They get cars off the highway at rush hour, they represent good paying jobs, and they deliver tax revenue to municipal coffers. And the kinds of workers who are given this company supplied perk tend to be highly desirable educated citizens that reflect well on local property values and schools.
However, in a super heated economic environment like San Francisco where one bedroom apartments within a couple of blocks of a tech bus stop rent for $4,200 a month and sell for $1.2M… the reactions are more extreme. If you already own property it radically improves your personal wealth. If you rent (as 70% of the population does) company buses are seen as money bombs that destroy the local culture and drive out long time residents in favor of twenty seven year old millionaires. Or so goes the stereotype in the popular imagination.
Regular city buses in the urban core are a necessity for a certain fraction of the population: the young, the old, the poor, and the infirm. These people either can’t drive or don’t have the material resources to own a car. The middle class in a city center is a self selecting demographic that understands the value of public transport for themselves and others.
But in the suburbs public buses are extremely unpopular. They’re associated with “the wrong element” that will bring crime, drugs, lower property values, and families with bad kids to local schools.
I spent a chunk of my childhood in a suburb in southern New Jersey. At a certain point the municipal government was threatened with the withdrawal of federal and state highway funds if the town didn’t implement some form of public transit. Reluctantly bus service was launched. The route went from the mall, to the civic center, to the community college, to the beach.
I used the bus once as a young person and it took three hours to make a round trip that would have taken twenty minutes in a car. It was a useless system that ran in a place that was intentionally built to repel pedestrians and filter out the lower class. But all the boxes were ticked and the highway funding poured in – which helped to make the town that much less pleasant for people who didn’t have cars.
I’m inclined to advocate a change in policy. Let the suburbs be car dominated. Eliminate the pointless expense of ghost transit service. Then spend that transit money in places where it’s not only far more effective, but actually embraced by the local population. Then have the suburbs do triage on their ridiculously overbuilt roads and have them pay the full cost of their own car oriented infrastructure.