The following guest post was written by Joel Batterman of MOSES, a Trans4M member.
A couple years ago, waiting in line at a hip Ferndale restaurant, I started talking to a cosmopolitan young woman who’d lived in a number of metro areas around the U.S. She said she’d taken public transit to get around in all of them – except metro Detroit. “It’s just not safe,” she said. “DDOT or SMART – I would never take either.”
At that time, I had been commuting to Ferndale from Detroit by the Woodward SMART bus for a while, and I had not been mugged, assaulted or otherwise endangered. The least safe part of my commute, in my opinion, was trying to cross Woodward Avenue. My fellow riders didn’t seem too concerned for their safety, either, as best as I could tell. They sure didn’t show much reluctance to tap away on their smartphones en route. In the morning, a good number of us on the bus were still asleep, which is hard to manage when fearing for your life.
But plenty of people still operate with this perception that it’s unsafe to ride the bus, and the city has taken some efforts to address these concerns. Just this past year the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) has installed cameras on many buses and plans to install 200 more by this September. DDOT has also hired transit police officers to monitor safety on buses and near stops and plans to hire 30 more officers.
So why does this fear persist, especially in metro Detroit? The best question may be what, or who, people are scared of. I didn’t ask my friend in Ferndale that question, but it’s not difficult to arrive at an educated guess.
The majority of bus riders in Michigan, as in most places, are poor or working class people, mostly people of color. For the most part, they’re the same people who live in Michigan’s older core cities.
Detroit Mayor Coleman Young once observed that “white people find it extremely hard to live in an environment they don’t control.” The same could be said of wealthier people, black or white. And in Michigan’s rigidly segregated metropolitan areas, where even the more “walkable” streets are often bereft of walkers, the public bus is one of relatively few places where different kinds of people may share close quarters. As far back as the 1930s, white bus and streetcar riders in Detroit fell into paranoia about black migrants crowding onto DDOT, theorizing that an organized black “bump club” was deliberately trying to jostle white riders of public transit.
A few urban planning writers have described the modern outgrowth of these race and class anxieties as “bus stigma,” in which fear of poor people and black and brown people leads white people and the wealthy to avoid public transit. However, transit professionals are trained in talking about headways and dwell times, not about race and class. Jarrett Walker, a well-known transit planner, says it’s best not to talk about “bus stigma,” and focus just on making transit better.
Walker has a point. The primary mission of the MOSES Transportation Task Force is to improve public transit, not simply to change perceptions about it. As Walker argues, it can be harder to change deep-seated cultural attitudes than to actually get buses to run more places more often on time, even in Detroit.
And yet, we really can’t talk about how to make the necessary improvements without talking about how cultural assumptions, products of segregation and inequality, have distorted many of our assumptions about transit. Without some reference to these issues (indelicate as it may seem to some), can we really understand the cultural and political landscape surrounding public transit in Metro Detroit?
I don’t think so. We need to own up to our prejudices, and act to break them down with our friends and neighbors. If you ride the bus, let other people know. If you have concerns about riding, give it a try with a friend sometime. We’re all trying to get somewhere, after all.