Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Social Class in Transportation

Last week, in response to an insightful comment on Streetsblog, I wrote that we would get nowhere ignoring the role of race and class in transportation. So now I'd like to talk a bit about class.

There are three reasons I can think of not to talk about class in transportation. You could argue that class doesn't exist, you could argue that the class system is fair, or you could argue that class doesn't matter in transportation.

A lot of people would like to believe that we live in a classless society, but the facts show that there is not equal opportunity for everyone, and that people get better opportunities depending on who their families are, where they grow up and where they go to school. These last three factors do not make people inherently deserving of the better opportunities they (we) receive. I particularly like the presentation of these facts in Alvarez and Kolker's film People Like Us and in Gladwell's book Outliers.

As for the third question, in fact, social class doesn't matter in transportation as much as some people think, which is why we need to talk about it.

I'm a firm believer in equal opportunity in all areas, including transportation. The concept of "transportation for all" that I'm working out is a way of getting there. The question is how much you can accomplish with transportation. Unequal opportunity permeates our entire lives (see the invisible knapsack, or the kittehs may make for easier reading). We can't solve this problem with just transportation.

We have other problems to solve with transportation as well. We want to end global warming and other pollution-related problems. We want to move from oil dependence to sustainability. We want to save future generations from the carnage that threatens us every time we walk out the door. We want walkable communities.

Transit can do a lot along those lines, and it can do a lot for equal opportunity. But just as it can't shoulder the entire burden for clean air, energy sustainability, safety and community, it also can't create a classless society all by itself.


MHJ said...

I think public transit is about as close to classless as a lot of us get in our daily lives - at least in New York City and in Europe.

That is one of the reasons I became a transportation planner in the first place - for once in my life, my race, ethnicity, gender and income didn't matter - everyone paid the same $2 fare.

Fion Ho said...

I would like to think that public transit actually works more efficiently in socially and economically disadvantaged communities. Ironically, those communities are better served with transit as most of them are situated closer to downtown areas. At the meanwhile, people living in the suburbs are still relying heavily on cars, partially due to poor transit service.

I argue with MHJ, public transit, unfortunately, is about as close to classless as we can get in North American cities. That is why social class appears not to be an issue. But there is a fine line in discussing social division in terms of public transit and the overall transportation system.

If public transit indeed can mitigate the problem with social class, a greater question to think about - how about the entire transportation system? How can planners design a system that provide equal benefits for virtually everyone?