The ‘Hidden Burdens’ of Mass Transit

Background Reading




Now for the next injustice: If you live in Minneapolis or St. Paul and you’re not white, it takes longer for you to get to work. A new study put together by four Minnesota nonprofits found a pretty astonishing “transit time penalty”: Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinos living in the Twin Cities spend anywhere from 11 to 46 more hours a year commuting on public transit than whites do.

And if you compare those numbers to white drivers, nonwhite transit riders are spending way more time commuting. Here’s the breakdown, from the study:



Translation: Black and Asian transit users lose the equivalent of 3.5 weeks of work each year because of their long commute-times alone. For Latino transit users, it is nearly 4.5 weeks.

Combine that with the fact that significantly more nonwhites are commuting via public transit – in Minnesota and across the country — and you’ll see that this is just stitched through with all kinds of messed up urban policies and socioeconomic injustices.

In Minnesota, this study finds, 8 percent of Latinos, 10 percent of African Americans, and 29 percent of Native Americans commute to work on public transit, versus just 5 percent of whites and Asian Americans. But thanks in large part to ongoing patterns of development and displacement, low-income communities of color experience not just longer commute times than whites, butshittier service, too:

Infrequent service, indirect routes, delays, overcrowded vehicles, and insufficient shelter at bus stops contribute to the transit time penalty both quantitatively (adding minutes to a trip) and qualitatively (increasing the stress of the experience).

And thanks to a national car-loving ethos that puts roads and freeways above buses and trains, public transportation sucks – across the board! Nationwide, public transit commutes take twice as long as car commutes.

That’s not the only reason just 5.2 percent of U.S. commuters take public transit to work and more than 75 percent drive alone in their cars. But still. As long as there’s a dearth of quick and reliable transit options, it’s going to continue to encourage car ownership. This study points out, for instance, that just 15 percent of jobs in the Twin Cities region have good public transit connections, “resulting in working families in the Twin Cities spending more on transportation than on housing.”

And that is a huge deal when it comes to racial and economic equity. Research shows that access to adequate transportation has an enormous impact on the odds of escaping poverty. Makes sense: an unreliable bus takes a huge toll on your chances of keeping a job. But as one Harvard study suggests, it’s actually commute length that has the biggest impact – beyond crime rates, test scores, or the percentage of two-parent families in a community. According to an article on the study and its implications in the New York Times, “The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.”

So there’s another very good reason to adequately fund public transit, America: Not only will it help the planet, it will seriously improve the lives of lots and lots of low-income Americans.


One of the ironies of a Hipster-driven culture is the inconsistencies in its vision. This article is more about how you interpret the data than anything else. People of color ‘suffer‘ when it comes to Mass Transit because it by its very nature is ‘inefficient‘ in certain instances.

Take for instance the ‘multi-leg trip‘. If you have more than two transfers then unless you have lots of time and are really lucky you are likely to have an unduly long trip anywhere.

The ‘working poor‘ take jobs where they can get them. The idea behind most Mass Transit systems is that you are moving people parallel to the major arterial highways in a more efficient and faster way. So if you are talking about commuter trains, they do indeed get you from the Loop out to your destination in the suburbs quickly.

Many of these trains take about a half hour from the terminus inside the city out to the suburban station in question. But the ‘working poor‘ simply do not make those kinds of trips.

If you look at the jobs that are available they are often in places where industrial parks are created. That means at the very least you exit the train or bus from the inner city to take at least one perhaps two more to reach the places of employment.

Regardless of your political leanings the facts are that here in the United States we locate our manufacturing sites on cheap land in places outside the major metropolitan areas of our country.

Chicago like many other cities was once a hub of manufacturing. But as these companies grew they tended (if they could afford to) to move outside the city where taxes were cheaper. And thus you have urban sprawl of a sort built right into our system.

Is this is a bad thing? I don’t think so. It is actually an opportunity for people who need employment to get it. But it does take longer. Is this some sort of evidence that America has some sort of

national car-loving ethos that puts roads and freeways above buses and trains, public transportation sucks – across the board! Nationwide, public transit commutes take twice as long as car commutes.

I don’t think so. It is simply a function of complexity. If you build light rail rapidly enough to provide transfer-free trips for everyone to and from a central point in a neighborhood to an industrial zone some 50 miles out, you would find a very different experience for the ‘working poor‘.

But the reality is that mass transit is a bit like a Jungle Safari. When the white men come to Africa they land at a port and hire guides and porters to carry all the crap they bring. Beasts of burden are purchased and off they go into the hinterland.

Once they cut a swathe through the dense forest undergrowth it gets used the next time a group wants to visit the same place. But if there are any deviations the newer sections have to be cut and difficulties encountered (e.g. rivers and steep ravines) and things slow down.

But in the end the trip through the jungle now has two paths. This gets repeated as new explorers arrive. Problem is that there are only so many places where it is feasible to travel to find places to set up mines or outposts.

Mass Transit is essentially travel on the back of an elephant. Unless the route is clearly devoid of transfer points it is perhaps the most horrible way to get anywhere one could imagine. For a better experience you use an automobile.

Bikes Versus Skateboards

Let me put this in language your average hipster would understand. There is a general hot on your heels that does not necessarily travel by bicycle. They use skateboards or more specifically longboards. And these things are quite popular both on college and high school campuses.

I was in conversation with an in-law a few weeks ago. She works on a college campus. She sees students travel back and forth all the time. I simply assumed that bikes were the most frequent mode of travel. Nope, it was skateboards. I was befuddled, until I got to thinking about the problem.

Hipsters are ‘cheap bastards‘. They love to re-use old wheels to make geodesic domes in which to grow produce on vacant lots in urban areas. Bicycles work for them because they have plenty of places to which they ride (especially brew pubs where either craft beer or PBR are flowing like water).

Now the really ironic thing is that hipsters hate to have cars parked in the bike lane. Usually the person doing the driving is popping into a coffee shop or some other place ‘for a moment‘ before taking off again.

But hipsters are notoriously afraid to venture out of the bike lane into traffic to get around parked cars. At least that is the BS they offer up when venting. The reality is much different when they ‘go out to play‘. But among the hypocrisies they need to own is the indifference to parking their bikes on private property or to posts and fences and other immovable objects which leave ‘the pedestrian lane blocked‘.


Another Hipster Hypocrisy

Kids on many college campuses have neither the time nor interest in finding legitimate places to lock up their bikes. A skateboard however can be ridden right up to the front door and carried inside. Sweet!

Now if hipsters were less tight-assed about money (excepting where beer and weed are concerned) they would most likely own one of these:

Brompton bikes are a common sight in cities around the world

Brompton bikes are a common sight in cities around the world

Getting Back To Mass Transit

Mass Transit is what passes for efficiency these days. It is not efficient and in fact never has been. And that fact is made abundantly clear when transfers are embedded in a trip. You not only have to get off your current bus or train, but race to make a connection with another bus or train which if it is not on time or your last connection was not will mean waiting for another vehicle to show itself.

Nobody in their right minds would willingly use Mass Transit unless they had either plenty of time or no transfers. An automobile for all of its faults is convenient.

And what is more an automobile can get you where you want to go with no transfers. That factor alone makes it ideal for those who can afford one. We need to stop trying to demonize the most beautiful form of transformation around and learn to think about it differently.

Ask the working poor which they would prefer:

  • riding a bus or train with several transfers in sub-zero weather
  • taking an automobile from their home to their place of employment

and I have not doubt which would win.