Second Thought: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Transit for the (Middle-Class) Masses

Forget about the clean-air bandwagon. Just get on the bus.


My dad took the bus every day to work for more than 40 years. He was a lawyer and made very good money. He usually had some nice luxury car parked in the garage. But when he went to work every morning — and came home at night — riding public transportation was the obvious choice.

The bus picked him up at the end of our suburban street in Cleveland, Ohio, and dropped him off in front of his office. The trip, of about 15 miles, took 30 to 45 minutes, cost about a buck, and my dad got to catch up on his reading during the trip. For him, public transportation wasn’t a service for the poor who couldn’t afford cars or handicapped folks; it was the easiest and cheapest way to get from point A to point B. And the crowd each day on his bus ride was a mix of white-collar folks like him with six-figure incomes, college students, department store clerks, restaurant servers, and accountants.

The point I am making, in my roundabout way, is that no one ever looks down at people in Cleveland — or for that matter, in New York, Boston, Chicago, or Philadelphia — for riding mass transit. In those parts of the country, riding the bus is morally and economically neutral.

There is a lot of debate going on in Dallas and Fort Worth these days about the need for mass transit in this area, how our air is filthy and roads bottlenecked, and how the obvious solution is to make mass transit options better and more available for our citizenry. The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram have convened a summit to explore a more regional approach to providing mass transit, to get the big cities and suburbs on board to form a more comprehensive system of moving people throughout the region.

The goal is laudable. But these planners and editorial writers are missing one huge point: Most citizens of Tarrant County don’t want a better mass transit system, for which they would have to shell out more money. And I don’t need any focus group or expensive polling data to figure out why: Most people are opposed to providing better mass transit in Fort Worth because the service is perceived as being a service for the poor. The implied thinking is that these poor people wouldn’t need to ride buses if they would just go out and get a job, or a better one, so they could drive to work in their cars.

The T, the transportation system serving Fort Worth and many surrounding communities, provides a bare-bones transportation system compared to other large cities — just 34 routes, with few express buses and many cross-town routes requiring transfers instead of direct connections. The system is designed to get handicapped people downtown or to shuttle folks to shopping malls — and not in a hurry, either. Riding the bus in Fort Worth takes forever, and often passengers have to transfer two or three times to get where they’re going, if they can get there at all.

Last week, I decided to take a bus downtown from my house in the Monticello neighborhood. By car, the trip is about three miles. From the time I left my front door, until I stepped off the bus on Houston Street, the total elapsed time was 32 minutes. For a person who cannot drive or doesn’t own a car — and can’t walk or bike the distance — 32 minutes to go three miles is just what you have to do. But for people who have jobs, have cars, have the choice of convenience, the choice is distressingly simple.

As it stands now, the T spends $41 million (mostly from a half-cent sales tax) annually for a mass transit system designed to serve the poor. The fares have increased by 25 percent this year, and services have been cut back even further. Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief has been pushing for average folks to use mass transit, but I don’t see Mike (or Star-Telegram editorial writers) waiting at a bus stop.

Lake Worth recently voted itself out of the T, and Arlington has consistently voted down mass transit measures. In some ways I cannot blame these voters. Most people cannot — and don’t want to — use mass transit. But beyond that, the logic being applied here is a little more sinister: The poor get enough handouts, so why give them a decent transportation system?

And that is the vicious circle in which mass transit seems to be driving here. As long as riding the bus is perceived as something poor people do, the funding to provide a decent mass transit system will never happen. Without more funding for a better system, the middle class won’t get out of its cars. So we’re left to spend money on new roads and highways, gridlocked as soon as they are built, and to breathe filthy air. But those choices, apparently, are preferable in many eyes to riding with those people on the bus.

Dan McGraw is a local journalist and author.

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