On poverty and privilege within public transportation

As graduation looms closer and job applications become a necessity, I have noticed that almost all job postings require that applicants have their own car. Sometimes this requirement is phrased as “must have access to reliable transportation,” or even “must own a valid California driver’s license and vehicle.” Yet, as one of the few the people who does not have a California driver’s license, let alone a car, I have mostly relied on public transportation. While owning and driving a car would be more convenient, especially since many interviews usually take place in the middle of the week and out in places like Los Angeles, there are certain benefits that public transportation has that exclusively driving a car does not. In fact, the requirement to have a California driver’s license and car becomes a sort of classism for those unable to afford things like an oil change and car insurance, much less the car itself.

 

Particularly, this is shown through the high demand for public transportation and the differing income levels of commuters. For example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) had an estimated monthly average ridership of 35,672,953 total for the month of March. Specifically, commuters often totaled up more than a million trips, or “riderships,” a day on Metro’s public transportation for the month of March. Additionally, the average Metro rider’s median household income is $15,918, compared to the $55,909 nationwide average. In other words, the average user of public transportation in Los Angeles comes from a low-income household.

 

This brings up another issue connected to public transportation, which is American society’s seeming disconnect, if not stigma, toward poverty. Perhaps because my family came from the Philippines, where the monthly family income is roughly $420 and quality public transportation is literally a privilege to have, I was raised to always consider public transportation and not exclude it as a viable option in the event of an emergency. In fact, this exposure to public transportation has actually been more humbling and humanizing as an experience because I witnessed firsthand the common issues that America’s poor faced. From Metrolink conductors manhandling a drunk man off the train, to fellow riders begging for a mere 10 cents to pay off the rest of their fare, these are moments that I would not have experienced if I had been commuting via a car exclusively.

 

In fact, it’s interesting that most people rarely mention poverty in a discussion of public transportation. Usually, rhetoric focusing on public transportation uses vague, blanket statements about the environment —  such as supporting lower fossil fuel emissions and preventing street congestion and traffic accidents from cars. Perhaps because people neglect to discuss the poverty aspect, they therefore end up not understanding how to improve and solve the issues behind public transportation’s feasibility as an alternative transportation.

 

This subconscious bias toward public transportation is evidenced through how a majority of UCR students have never used the RTA bus, let alone ridden on the Metrolink to go to places like Los Angeles or San Diego. For those who take public transportation for the first time, you can literally see a visible change in their overall demeanor ― their brows would furrow and they would pause more, quietly observing the sights and sounds, and make comments like, “I didn’t realize how nice this was” or, “Wow, that was so convenient.” One notable comment was, “It’s cleaner than I thought it would be” ― therefore revealing their subtle bias that public transportation is dirty and grimy, linkable to the stereotyped image of what poverty looks like.
If American society truly wants to mitigate poverty, it needs to focus on how public transportation’s availability and usage promotes that social inequality. Additionally, because of how accessible public transportation is, Americans would gain a more nuanced perspective of poverty instead of assuming a stereotyped view of it — such as the misconception that Africa is starved, poor and uneducated. Because Americans have this unrealistic image of poverty, it is harder for them to conceptualize how poverty is institutionalized in American society. The first step toward remedying this biased view of poverty is to not just verbally support public transportation. People need to make efforts and plans ahead of time for how to use it at least on a monthly, if not weekly, basis in order to get a basic grasp of America’s poverty.

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