Better Buses, Commentary

Prestige and buses

Despite what some may think, there is a certain amount of prestige attached to riding a bus in New York City. I’ve made that observation in blog comments before, on Streetsblog and more recently on the Overhead Wire, but I think it deserves its own blog post.

Contrary to the way that Peter Smith presents it, I am not claiming that riding the bus here is always a prestigious activity. What I am saying, based on my own observation, is that there are plenty of middle-class and even upper-class New Yorkers who ride the bus. I’m referring here specifically to local public buses; express and long-distance buses have their own idiosyncrasies.

The Upper East Side of Manhattan is one of the most wealthy places in the world. If you ride one of the buses that go through it, you’ll see lots of well-off, well-dressed people, including white people, older adults and women. Many people ride the bus who might be considered “elite”: for example, I once ran into former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern (who has his own car and an illegally reserved parking spot in the middle of Central Park) on the M57.

A middle-aged Asian female friend who lives on the Upper East Side once told me that she avoids the subway; my understanding was that it was because in her mind she has an association between the subway and crime that goes back to the graffiti-covered trains of the 1970s. In any case, she took buses (or sometimes taxis) everywhere she went.

As you get further from the Upper East Side, the prestige of local buses diminishes, and in most of Brooklyn and Queens until in Hempstead or Mount Vernon or Paterson they’re largely used by poor and working-class Black and Latino people – and college students. Further afield, in towns like Kingston and Hartford they’re mostly seen as welfare transportation for the homeless and the mentally disabled.

Let me be clear here: I’m not saying that the bus-riding experience here is necessarily any better (objectively, in terms of speed or comfort) than that in Garden City, or in Syracuse or Denver. I’m saying that here, better-off people are willing to ride the bus; any prestige that attaches to the bus is through association with these relatively prestigious riders. It’s not “bull shit,” and I’m willing to defend the validity of my observation against all comers.

Regardless, why might it be that upper-middle-class people are willing to ride the bus in New York? I think it’s all relative. In Manhattan bus service is pretty frequent, and owning and maintaining a car is an expensive and exhausting proposition. Why would they prefer it to the subway? Because of the daylight and the relatively low historical crime rate, but also because the subway doesn’t really work for travel within the Upper East Side or from Upper East to Upper West. The Second Avenue Subway, when it finally gets built, may change some of that.

This fact has strong implications for bus design and planning. The main one is that convenience, safety and reliability are much more important in attracting riders than any branding strategy. The branding on NYC buses is lame and always has been; the buses have “gotten people out of their cars” (more accurately, prevented them from shifting to cars) simply by being more convenient than a car – and that’s more due to the relative lack of car subsidies than anything the buses have done. Want successful buses? Tear down the bypasses and tear up the parking lots.

The other is that prestigious associations are the best marketing strategy, and we already have that in NYC. NYC Transit is wasting precious money and effort in branding its “Select Bus” routes. Forget the fancy paint job; people will ride the bus if it’s more convenient. They know it’s good enough for the rich folks on Madison Avenue, so why wouldn’t it be good for them? More importantly, don’t think you can skimp on real, honest improvements in convenience, safety and reliability and make up for it through branding. New Yorkers have seen it all.

grvsmth (Author)


  1. Troy

    People will ride the bus if they are not almost as “fast” as walking. There are people in NYC who hate the bus because they are S.L.O.W, they crawl from stop to stop, and it isn’t always because of traffic, it’s because NYCDOT hates movement. They time the signals to be inefficient for transportation and the buses suffer as a result.

  2. grvsmth

    True enough, Troy…

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