An Ode to the Humble Bus

By Rob Gioielli

If you are an urbanist that studies or teaches transportation history, you’ve probably heard some version of the following at a party or from a student after class: “You know, General Motors destroyed the streetcar,” the person will tell you, often in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. “Bought all of them up and replaced them with buses, so people would drive more cars.” They will even have references for this. Maybe a popular history like Asphalt Nation, or the PBS documentary Taken for a Ride.[1]

This story, mostly known as the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, has been generally debunked.[2] Yes, GM did purchase up streetcar lines, and wanted to replace them with buses. But the reality is that these and other streetcar systems around the country were rapidly failing and unpopular private franchises. People were flocking to private automobiles in droves, and the public transit systems, as they had been structured at the time, could not keep up. During the early 1970s, many city residents grabbed onto the streetcar story to try and find a villain for our urban woes, much like they blamed (and continue to blame) Robert Moses for almost the same problems.[3]

John Vachon, “Streetcar, Minneapolis, Minnesota”” (1939), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I was thinking about the conspiracy recently, and one thing struck me that I had never thought of before: this story is built upon the assumption that people don’t want to ride buses and streetcars are far superior. Having a bus system as your public transit system will inevitably lead people to the private automobile. When I think of the story this way, it tells me even more about why America has such a poor public transit system. We fail to properly heart the bus.

Why do Americans hate the bus? Well, depending on what city or neighborhood you live in, hatred is a realistic position. Buses are the primary form of public transit in many communities, and since transit is so underfunded in most of America, service is often irregular, unreliable, and overpriced. Buses are old and uncomfortable, and poorly maintained. Most cities still follow a “hub and spoke” system, which means crosstown routes and connections can be extraordinarily inconvenient. Don’t even think about trying to get out to the suburbs.

“Atlantic City Bus” (ca. 1925), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This lack of convenience means that the bus system is the mobility mode of last resort for many urbanites, and is primarily patronized by the urban working class, poor, and elderly. And since these populations are also overwhelmingly people of color in a lot of our cities, we have thoroughly racialized the bus system, considering it unwelcoming and even dangerous to white, middle class, and suburban riders.

Up until very recently, the response to these issues hasn’t been to evaluate the needs of bus riders to try to create better systems. It has been to assume that the problem with public transit in America was the bus system, and that something different needed to be built. Hence the trendiness, for three-plus decades, of light rail, streetcars, and brand new heavy rail and subway systems.  

Although many of these new systems are successful, others are just glorified, fare free circulators for tourists and day trippers (including, unfortunately, my hometown streetcar). They also often exacerbate the class and racial inequalities that shape American metropolitan mobility. One of the implicit and often explicit motivations for the construction of many of the newer metropolitan rail systems was to bring white people, especially white suburbanites, back to public transit.[4] This is based on the assumption that they were not riding public transit until the rail line was built. But many of these cities, of course, had public transit. It was just a bus system, used primarily by poor people, who weren’t white.  

This racial reality is well known to transit justice advocates, and many activists and riders don’t have a problem with new rail lines, per se. They provide significant benefits to existing users, and new ridership is generally a good thing. Where they have balked is the cost of the new systems, arguing against hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars for shiny rail lines when the bus systems used by hundreds of thousands of working people every day are still significantly underfunded. This was the primary argument of the Los Angeles Bus Rider’s Union, which took the city to court in the 1990s over the contention that politicians were disproportionately funding rail systems focused on a suburban white Angelenos, at the expense of a bus systems whose ridership at the time was 90 percent Black, Latino/a, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander.[5]

The trendiness of rail is unfortunate because having a robust bus system is not just a transit justice issue (although that is vital). It also provides significant mobility and environmental benefits more efficiently and at a much lower cost than fixed rail. Well-networked bus systems can also solve the American urban transit’s density problem. This is the argument that, in the suburbs, homes are too spread out to provide efficient service. But research from sprawling suburbs in Canada and Australia shows that if you build the bus system (properly), people will ride.[6] And as much as I would love for all city residents to be able to get around by walking, biking, and other zero-carbon forms of mobility, we are always going to need mass mobilized transit, and a good (electrified!) bus system can fit the bill.

As someone who gets excited to visit a new city and ride a new subway system, who collects books on historical mass transit signage, and has been finally convinced by his spouse that the tram and streetcar are the world’s greatest forms of urban mobility, I LOVE rail transit. I designed an entire study abroad course around riding the tube in London. But we need to take our eyes off the light rail prize and expand our gaze to include the humble bus.

Rob Gioielli is associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, where he also directs the college honors program. He is the author of Environmental Activism and the Urban Crisis: Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago (Temple University Press, 2014). He is currently a Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellow for 2021-2022. This essay is based on research for his current book project, Race, Sprawl and Sustainability: An Environmental History of White Flight.

Featured image (at top): Jim Pickerell, “Passengers in Atlanta, Georgia, waiting for their Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) bus during rush hour” (June, 1974), Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, National Archives.

[1] Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997); Taken for a Ride, directed by Jim Klein (New Day Films, 1996).

[2] Martha Bianco, “Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of The Decline of Urban Mass Transit,” Portland State University Center for Urban Studies, Publications and Reports, 1998.

[3] For a revised perspective, see Hillary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York (New York: Norton, 2007).

[4] Laura Bliss, “Out of the Darkness: Light Rail!” Bloomberg City Lab, Jan. 17, 2020.

[5] Ryan Reft, “From Bus Riders Union to Bus Rapid Transit: Race, Class, and Transit Infrastructure in Los Angeles,”, May 14, 2015. For an introduction to transit justice see Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity, Robert Bullard, Glenn Johnson and Angel Torres, eds. (Boston, MA: Southend Press, 2004).

[6] Jonathon English, “The Better Way: Transit Service and Demand in Metropolitan Toronto, 1953-1990” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2021); Paul Mees, Transportation for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age (Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2010).

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