Opening day for Johannesburg's first bus rapid transit line. Photo via Rea Vaya.
Last month, we applauded the five developing cities nominated by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy for its 2010 Sustainable Transport Award. The list included Johannesburg, South Africa, which established its first transit links from the "disadvantaged Soweto area to the central business district." That accomplishment now seems all the more impressive in light of the opposition the new bus lines have apparently faced.Bus rapid transit lines in Johannesburg promise to ease the lives of poor black workers who must commute from distant townships -- spending perhaps four hours a day and a fifth of their pay to do so. But, The New York Times reports in a poignant story this week, the buses have drawn violent ire from competing -- and cutthroat -- minibus taxi firms, as well as suburban opposition that
some officials describe as a classic case of not-in-my-backyard resistance. At a packed meeting in November 2008, residents from the strand of stately, still mostly white communities along the heavily traveled Oxford Road shouted down city officials who were trying to describe proposed bus routes.... In a letter to the city, the neighborhood association's members welcomed a mass transit system but opposed what they considered hastily and ill-conceived routes that they said would pollute the air, cause traffic to spill onto side streets, increase crime, and damage property values.
A neighborhood activist's contention that "this is not a race issue" -- because some rich black people now live in the suburban area too -- notwithstanding, South Africa's history of prejudice undoubtedly plays a role in the opposition to the BRT lines. But the idea that public transportation introduces an undesirable element is not unique to Johannesburg.
People Living a Green Lifestyle Rated Unattractive
The story brought to mind a survey I read some years ago in which participants were asked to rank the attractiveness of different people based on descriptions of their habits. Consistently, the hypothetical people who engaged in environmentally friendly behaviors -- from line-drying clothes to riding the bus -- were rated less attractive and perceived as belonging to a lower social class. The only exception was recycling -- a seeming inconsistency that I thought actually made perfect sense. If people are recycling, that demonstrates that they have the means to consume in the first place. It doesn't require cutting back, like the other examples did.
Though the survey was published as the "green" lifestyle was just becoming news, the general idea behind it seemed to be borne out by subsequent trends. Driving a Prius and eating organic food -- both behaviors demonstrating the ability to consume -- became "hot" and attractive. Going car-free and using a clothesline stayed on the fringe.
Whether in South Africa or in the United States, if people continue to perceive using public transportation as something only done by poor people, minorities, or members of other disadvantaged or "less desirable" demographics -- or, as my dad once put it, "Don't you know what kind of people ride the bus?" -- they won't want to support it with their taxes, much less hop on themselves. The last laugh might be on the snobs, though: According to the American Public Transportation Association, "transit-oriented development has significantly greater value than property not near transit."
More about bus rapid transit:
This Warms the Cockles of My Heart: True Bus Rapid Transit in Los Angeles
Public Transit: Buenos Aires Could Welcome Metrobus System Next May
NYC Gets First BRT Line
Mexico City Receives Payment for BRT Carbon Mitigation
Light Rail or BRT?