The Atlantic Cities, which is usually better about this sort of thing, gets exactly eleven words into its latest feature about bus rapid transit in Chicago before stating something so obviously ridiculous it’s hard to imagine how the piece could recover. To wit:
Just ten years ago, living in Chicago without an automobile was considered eccentric behavior.
Was it? Really? The one out of four people who didn’t own cars back then, they were eccentric? Is that what “eccentric” means? Things that 25% of the population does?
No. Really, as he explains over the next few paragraphs, what he means is that among a certain set of professional-class people (the newsroom of the Tribune, specifically), it was considered eccentric. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, it was considered something poor people do. But now it’s considered acceptable for middle-class people, so hurray!
I don’t really need to write a whole thing about this, but I do want to point out that this kind of selection bias has been a huge problem in the debate over Ashland BRT, and over public transit more generally. That is, people who work for major media outlets, or people who run businesses, or people who are alderman – the people whose voices get heard the most – look around at their friends, who are also mostly privileged, and see that very few of them are in a position where paying for a car is a major financial burden. Better public transit, then, is at best a kind of luxury for them, and at worst a huge nuisance. Having observed these facts, the journalist/business owner/alderman decides that the cost-benefit calculation doesn’t work out, and opposes the new transit project.
Of course, the problem is that the general population doesn’t look anything like these people’s social circles.
That’s how you get this quote from one of the main BRT opponents:
One night in October, while canvassing businesses on behalf of BRT opponents, Wahl felt a pain in her stomach and went to the emergency room at the University of Illinois Medical Center on Ashland. She was fine, but the adventure highlighted what she sees as a major drawback of removing traffic lanes and increasing congestion.
“If that was post-BRT, I’d have my husband driving in the BRT lane. If that was my daughter, I’d be driving on the sidewalk,” she said. “A bus to the ER? Are you kidding?”
I took a deep breath just now so I wouldn’t type this in all caps, but fuck it: A QUARTER OF YOUR NEIGHBORS ALREADY TAKE THE BUS TO THE ER BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE CARS.
That thing? That thing that is so ridiculous, so inconvenient that you use it as a punchline?
A QUARTER OF YOUR NEIGHBORS HAVE TO DO IT. NOW. THERE ARE SOME OF THEM LITERALLY ON THE BUS RIGHT NOW, ON THEIR WAY TO THE ER.
It’s not a punchline. It’s reality.
I’m not under the impression that people like Suzanne Wahl are going to be convinced by facts like this, of course. But at the very least it behooves journalists – whose job description is, literally, providing accurate depictions of reality to the general public – to take details like that into account in pieces like this. That involves not opening stories by providing wildly inaccurate context. It also involves giving a realistic account of who the stakeholders in this debate are. As with most stories from the Sun-Times and Tribune, this Atlantic Cities piece pretends that this is a debate between, on the one hand, neighborhood residents who drive, and on the other, government transportation planners and their transit-nerd friends. There is literally not a single quote from a person who just happens to ride the bus about what their commute is like now, what it would be like after BRT. Because why would we want to include them? They’re “eccentrics”!
Incidentally, this would also be an “opportunity growth” area for the largely white subculture of urbanism to recognize that other, nonwhite people live in cities. Some of them ride the bus, too. Some of them care about their buses. I bet they’d love to talk to you.