Media coverage of BRT continues to be stellar

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?


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.

13 thoughts on “Media coverage of BRT continues to be stellar

  1. I hate it when publications do stuff like that. It reminds me of all those stories about “Millenials” that are actually about the upper-middle to upper-class twenties-people that the article writer happens to know. They’re not just biased – they’re completely unaware that they’re biased.

    . . . Seriously, not one person who actually rides the bus was quoted? I really hope you commented on that over at the site, because it’s terrible that they did that.

    1. No one was quoted who was identified as a bus rider, no. I edited my statement a little bit because there were a few people whose bus-riding status isn’t clear; but either way, they’re presented as transit partisans, not people who would actually benefit from the change.

  2. That is so similar to the coverage in Karachi during 2004-2008 when there was a lot of discussion on public transit vs road infrastructure. Of course the latter won because who cares what people outside of the radius think.

    1. What does “outside the radius” mean? I like it. Does it just mean outside someone’s social circle, or is it a reference to some part of Karachi?

      Crazy, also, that this is a problem there, too, where I assume a larger percentage of people don’t have cars. (Though I guess I could be wrong about that.)

  3. I was at a public meeting last week in which this sort of thinking reared its ugly head when discussing parking minimums next to transit stations is a near Chicago suburb. Too many people equate housing with traffic – not understanding that not everyone owns (or would like to own) a car. Frankly, in some ways, particularly regarding bus service frequencies in Chicago, the 90s were an easier time to not own a car in Chicago.

  4. Let’s be honest, the design of this isn’t the greatest, and the reason is the parking meter lease. This city all but admitted that they picked Ashland over Western because of that, and they can’t eliminate parking to provide left turns or use curb lane running because of the contract.

    The Ashland bus actually isn’t that well patronized in the proposed northern segment based on my own experience. There’s a reason it doesn’t even go north of Irving Park today despite being a four lane road. I used to live at Belmont/Ashland. The Belmont bus is the real deal there: frequent service and significant ridership. Ashland not so much. On weekends 25 minute gaps between buses is not unusual. I know the route has higher ridership further south but was honestly surprised to them propose this segment for an early stage BRT project.

  5. Just read that AtlanticCities article a few hours ago and was shocked at how ridiculous the claim that “ten years ago you couldn’t live in Chicago without a car.” Thanks for calling it out.

    1. Yeah, obviously you guys are doing a much better job of that. Although, unfortunately, that’s not always the case with other “urbanist” writers, who occasionally do seem to conceive of transit projects more as ideological battles than things that involve the daily lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

      1. It seems like he convened the opponents at one meeting and the supporters at another. But literally no one was identified as somebody who actually rode the bus, and there was no description of what daily life is like for people who rely on it (or would rely on it) to get to work or run errands, or what it would be like afterwards. Which is, you know, the entire point of the project.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s