Second class citizens no more? The other day The Wall Street Journal had a small item about increased bus ridership in the wake of recent gasoline-price increases. (Daniel Gross excerpts most of it here.) “Soaring gas prices have led a whole new group of drivers to park their cars and use public transportation. Many are professionals like Mrs. McDowra who never would have considered taking the bus before. But with prices at the pump almost doubling in the past three years, they have started to reconsider.” So maybe finanical incentives really can trump cultural mores and deeply ingrained prejudices, if the pressure is severe enough. Most people seem to reject public transportation because it seems to them inconvnenient, unsafe or undignified, even though sitting in a traffic jam picking one’s nose in the midst of drivers on tilt with road rage isn’t very convenient, safe or dignified either. In its very wastefulness the car can communicate a callous sense of individual freedom; waste is not a byproduct, it’s the basic appeal—it’s a good way to give the finger to the world and bask in the envy everyone is supposed to feel. It’s a way to show that you scorn anything that’s public; that you have no intention of sharing anything with anybody.
But the fact that women in Dallas can be priced into bus riding at least shows that there is some hope. Stigmas can swiftly be removed, shifted elsewhere at any rate. Certain bus lines would inevitably become prestigious and better maintained, and a second-class buses would merely become a subset rather than the entire service. But it’s good to know that if the U.S. ever enacted a carbon tax that reflected the damage burning gasoline does to the environment and that driving does to society, the shift to public transportation could actually happen pretty swiftly. Too bad that will never happen in our lifetime.