Streetsblog 101: How Pop Culture Stigmatizes Public Transit
12:01 AM EDT on March 12, 2020
This is the latest in our Streetsblog 101 series, reminding readers how we got to where we are today. Other stories are archived here.
Have you ever noticed that almost any time characters ride a bus or a train in a movie, they...kinda hate it?
It's not just you. Films, television and even music have long contributed to the stigmatization of sustainable transportation — and the celebration of cars. It all started as part of a decades-long campaign by the auto-industrial complex to put the car at the center of American life, and to this day, automakers employ entire product placement firms to keep their vehicles in the minds of Americans.
In case you haven't watched your Criterion Collection boxed set of the Fast and the Furious franchise lately, here's just a tiny taste of how bonkers filmic depictions of cars have gotten over the years:
If two minutes of your life still seems like too long to waste on this nonsense, here's an executive summary: blah blah explosions blah Vin Diesel grumbling about how much he wants to make out with his Audi blah blah Corvette jumping off literal cliff and landing unscathed blah blah blah Delorean blah.
But when it comes to how other modes of transportation are depicted in popular culture, things are not usually such high-octane fun — or even particularly pleasant. When a character boards a bus or a train in a movie in a film today, they're usually grossed out, ashamed, afraid, or wishing they were behind the wheel of a car.
It didn't always used to be that way. The very first publicly screened film in cinema history, the Lumiere Brothers' L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat, was a simple and non-stigmatizing depiction of passenger rail. (In case you're wondering: the infamous story about audiences fleeing the theater in terror because they thought the train was about to burst through the screen and mow them down is an urban legend. Even in this digitally remastered edition, the train looks pretty benign.)
It's hard to track when along the line, exactly, we went from quaint steam engines in the French countryside to...finance bros pelting strangers with French fries on a desolate 1980s subway. (Oh, and also a lot of murder. And a little inexplicable Sondheim.)
But as soon as you start paying attention to all the ways that pop culture stigmatizes sustainable transportation, it's kind of hard to stop seeing it. Because it's simply everywhere — from the greatest moments in cinema history to the dumbest afternoon-cable-rerun bro comedies.
Let's start with the bro column. Here's a subtle example of anti-bus stigma from the 2007 film Superbad, which saw our young heroes on the brink of a grand adventure to, uh, get some girls drunk and have sex with them...except they have to take the stupid bus as they embark on their rapey bildungsroman!
Be sure to catch the soundtrack, which suggests that the worst part about sustainable transportation is that it's somehow emasculating. Because real, manly date rapists have their own wheels, I guess?
The idea that the riding the bus is degrading isn't just a cheap joke in Judd Apatow movies. Crash scored a controversial win for Best Picture at the 2004 Oscars; we're sure this monologue from Ludacris about why large bus windows are a conspiracy to "humiliate the people of color who are reduced to riding on them," really pushed Academy voters over the edge.
Bus riders on film are generally embarrassed to be using the most ecologically responsible motor vehicle around — but in at least a handful of films, they're also freaking terrified.
Yes, my friends, we are talking about Keanu.
Terrorism-on-transit is sort of a cinematic genre unto itself — and it's part of a subgenre of action films that manipulate Americans into believing that all public space is unsafe without a robustly-funded military to protect us from (usually foreign) insurgents. As anyone who's ever had to stare down the business-end of a Hummer in a crosswalk knows, that anxiety bleeds past the silver screen and into our vehicle purchasing choices, as ordinary citizens start buying military-style SUVs instead of taking transit.
There were fewer than 40 bus attacks and 10 bus-terror fatalities worldwide in the year Speed was made, compared to 5,742 pedestrian fatalities in vehicle crashes in the same year. But bus hijackings are still weirdly common in film nonetheless.
Here's another one from The Siege from 1994; in case you are wondering, yes, that is national treasure Tony Shaloub helping to negotiate a hostage situation in Arabic.
But when it comes t0 more everyday forms of crime, trains seem to be among the scariest places in the Hollywood universe.
Take this scene from Adventures in Babysitting (1987), where three kids and their minder end up in the middle of a literal gang war on a Chicago L train. Content advisory: there are exactly two swears in this scene, and a lot of feathered hair.
It should be noted that Chris Columbus's directorial debut was made around the time that suburbanites in greater St. Louis, Atlanta, St. Petersburg, and many more communities across America were strenuously opposing light rail expansion into their neighborhoods, citing fears of violent crime on transit. A lot of these fears were just thinly veiled racism — and some not so thinly veiled! — but many of the campaigns worked. A popular film that depicted a white, blond teenager and her babysitting charges being menaced and eventually stabbed by a horde of mostly brown men with weapons on a train...probably didn't help.
But that was the '80s! Surely the '90s were a little more civilized! At least on TV!
Though it should not surprise us that noted Comedian in a Car Getting Coffee Jerry Seinfeld would not be a big-time public transit advocate, it's still pretty shocking to watch Kramer get stalked with a knife through the subway after winning big at the off track betting parlor. But what's really shocking are all the extras who literally don't even stop reading their newspapers at the sight of a 6-foot-3 man flailing against his attacker.
Broad City's depiction of the New York subway isn't exactly a Reaganite's fever dream of violent criminals and apathetic bystanders. But it's...still pretty gross.
So, OK, we get it: when New Yorkers yell about how gross their subways are, they often mean it in a weirdly loving way. Still, you gotta wonder how someone in Oklahoma is gonna respond to a scene where two characters have to step past a pile of human feces and a woman with a visible face rash as they pass through a train car.
Ditto this not-so-appetizing depiction of a Philadelphia bus.
The characters in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia are plainly terrible human beings...but this isn't exactly a commercial for SEPTA, either. And though no one expects Sweet Dee to give a monologue on inequities in federal transportation funding, depicting buses as overcrowded and unsanitary without acknowledging that they wouldn't be if we funded them properly isn't helping matters much. (And don't even get us started on the stigmatizing depictions of the mentally ill in the last two clips.)
Of course, no roundup of insane depictions of transit in pop culture would be complete without this earworm:
Seriously, has any small town in America ever been offered a comprehensive transit network — much less had everyone in town unanimously and immediately agree it would be great? If it were true that vaudevillian hucksters are coming to convince us all to invest in trains — unless we're smart enough to demand the endless autocentric roads we really need — then Streetsblog would not need to exist.
We could do a separate post for all the ways that pop culture stigmatizes biking and walking, but we'll save our critical dissection of the bridge to TLC's "No Scrubs" for another day. In the meantime, get in the comments or on social media, and let us know: what's your least favorite pop-culture depiction of public transit?
Kea Wilson has more than a dozen years experience as a writer telling emotional, urgent and actionable stories that motivate average Americans to get involved in making their cities better places. She is also a novelist, cyclist, and affordable housing advocate. She previously worked at Strong Towns, and currently lives in St. Louis, MO. Kea can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @streetsblogkea. Please reach out to her with tips and submissions.
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