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With gas prices, scorn for buses fades

The discussion took place a couple of years ago in a classroom at predominantly white Myers Park High School in Charlotte.

My daughter remarked that better bus service would help the environment. No, countered another student, it wouldn't. Nobody rides buses.

Let's set aside, for now, that student's cloistered worldview. She didn't realize many buses in less-wealthy areas had healthy ridership or that plenty of Myers Park students ride city buses to school.

For decades in Charlotte and across the South, most white people didn't ride the bus. If you chanced to take a bus in a middle- or upper-income neighborhood, you saw mostly black or Latino faces and plenty of vacant seats. Conventional wisdom held that buses were for poor people, meaning black people. In the 1990s, as the idea to expand Charlotte's transit system was debated publicly, you often heard the remark that whites would ride rail transit, not buses.

The arrival of $4-a-gallon gasoline appears to have done what years of environmental activism and community conversations about inclusiveness couldn't.

This summer many buses are jammed. Charlotte Area Transit System ridership figures show express routes into neighboring counties up more than 17 percent in the past year. Charlotte express routes are up 11 percent; local routes are up 2 percent.

And many of the people jamming those buses are white.

Integration and other factors

Historian Dan Morrill of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, who is white, remembers taking city buses as a boy in Winston-Salem during the gas shortages of World War II. “All kinds of people rode the bus,” he says.

But with the civil rights movement, city buses integrated. Morrill thinks that was a big factor in declining white ridership: “Many white people were uncomfortable with the end of segregation on buses.”

Clearly other factors, notably suburbanization, played a role. Native Charlottean Brenda Campbell, who is white, remembers riding city buses to Garinger High and downtown.

“You only had one car in the family,” she remembers. She married, took a job out Carmel Road and they bought two cars. Yet her mother still took the bus downtown to shop. When downtown stores gave way to shopping malls, however, “You had to drive to the malls,” she says.

Family income mattered, too. Many black families couldn't afford two cars and kept riding buses.

“It was very sad when public transportation and the municipal bus system got racialized in the South,” Morrill says, “but the fact is, it did.”

Two shocks on Route 14

I don't know if those days are gone for good, or just for a while, but I was stunned the first day I took the bus to work in June. The last time I had taken the Providence Road Bus 14 was two years ago when my car was in the shop. The bus was roomy, and most riders were black or Latino.

A month ago I hopped onto Bus 14 at about 8:40 a.m. and saw people standing in the aisles. Clearly, this was not the Charlotte of 10 years ago. I saw plenty of white faces in the ethnically balanced crowd. A second shock came when a young man offered me his seat – showing, maybe, that some traditions haven't faded.

I've continued to ride several days a week, and the bus is always crowded.

It's likely that – as with the decline in whites riding buses decades ago – several factors are causing the uptick now: More people here are from cities where bus-riding is routine. The new light rail probably makes some folks more willing to try buses. More people are concerned about the environment. And of course, that expensive gas snags everyone's attention.

I don't know if the new openness to riding buses will last. I hope so. But I am fairly certain of this: In years to come a lot fewer Charlotteans will still believe no one rides the bus.

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