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On the Bus: Why Our Least Loved Vehicles Deserve More

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On the Bus: Why Our Least Loved Vehicles Deserve More

Bill Crittenden
August 9, 2013

In New Mexico this week, a gay couple was forced to sit at the back of a bus because the driver felt that their hiding hands was an "inappropriate behavior."  This comes at the height of a new civil rights movement in America for the recognition of gay marriage and the end to discrimination based on sexuality.

This incident echoes across the generations to Rosa Parks and her fateful bus ride in 1955, the result of which was that she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger.  That bus is now a historical artifact in The Henry Ford Museum, and Rosa Parks is an icon of the successful civil rights movement of the 1950's-1960's, which included a successful boycott of Montgomery, Alabama's buses after her arrest.

Social Interaction

Why is it that buses often become the places of cultural conflict?

Little else truly engages the snippy side of social interactivity as much as a bus. Grouping people from all walks of life randomly together in relatively tight confines, often with the aggravating factors of stifling heat and humidity, it is the boiling kettle to the rest of America's melting pot.

Along with the lessons learned at school children begin to learn social status interaction in the mustard-yellow bread loaf-shaped metal boxes that shuttle kids to and from at as young as six years old. Cliques are formed, we self-separate as much as possible by our interests, age groups, and friends. Popular kids & troublemakers congregate in the back of the bus, where the seemingly natural rule of "first come first served" fall to the unwritten rules of schoolyard kids: the cool kids sit where they want (as far away from the adult supervision). If an undesired rider dares encroach upon the claimed seating of the popular group, they may be bullied until they stay "in their place." The farther away from the driver, the more the school bus culture resembles Lord of the Flies, but without dead kids.

Later in life, the persons with the least social status are shuffled to the back if the bus where they have the farthest to walk to sit, and sometimes have to give up their seats if none are available for new riders of the higher social status group. This of course happened with minorities in America's past but also happens with women in other cultures even today.

There is always, since the beginning of school bus socialization, a social strata that is exempt from the "indignity" of even riding the bus. Sometimes we see them, or know them, sometimes we don't. But we are educated at a very early age into the idea that some people are just born lucky, knowing that as we try and drown out the diesel whine with headphones while we bounce across the roadway huddled in our coats against the cold that easily overpowers the little bus heaters there are kids in warm, comfy SUVs that didn't have to wait at a bus stop. These kids are the early version of the chauffeured class, childhood versions of those who have car service or reserved parking even in the most crowded of city blocks, and don't suffer the day-to-day annoyances of bus schedules, transfers, exact change, and waiting for late buses.

Because of the independence and ego enhancement a car can provide bus riders are often seen as mostly people who ride the bus because they have to, not because they want to, the probable reason because they can't afford a car. Even among intercity mass transit airplanes are far more preferred despite higher costs. This may all have something to do with the image of the bus as being "low-class" transportation, or a prevailing image of the bus as low-class transportation had created preferences for cars and airplanes. Or both.

Aside from people who want to avoid riding on a bus and can afford an alternative, buses are an accumulation of almost every other walk of life that exists between the beginning and end of the line whether that line is across a city, a state, or across the country. Middle class, working poor, urban, suburban, country, black, white, Hispanic, conservative, liberal...as the bus moves from neighborhood to neighborhood or state to state the divisions between them are broken down as riders from each stop squeeze together to make room for new arrivals.

The accumulation of a large number of people in small, often uncomfortable confines can produce short-term friendships in the shared experience and forced closeness or it can drive an already unstable person to murder, as one passenger decapitated another on a long-distance Greyhound bus through Canada in 2008.

The cultural variance and passenger interaction has even been worked into Hollywood films, most notably in the 1994 blockbuster Speed, where passengers from all walks of life on a Los Angeles bus are held hostage together.

On the Campaign Trail

The bus, for its capacity to haul around people and equipment in bulk and relative comfort, has long been a tool of political campaigns making frequent stops at towns too small to fly in and out of. Often decked out as rolling billboards (with the notable exception of the all-black U.S. President's buses). The buses can carry the candidate, campaign staff, equipment, props, and often members of the media.

Usually, the buses carry those members of media friendly to the candidate on some level...

A Presidential campaign press bus very recently worked into the plot on a few episodes of HBO's series The Newsroom, in a nice example of the bus featuring prominently in Hollywood AND politics.

The free ride of the media bus was used to try to manipulate campaign coverage by the media. Character Jim Harper was originally denied access to the media bus for his channel's unflattering portrayal of the candidate's political party. He lasted two weeks before getting kicked off the bus for demanding real answers to real questions rather than feeding the campaign talking points to his viewers. Many of the other "journalists" stayed on the bus, presumably sticking with the talking points.


For their refusal to stick to talking points and demand answers to tough questions Jim, Hallie, and Stillman were exiled from the bus. Going home an dropping campaign coverage isn't an option, so keeping up means having to rent a car so their costs go up, and driving alone their access to the campaign's media team is diminished, a point vulgarly driven home by Hallie's boss Evan in a phone call while on the road.

For a journalist most interested in keeping the paychecks coming, they shut up and fit in to stay on the bus at the expense of the investigative side of journalism.

I wonder how often this little low-level arm twisting of the media happens in real life?

Because roads can take candidates to more places than railroads, and being the bus to the crowd instead of having to draw a crowd to the train stop, bus tours have pretty much replaced the "whistle-stop" campaigning from the back of train cars that was a hallmark of the age of rail in the United States. Less glamorous historically and less visible because the candidates often speak on stage while the bus sits outside, the bus doesn't get much credit for the work it does on political campaigns.

Not enough credit, but sometimes it gets a little. In 2000, political "maverick" and Republican primary presidential contender John McCain named his campaign bus the "Straight-Talk Express," a name that resonated with crowds and came to symbolize his entire campaign.

In 2012 President Barack Obama campaigned by bus. Doing so partially detached him from the private jet and Cadillac treatment a sitting President usually gets and freed him from the limitations of traveling near airports that could accommodate Air Force One. Hoping to use the working class reputation of the bus as a positive in a tough economy, calling it the "Betting on America Tour," the specially modified buses themselves became targets of political criticism when it was discovered that their shells came from Canada.


Outside the United States, the variance between national cultures can be seen in their bus programs. The double-decker red London bus is an international icon of the city, as is Greyhound for the old-fashioned American cross-country trip.

Crowded buses make tempting targets for terrorism in conflicted parts of the world, and defense planners have to prepare accordingly.

In strongly religious countries the attitudes of separation and degradation of women are sometimes amplified by such confined spaces, also seen recently in Israel for example when a group of Orthodox Jews protested and broke bus windows when a female passenger wouldn't move to the back.

Some countries forego the traditional bus with seats for packing standing people into the backs of trucks...and sometimes anywhere they may be able to hang off the sides. It's more cost-efficient for the poorest people of the world, but frequent accidents have astonishingly high death tallies (86 in one recent incident).

Ivory Coast's Gbakas are a type of transportation all their own, a combination of minivan and the aforementioned loaded truck, traveling irregular routes and scheduled based on waiting until the van is full to leave. In an interesting bit of shared experience between the riders of the bus lines of world class cities and the commuters of little Abidjan, gbaka rides are exact change only.

A bus line also played a role in peace between India and Pakistan. Almost a decade ago a bus line across the Kashmir braved terror attacks to connect the people of the two nations for the first time in years. Has any cool muscle car ever accomplished something like that?

A Few Last Words

Yes, from a technical standpoint they are unglamorous, ugly, and on the opposite end of the wheeled-vehicle spectrum from sports cars. But from a cultural standpoint, the bus has played a role in the transportation of every major city on America, became a cultural icon of interstate travel, played a role in the civil rights movement, and continues to play a role in early childhood education and socialization.

Overseas it has contributed to international peace, symbolized a great international city, and provided otherwise unaffordable transportation in the world's poorest nations.

They are so very much more than the unexciting sum of their utilitarian parts.

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