Wednesday, 5 February 2014

"Have travelers lost the class war?"

TWA Ambassador Club membership certificate, 1953

[TWA “Ambassadors Club” membership certificate presented to my grandfather, L.P. Hasbrouck, in 1953. Click image for full-sized version.]

Thanks to Christopher Elliott for mentioning the unmentionable — “class” — in an article in USA Today on “the growing rift between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in travel”:

As always, the airline industry is boldly leading the way when it comes to separating the well-heeled from the rest. But make no mistake: The travel industry is following, often enthusiastically. Remember, only a fraction of American travelers fly; the rest drive or use mass transit. Consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck sees the class war unfolding on the ground in places such as San Francisco, where mass transit can be tedious and unreliable, unless you’re one of the privileged commuters with a ticket on a private express bus.

“There’s a dramatic contrast between waiting for slow, late, overcrowded public transit and the luxury buses, hiding their occupants behind spotless tinted glass, that pick up thousands of moneyed young geeks every day and whisk them off to the Silicon Valley campuses of Google, Facebook and Yahoo,” he says.

Hasbrouck fears a day might come when the class divide will resemble a scene from a dystopian novel. Something like it already exists. In São Paulo, laborers spend hours on overcrowded buses getting to and from work, while the affluent are carried by helicopter from the rooftops of their condo towers to the rooftops of their office towers.

“That,” he adds, “is the most extreme class divide in transportation.”

The article and the comments on Facebook are worth reading, but I hope they are only the start, not the end, of an overdue discussion of class, privilege, and travel.

To be clear, “It’s not about the buses,” as my Mission District neighbor Rebecca Solnit recently wrote. The private shuttle buses and the tech workers who ride them between homes in San Francisco and offices in Silicon Valley are merely the most visible symbol of a problematic civic dynamic.

When my partner and I moved to San Francisco in 1985, we settled in the Mission District for reasons similar to those of many younger people today: the lifestyle of a dense inner-city neighborhood close to downtown San Francisco, combined with relatively easy access by highway and commuter train to technology-driven jobs in the suburbs.

These days I work at home, and my partner has switched from programming to teaching in a public school in the city. But if our employers when we were working on the Peninsula or in Silicon Valley had chartered express buses to the city for their employees, we would have been riding those buses — happy not to have to drive (I’ve never owned a motor vehicle or commuted by car) or wait for slow, unreliable public buses (been there, done that).

The real flashpoint for protest, I think, is a particular form of de facto privatization, in which “public” services remain nominally in place, but new, private alternatives allow wealthier people to effectively “opt out” of public services which rich and poor alike used to use. Once rich people opt out of using public services or facilities, they tend not to notice their condition and not to want to pay taxes to maintain them. Nor do they think about the fact that most people can’t afford the private alternatives.

The worst example of this is the abandonment of big-city public schools by the new urban upper class (except for a few families who take advantage of valuable specialized programs such as those for gifted and talented students). Yuppies used to move out of the city to wealthy suburbs when their children reached school age, afraid to send their children to inner-city public schools. Today, yuppie parents of school-age children are staying in the city, many of them in our neighborhood. They no longer care about the public schools, or see their deficiencies as cause for concern, because they are paying to place their children in (urban) private schools.

In travel, this pattern manifests itself in a growing range of high-end alternatives to common carriers and publicly-franchised and regulated transportation services like medallion taxis. Don’t like the traffic or the condition of the pavement on the public roads? For a price, you can take the private toll roads (or the private toll lanes alongside the free public lanes of some highways). Don’t want to wait for a bus or a cab on a rainy day or a Saturday night? If you are rich enough to pay the Uber “surge” fee, you can get a car right away.

Unlike common carriers or regulated services and utilities, private services aren’t required to provide universal service. UPS and Fedex can choose where they want to offer delivery, and where they don’t, leaving the Post Office (with its duty to provide universal coverage) to serve rural and other less-profitable areas. Medallion cabs are required to pick up anyone who hails them when they are available, and take them anywhere they want within their authorized territory. Car services like Uber and Lyft can redline certain neighborhoods and “reserve the right to refuse service” to anyone whose reviews they don’t like. Public schools have to provide educational opportunities to all students, even those with special needs that are expensive to serve. Private schools can (and often do) deny admission to such students, or expel them if they become too difficult to deal with. Costs for public services are naturally higher than those of parallel private services when the private services have “cherry-picked” the most profitable, highest-paying, lowest-cost market segments, and dumped the unwanted higher-cost remainder on the public (or publicly regulated) sector.

Most large Silicon Valley technology companies have located their office “campuses” in the middle of nowhere, far from either housing or public transit. If they want their employees to have better transportation options, the civic-minded thing to do (aside from moving their offices closer to housing and/or transit, such as to the city or near existing commuter-train stations) would be to subsidize public transit routes, operated by public agencies, that suit their employees’ needs. Shuttle-bus riders who want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, should be lobbying their employers to replace private shuttles with underwriting of public transit.

Buses should be allowed to use public bus stops only if they operate as common carriers open to the public, rather than being allowed to pay to use these portions of scarce space on the public right-of-way, previously dedicated to public transit use, for private purposes.

The amounts of money being spent on company-specific private shuttles could support frequent, comfortable express bus service between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and/or critically needed upgrades to the Caltrain commuter-rail line, that would benefit these companies, their employees, and the public. As it is, the private shuttles divert at least some riders who might otherwise ride (or lobby for) public transit, thus reducing transit ridership and revenues and making the situation worse for everyone except the private shuttle riders.

[Addendum: There are examples of shuttles and bus routes like this elsewhere, although not — so far as I know — in Silicon Valley. In the Bay Area, the Emery-Go-Round is funded by office-park and apartment and condo-complex owners, but open to the public. When I was a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s, the university operated a network of private shuttles throughout the surrounding residential neighborhood, open only to the university “community”, i.e. those with university IDs. At some point — I don’t know when — these were replaced with subsidies by the university to the Chicago Transit Authority to operate public buses on similar routes, on which university ID-holders ride free (presumably with the fare they would have paid reimbursed by the university to the CTA) but which anyone can ride for a normal CTA fare. Interestingly, at night the shuttles are still operated by the university for university ID-holders only. I guess the black skin of the university’s neighbors is more frightening at night? On the other hand, the U. of Chicago continues to operate a variety of private alternatives that allow members of the university “community” (or outsiders with enough money to pay for them) to opt out of public services: the university’s private Laboratory School as an alternative to the Chicago public schools, the university’s hospitals as alternatives to Cook County Hospital, and so forth. As director of community relations for the U. of Chicago hospitals, Michelle Obama was the university’s flack-catcher for protests against some of these policies.]

In air transportation, the ultimate “opt out” is the use of private aircraft to avoid, for a very high price, the hassles of common-carrier airlines. Private charter flights are exempt from TSA screening searches, and often operate from separate “executive” terminals or even separate airports most airline passengers have never heard of, such as those in Teterboro, NJ, for New York City, or Van Nuys, CA, for greater Los Angeles.

On common carriers, segregation of passengers by class on ships and trains has a history that long predates air travel. Steamship lines were accustomed to carrying “steerage” passengers below the decks of even their most prestigious vessels. (On today’s cruise ships, those lower spaces are occupied by crew accommodations.) The same railroads that operated the expresses whose names survive on today’s Amtrak routes also operated much larger numbers of slower, cheaper, trains with fewer amenities.

The first airlines offered only one class, first class in both price and exclusivity. Service on the Pan Am “Clipper” routes in the 1930s, both in flight and on the ground, was comparable to that of the premier single-class “all-Pullman” first-class sleeping car trains of the same era. But as soon as air travel began to be affordable to a slightly wider demographic, airlines began to segment their services and facilities for different classes of passengers.

The first separate waiting room for VIP airline passengers, the American Airlines “Admirals Club” at La Guardia airport, opened in 1939. TWA followed with its first, invitation-only “Ambassadors Club’ in 1952. My grandfather, already a frequent domestic and international business traveller at the tail end of the steamship and railroad era, received the membership certificate above, hand-signed by TWA President Ralph S. Damon, in 1953. That was the year the Ambassadors Club opened in New York in conjunction with TWA’s launch of the first scheduled nonstop transcontinental service. (Within a few years these framed certificates with ribbons and gold seals and the member’s name in calligraphy were supplemented by more practical laminated wallet cards.)

Separate areas for nomenklatura and foreigners have just as old a history in airports, and often train stations, in ostensibly “classless” countries. I have fond memories of the uncrowded (!) comfort of the soft-sleeper waiting room at the Shanghai train station, and of complementary champagne, caviar, and and omul (a Lake Baikal fish delicacy) while waiting for a delayed flight in the VIP lounge at the airport in Irkutsk.

Observing who is using which classes of transportation services and accommodations is a lens through which a visitor can learn about the local class hierarchy and how it is shaped by wealth, caste, skin color, ethnicity, political connections, and other factors. Mahatma Gandhi’s first run-in with law enforcement came when, shortly after arriving from India, he was thrown off a train in South Africa for refusing to vacate the first-class compartment for which he had bought a ticket. India had (and has) at least as arcane a stratification of railway service as did South Africa, but it was different. A wealthy English-speaking upper-caste Indian like Mr. Gandhi could (and was expected to, to preserve his caste status) ride in first class on the Indian Railways, but the South African Railways class system was based more strictly on “race”, with caste or other factors largely irrelevant.

Does each class of air travellers pay its fair share? That’s hard to say. An airline evaluates each passenger cabin, as well as the cargo hold, as a separate profit center for each flight. “As a flight attendant, it’s like working for two different airlines on the same plane.” Return on investment is typically much higher for the front cabin(s) and for cargo than for the main cabin. Coach passengers are what an airline uses to fill the space and generate as much revenue as possible from that portion of the aircraft’s capacity that can’t be filled with more profitable front-cabin passengers or cargo. Coach passengers are most of the body count, but airlines see them as filler, not as the people who pay for the plane.

Airlines are heavily subsidized by governments. I suspect that the subsidies for front-cabin (first and business class) passengers are disproportionately greater than those for economy-class passengers, although I’ve never seen any attempt to analyze this. Whether or not this is true, the fundamental inequity is that most taxpayers travel primarily by car, even for long distances, and can rarely afford to fly. Members of the jet set rarely notice that air travel in the USA, even in the back of the plane, is still largely the province of the upper classes. Subsidizing air travel is incredibly regressive.

If you are flying in the back of the plane, does it even matter what it’s like up in front? Probably not.

There’s no necessary positive correlation between the quality of service, or the value for the money, in different cabins on the same airline. If an airline has chosen to invest more in service and amenities for one class at the expense of those for another, the correlation may even be negative. That means that reviews or comparisons of business or first-class service are at best irrelevant, at worst misleading, as guides to economy-class service or value for money. For the same reasons, comparisons of costs and services for luxury resorts or business travel services are useless for choosing destinations or comparing costs for budget tourism.

The practical lesson to take away is that the only reviews and cost comparisons that are likely to be useful are those written by people who travel in the same manner, in the same class, that you plan to travel. Reading about how the other 1% or 10% travels may make for interesting (or enraging) armchair travel, but it won’t really help you plan your own trip.

P.S - My feelings about São Paulo, like those about the tech company buses, are considerably more mixed, and in some respects more favorable, than you might infer from just the quotes from me in USA Today reproduced at the start of this article. More about São Paulo.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 5 February 2014, 17:04 ( 5:04 PM)

One issue about the Google buses that hasn't been called out is the drivers. The "do no evil" company doesn't hire them as employees (with all the Google benefits that entails) but contracts them. To top it off, they have to work a split shift, meaning they get up at 4 am, drive the morning commute, are then off the clock for mid-day while their bus sits at Google, and then back on the clock for the afternoon commute.

A number of the drivers live far from the bus depot and have hefty commutes (which I'm sure don't involve getting picked up in a fancy bus).

And why do they live far away? Because they're not making Google salaries.

Posted by: Anonymous, 13 February 2014, 11:42 (11:42 AM)

The two-tier (actually multi-tier -- I'm not sure how many levels of Google badge colors there are) affects other workers at Google, even some directly employed by Google: caterers, cleaners, and the people working the graveyard shift scanning books, as in this video:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 13 February 2014, 11:44 (11:44 AM)

I have done work for Google and have seen life on the inside. There are 3 tiers of colored badges and then electronic access tiers within the colors. In some sort of ironic Star Trek reference, I'm convinced, the lowest tier is the Red Badgers which I was as a contractor. The disposable ones you beam down to the planet with.

When you meet people at Google, their eyes instantly drop down to your badge to see how important you are. The employees are the most diligent I've experienced about not letting anyone into the doors without them badging in themselves. It makes for a very rude and non-personal environment in an already non-personal company -- though I understand it from a security perspective as there were always tourists trying to get in.

There were many times I couldn't get to the other side of the cafeteria (the one in the video) because they were having some presentation that the red badgers should apparently not hear.

On the flip side, many of the contract cleaning staff benefited from a free program where Google employees volunteer time to teach English and job skills. So there is light in the belly of the beast.

Posted by: Anonymous, 13 February 2014, 12:49 (12:49 PM)

More from my neighbor Rebecca Solnit:

This touches on (among many other well-woven threads) the relationship of Silicon Valley to "counterculture" and the falsehood of the Silicon Valley creation myth of entrepreneurship, something I wrote about in my article on "Fred Moore: Life Outside the Mainframe":

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 16 February 2014, 08:47 ( 8:47 AM)
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