The Captive Rider Myth

Centro likes to divide its riders into two groups—‘captive’ riders that have to use the bus because it’s their only option, and ‘choice’ that choose to use the bus because it’s the best option available to them.

But the idea that anybody has to ride the bus—that people are ‘captive’ to transit—is a myth. It’s a myth because people always have options, and it’s a myth because bus riders choose to build their life in such a way that the bus is their best option.

A couple weeks ago I was waiting at a bus stop with seven other people. I had my bike, but it was cold, the bus was due, and I wanted to ride home in heated comfort.

We waited, fidgeting with impatience and to stay warm, making halting small talk—mostly grumbling about the bus—as the scheduled arrival time came and went. My phone was dead so I asked a kid to check when the next bus was due. He did, and we found out that our bus wasn’t coming at all, and we’d have to wait for the next run. One man called a cab, the kid called his Mom for a ride, and I got on my bike and left. Just like that, three people without ready access to a car found another way to get around when the bus became a worse option.

We made that decision in the moment, but thousands of other people make similar decisions every single day—they decide to walk, or bike, or hail a cab, or bum a ride to get around town. When SMTC asked how people on the Northside get to work, they learned that plenty bike as far as Liverpool and Baldwinsville because that’s the best option available to them. If Syracuse had better bus service, any of these people might choose to use public transportation instead, but Centro would call them ‘captive’ riders because they’re poor and don’t own cars. 

But what about those other five people who stayed to wait for the bus even though it wouldn’t show for another 40 minutes? People who simply couldn’t walk to where they were going, didn’t have anyone to give them a ride, and couldn’t afford cab fare. Weren’t they truly captive?

Maybe. Maybe the only reason they were at that bus stop was because none of them owned a car, maybe none of them could afford to fill up a gas tank, and maybe terrible experiences like that have convinced them that the second they get enough money they’ll spend it on a car.

But there are plenty of people who put up with situations like that on a regular basis, who wouldn’t mind having a car, and who can technically afford a to buy one, but still choose to ride the bus.

Think of it this way: you may want a car, but it’s not at the top of your list of best ways to use your money. Maybe it matters less to you than buying healthy food, than living in the right neighborhood, than paying medical bills, than sending money to your mother, than saving up for your son’s college tuition. Maybe you would buy a car if you made more money, but you don’t, and right now a car just isn’t the best use of what money you’ve got.

In a City where the median household income is about $35,000, this is the situation that a lot of people find themselves in. There are many pressing needs competing for that finite amount of money, and the $9,282 a year it costs to own a car just isn’t worth it when Centro provides a viable alternative for getting around town. People in that situation have made an informed decision not to waste their money on a car, and so they appear dependent on the bus—‘captive’ riders—but in fact the bus has enabled them to set their minds on more important things by freeing them from dependence on a car.

The caricature of the captive rider is someone who rides the bus, but only under duress—a person who doesn’t own a car, but desperately wants one and would buy one the minute that was possible—a person who can’t afford to take a cab everywhere, but would if they had the money.

There may be some riders like that, but they are not the majority. Most people ride the bus because it’s the best option for them to get around. They complain about the service, wish it went more places, wish the buses came more often, wish they didn’t get stuck in traffic, but they choose to ride because the bus makes their lives better.