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Stand Clear Of The Doors: TV Finally Gets On Board With Mass Transit

Nov 30, 2016

In the 1990s and early 2000s, TV shows didn't have a lot of love for mass transit — as Homer Simpson pronounced, "Public transportation is for jerks and lesbians."

Even on iconic shows set in New York City, characters didn't take advantage of their mass transit options. The stars of Sex and the City rode in taxis and cars. Same with Seinfeld (except for that one time when Jerry's car was in the shop and Elaine was forced to take the subway.) So, too, in fictional Springfield — Alex Marshall, who has written about public transportation in popular culture, says he can't recall even seeing a bus on The Simpsons.

But now, things have changed. On shows like Girls, The Mindy Project, Broad City and Mr. Robot, New York characters routinely use public transit. Watching Mr. Robot, Marshall says, "I almost feel like they're showing my life." (In a city-dweller sort of way, not a paranoid hacker sort of way.)

Marshall is a public transportation fanboy. He appreciates when TV characters use subways and buses to navigate their fictional, but very recognizable, worlds. "Infrastructure is aspirational," Marshall says. "It's not just a means to solve a problem or to get from here there."

And it's hardly just New York. On the TV show Atlanta, characters have deep conversations on the bus. And on Jane the Virgin, Jane takes public transportation all over Miami. She even goes into labor on the bus. (All the other passengers unite to make the driver take her to the hospital.) Public transportation is public theater on these shows. It's a social space where people accidentally run into each other and find civic cohesion.

Dramatic potential aside, mass transit can be a drag. People often take it because they have no other choice. You sacrifice privacy, and the pleasure of literally being in the driver's seat. "You do pay a time penalty in most places for riding public transportation," says Michael Manville, who teaches at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.

Recently, transit systems across the Northeast have been struggling — there were strikes in Philadelphia, a federal safety investigation in New Jersey and a crippling financial crisis in Washington, D.C.

Some analysts see hopeful signs that President-elect Donald Trump might support mass transit. At a campaign rally in March he said, "You go to China, they have trains that go 300 miles an hour. We have trains that go: chug, chug, chug, and then they have to stop because the tracks split."

Trump has just nominated former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao for Transportation Secretary. But so far, there's little hard evidence that Trump's trillion-dollar infrastructure plan will help out ailing bus and subway systems or add new ones — even though there's strong support for mass transit among voters. That's why Marshall thinks it's important to show people benefiting from public transportation on screen.

"TV and popular culture acts kind of like a force multiplier," he says. "We have visions in our heads of how we want to live. ... We want to get there and it's something to strive to."

Perhaps, Marshall suggests, policy makers who want to improve our buses and subways should pay a bit more attention to what's on TV.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People track the number of African-Americans on TV. They track the number of same-sex couples on TV. Many groups in society that were once nearly invisible in pop culture become more visible and familiar on our screens and it's considered a big deal. The latest group of Americans to rise to our television consciousness are people who ride mass transit. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: On the most iconic shows set in New York City during the '90s and early aughts, no one took public transportation. In "Sex And The City," they wrote in taxis and cars, same with "Seinfeld." Well, once Jerry's car got impounded and that forced Elaine onto the subway.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) Why isn't it moving? What could go wrong with a train? It's on tracks. There's no traffic.

ULABY: TV's attitude about mass transit could be summed up by "The Simpsons." There's an episode where Homer's wife is too busy to drive him to the bar so his daughter says...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Why don't you take public transportation?

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Public transportation is for jerks and lesbians. Oh, I guess I'll walk.

ALEX MARSHALL: I can't recall ever even seeing a bus on "The Simpsons."

ULABY: That's Alex Marshall. He's written about public transportation in popular culture. He says things have changed. Now, New York City characters routinely take public transportation on shows like "Girls," "The Mindy Project," "Broad City" and "Mr. Robot," who we meet on a subway platform.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

CHRISTIAN SLATER: (As Mr. Robot) We got to wait for the queue.

MARSHALL: When I watch that show, I almost feel like, you know, that they're, like, showing my life (laughter), not the paranoid-evil-people-out-to-get-you-part.

ULABY: Marshall's a public transportation fanboy. He appreciates when TV characters use subways and buses to navigate their fictional-but-very-recognizable-worlds.

MARSHALL: Infrastructure is aspirational. It's not just a means to solve a problem or to get from here to there.

ULABY: So the bus on the TV show "Atlanta" is where characters can have deep conversations.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

EMMETT HUNTER: (As Stranger) Resistance is a symptom of the way things are.

ULABY: And "Jane The Virgin" takes the bus all over Miami. She's even on it when she goes into labor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

GINA RODRIGUEZ: (As Jane Villanueva) Oh, OK.

ULABY: All the other passengers unite to make the driver take her to the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

NICOLE J BUTLER: (As Gabrielle) Is this as fast as you can go? Didn't you ever see "Speed"?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)

ULABY: Public transportation is public theater on these shows. It's a social space where people accidentally run into each other...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GILMORE GIRLS")

ALEXIS BLEDEL: (As Rory Gilmore) Morning.

ULABY: ...Like on "Gilmore Girls." The bus means independence for a high school student without a car. And it becomes a place of romantic opportunity when her crush gets on board.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GILMORE GIRLS")

JARED PADALECKI: (As Dean Forester) So how long does it take you to get to school?

BLEDEL: (As Rory Gilmore) Forty minutes if the bus driver's focused, but longer if he's trying to win something on the radio.

ULABY: Dramatic potential aside, mass transit can be a drag, says Michael Manville. He teaches at UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.

MICHAEL MANVILLE: You do pay a time penalty in most places for riding public transportation.

ULABY: And you sacrifice privacy and the pleasure of literally being in the driver's seat. People who take public transportation often have no other choice. Some analysts see signs the president-elect might support mass transit. Take this campaign rally speech last March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: You go to China, they have trains that go 300 miles an hour. We have trains to go chug, chug, chug.

ULABY: But there are few suggestions so far that Donald Trump's trillion-dollar infrastructure plan will help out ailing bus and subway systems or add new ones, even though public transportation is something most people strongly favor. That's why Alex Marshall thinks it's important to show people benefiting from public transportation on screen.

MARSHALL: TV and popular culture acts as kind of like a force multiplier. We have visions in our head of how we want to live. And we want to get there. It's something to strive to.

ULABY: Perhaps, Marshall says, policymakers who want to improve our buses and subways should pay a little more attention to what's on TV. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.