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More Than Just the "Loser Cruiser"?: An Ethnographic Study of the Social Life on Buses


The literature on travel demographics and mode choice provides information about individuals and their travel patterns at the aggregate level and by using variables such as income, race/ethnicity, gender, and age. These findings provide useful insight into the modes that travelers use and the purpose, duration, and distance of trips. However, we know much less about the ways people experience travel, both physically and emotionally, and the effects these experiential aspects can have on individual travel decisions. This research uses ethnographic fieldwork methods to examine the experience of bus travel, and particularly behaviors, types of interactions, and social expectations on buses.

This study focuses on five bus lines in Los Angeles running along several of the city's main thoroughfares as part of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) transit network - three established local (Metro Local) routes and two newer bus rapid transit (BRT or Metro Rapid) lines. The findings suggest that life on buses includes a myriad of complex social and interpersonal interactions. Bus riding involves established norms and rules of behavior around waiting, boarding, riding, and alighting. Behaviors and incidents that occur outside this scope of normalcy are identified and considered disruptions. Regular disruptions to the social order can be characterized in several dimensions: 1) negative and positive disruptions, 2) the impact of disruptions on individuals and groups, 3) their quality as brief or more sustained, 4) routine and more unusual disruptions, and 5) the intimate to stranger relationships among those involved in a disruption.

A comparison of the Local and Rapid lines shows that they differ in terms of the consistency of branding and the physical features and amenities along the routes. This study also introduces the idea of "experiential reliability," or the consistency of experience. Fewer disruptions occur in the tighter social space of the Rapid buses, while the Local bus experience includes ongoing disruptions to the social order. Lastly, various types of stigma management occur in bus spaces. Riders both respond to and ignore particular stigmatized riders - the outcasts, the disruptors, and the freeloaders. People also manage the modal stigma of buses through such strategies as complaining, commiserating, destigmatizing the bus-riding experience, and reconceptualizing the bus-rider identity.

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