From 'Her' to 'Mr. Robot': Movies and TV Make Public Transit Hip

Riding the subway is a sign of a good life -- according to pop culture, anyway.
by | April 2016
Television shows and movies like Her depict a future that’s optimistic about mass transit. (Warner Bros.)

Alex Marshall

Alex is a Governing columnist and a Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City.

I recently pulled down from my bookshelves a battered old paperback, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that ’70s classic by Robert Pirsig that attempts to bridge the chasm that existed in those days between science and technology on one side and art and spirituality on the other. This was a time before the Internet and billionaire nerds wearing T-shirts and colorful socks. Scientists wore crewcuts; only hippies had long hair.

This book gained much of its power by looking at the lines we draw and the categories we put things in, often unconsciously. It still reads well, except for one moment where Pirsig reveals an unexamined assumption of his own.

In discussing “the Metaphysics of Quality,” a concept central to the book but which Pirsig says can’t be defined, he tries to imagine a world without it. “Since quality of flavor would be meaningless, supermarkets would carry only basic grains such as rice, cornmeal, soybeans and flour. ... Alcoholic beverages, tea, coffee and tobacco would vanish. So would movies, dances, plays and parties. We would all use public transportation. We would all wear G.I. shoes.”

Did you catch that? In a world without quality, at least as Pirsig defines it, “we would all use public transportation.” He talks about transit in the same breath as a society where no one dances and everyone wears boring shoes. Can you imagine that today? Can you imagine someone talking about using a subway, light rail line or a shared public bike as being synonymous with a gray, Orwellian world?

Pirsig’s comment highlighted for me the gradual transformation in how we regard public transportation. It is now seen as part of an urban lifestyle, and this has affected how it is portrayed in popular culture. Public transportation now symbolizes not a quality-less realm but the contrary, a sign of the good life or a thrilling component of a possible future.

The pilot episode of Fox’s TV show “Minority Report” shows gleaming trains, I assume some sort of futuristic version of Washington’s Metro system, weaving on pylons through the city a half-century from now. The camera then shifts to the inside of the train, which looks sleek, comfortable and, perhaps unrealistically, uncrowded.

Another Fox show from a few years back but set in the near future, the thriller “Human Target,” depicts a California bullet train up and running, a sexy backdrop for an assassination plot. The present day’s contentious politics are assumed to be all in the past and the train itself part of the Golden State’s bright shining future. Similarly, 2013’s Her depicted a nearly carfree Los Angeles in which residents ride a gleaming metro to the beach or a bullet train into the snowy mountains. Meanwhile, Netflix’s “Lilyhammer” begins every show with a scene of a high-speed train cutting through the snow as, inside, an American mobster listens to music while nestled in a comfortable seat.

I’m convinced, sadly, that the United States may never have real high-speed train service. The politics are simply too difficult. But be that as it may, it’s clear that high-speed trains have already taken a place in Americans’ imagination as part of a future they want. Other forms of public transportation, such as public bikes and light rail lines, also pop up in movies and shows. In one episode of the USA series “Mr. Robot,” a character bumps into a rack of public bikes while running away from a bad guy.

All of this is important, because infrastructure is aspirational. We don’t just solve problems; we build toward visions of how we want to live, often in ways that aren’t entirely practical. Popular culture can show where we are wanting to go.

For policymakers, it’s important to have a handle on where different types of infrastructure live in the shifting worlds of their polity’s imagination. Sometimes the currents are with you, sometimes against. Sometimes they can be shifted, or they shift on their own.

My native and extremely suburban city of Virginia Beach, Va., has been wrestling for three decades over whether to build a light rail line from Norfolk to the oceanfront. For such a short line, the passion around it is high. As a reporter in 1989, I covered a 6-to-5 city council vote against it. In 1999, voters rejected it in a referendum. But in another referendum in 2012, the public approved it by a wide margin, 62 percent. Now some on the council want to hold another referendum, arguing that the wording of the last one wasn’t fair. Meanwhile, the state says it will withdraw funding if the project is delayed for yet another referendum.

Why such a big argument? Because it’s about more than tracks and trains. It’s about the definition of how you want your city to be; it’s about quality in the Pirsig sense. In balancing coolness and practicality, I would say the happy balance is to have infrastructure solve a practical need but to be aware of and to promote how a type of infrastructure will make a city different, zippy and ahead of its time.

A page after consigning public transit to a quality-less realm, Pirsig quotes some black artists who define the absence of quality as “the essence of squareness.” By this definition, public transportation today is not square. In fact, it’s quite the opposite -- it’s hip.

Pirsig is still around, now approaching 90. I didn’t think I should bother him to ask about his present-day assumptions about mass transit. But maybe he’s changed. Maybe he now rides the bus.

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