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Recent scholarship has examined the representation of cars, walking and rail transportation in cinema; however, it has said little about the bus. This paper examines the depiction of the bus in a series of movies filmed in San Francisco since the 1970s. While rail-based modes, especially the cable car, were depicted in a positive light in these films, depictions of the bus are almost uniformly negative. It is a site of incivility, crime and poor service. In U.S. cities, buses carry far more passengers than any other mode of transit and they are essential to low-income residents. By highlighting the worst aspects of bus service, these films may contribute to a decrease in empathy for those dependent on the bus and a decline in support for funding bus service.
The California Geographer 60, © 2021 by The California Geographical Society
“What Was He Doing
on that Damned Bus?”
Paul Stangl
Western Washington University
Recent scholarship has examined the representation of cars, walking,
and rail transportation in cinema; however, it has said little about
the bus. This paper examines the depiction of the bus in a series of
movies lmed in San Francisco since the 1970s. While rail-based
modes, especially the cable car, were depicted in a positive light in
these lms, the bus is almost uniformly negative. It is a site of
incivility, crime, and poor service. In U.S. cities, the bus carries far
more passengers than any other mode of transit, and is essential to
low-income residents. By highlighting the worst aspects of bus
service, these lms may contribute to a decrease in empathy for those
dependent on the bus.
Keywords: San Francisco, mode choice, bus, rail, cinema, mobilities
GEOGRAPHIC LITERATURE ON FILMS has increasingly focused on how lms
produce meaning regarding the “material conditions of lived experience
and everyday social practices” (Aitken and Dixon 2006). This includes
mobilities, or the nature of movement through cities. Cinematic
characters traveling though actual cities can add realism, help establish
a character, enable a surprise encounter, and create an entertaining
spectacle. At best, they contribute signicantly to the narrative. Most
characters drive cars or walk, but many take public transportation.
Subway, streetcar, bus, and other modes of public transportation present
dierent physical possibilities for action. For instance, both buses and
subway vehicles bring passengers together in a conned space, but the
subway isolates passengers from the outside world, while a bus interacts
with street trac. The mode of transportation mediates the relationship
between the character and the city. More subtly, a lm can draw on
cultural meanings associated with these dierent modes. In doing so, a
lm may reinforce or contradict these meanings for various reasons
(Fraser 2014). This paper examines depictions of the bus in movies lmed
in the City of San Francisco from the 1970s through the early twenty-rst
century (Appendix A). The bus has been cast in a negative light in nearly
all of these lms, reinforcing the dominant American view that
stigmatizes this important form of urban transportation.
56 The California Geographer Volume 60, 2021
Nationally, bus provides more trips on a daily basis than any form of
public transportation. Estimates for 2019 ridership count over 4.6 million
bus trips, compared with 3.8 million for heavy rail, much of which occurs
on the New York subway. Light rail and commuter rail counted little
more than half a million each (American Public Transportation
Association 2019). Bus ridership is heavily skewed toward those with low
income levels and those belonging to minority groups. For instance, 46
percent of bus riders make less than $20,000 per year, compared with
12.4 percent for automobile and 9.3 percent for subway. Bus accounts for
approximately 5 percent of travel for black persons, but less than 1 percent
for whites (Renne and Bennet 2014). In the United States, public transit,
particularly the bus, has become an important social service. Government
provision of transit, especially bus, assists those without alternatives, the
young, old, poor, and physically disabled (Garret and Taylor 1999).
In San Francisco, public transit is extremely important, with more than
700,000 trips inside the city on a typical weekday. There are fewer than
a million vehicles registered in the city and fewer than 500,000 vehicles
travel into the city on a daily basis. For the entire Bay Area, the MUNI
system (primarily bus) counts over 700,000 daily trips, whereas the
regional BART and Caltrain systems combine for just over 200,000 trips
per day. In recent years, the city has expanded bus ridership by
implementing bus rapid-transit lines in key corridors (San Francisco
Municipal Transportation Authority 2019). Bus rapid transit provides
faster service, stations with amenities, and a “light-rail” styling that
symbolically distances itself from the bus.
Considerable research has examined the social and cultural dimensions
of urban rail and intercity rail and their depiction in lm (Schivelbusch
1979; Kirby 1997; Marshall 2001; Thornbury 2014). It is important to
examine bus travel separately, since dierent modes provide “dierent
experiences, performances and aordances, and there is a complex
sensuous relationality between the means of travel and the traveler”
(Sheller and Urry 2006). The atmospheres emerging on dierent
technologies of transportation are forceful and aect the ways in which
we inhabit these spaces (Bissel 2010). Yet, literature on the bus is rare.
Little more than a decade ago, Jain stated that “stories of bus journeys
are rare, and even within the emergent eld of mobilities the bus has not
yet arrived.” This still rings true. Nash (1975) observed community
characteristics among bus riders in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Clayton, Jain, and
Parkhurst (2017) found that bus riders in Bristol, England, crafted largely
positive journey experiences, posing a challenge to “unfavourable public
perception and media representations of bus travel.” Wilson (2011)
examined passengers negotiating their forced propinquity inside the bus
with unwritten codes of conduct. Despite commuters’ strategies for
maintaining personal space as best they can, Wilson observed a potential
for diverse people to breach dierences in shared experience, including
conversation. Rink (2016) explored the relationship between “race,
gender, class, safety, and convenience” in the micropolitics of bus
ridership in South Africa. The racial dimension of bus travel is especially
pronounced in South Africa, but it is not unique. Indeed, the issue of
race is signicant to many forms of mobility (Nicholson and Sheller
The eld of transportation planning, traditionally concerned with the
time and cost of travel, has also begun to consider broader experiential
and social issues. Bus provides a great case study for these topics. It is
the workhorse of modern transit, carrying large numbers of working-class
and poor people, often on crowded vehicles (Garret and Taylor 1999).
Several researchers found that bus travel is seen as uncomfortable,
uncivil, and dangerous (Guiver 2007; Levine and Wachs 1986; Stradling,
et al. 2007). In the United States, security and equity issues are considered
especially signicant for bus riders. These are entwined with racial issues
and have at times become highly politicized. Fear of crime among bus
riders and actual crime at bus stops have also been shown to be an issue
(Levine and Wachs 1986; Loukaitou-Sideris 1996; Stucky and Smith
2017). In the 1990s, concerns about crime on buses was severe enough
that San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown created a program called TURF,
employing young people with street smarts to ride bus lines perceived as
dangerous to help deter crime. Fleetwood (2004) investigated the
passengers’ fears and spatial strategies for dealing with them. She
observed considerable racial and subcultural influences, noting
widespread avoidance of black youth by people of all races. The few white
riders who migrated to the back of the bus with them tend to be young
adults, “college students, working-class, or…counter-cultural individuals
(punks, skaters, hippies, and dreads).” Concerns about crime are evident
in research on other modes of public transportation, subways in particular
(Smith and Clark 2000).
Social equity concerns have also been a matter of concern for bus riders,
since their income levels are lowest among transit riders, often a fraction
that of wealthy suburbanites who dominate commuter rail lines (Garret
and Taylor 1999). Hence, defunding bus lines hurts low-income and
minority groups, who often lack political power. A study of Metropolitan
Planning Organizations has found that for each suburban voting
member, investments are shifted one percent to nine percent away from
transit to highways (Nelson, Sanchez, and Wolf 2004). Funding for inner-
city buses not only competes with highway funding, but commuter rail.
The Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union lawsuit provides a poignant example.
Low-income minority residents protested inadequate funding for bus
Stangl: “What Was He Doing on that Damned Bus?” 57
58 The California Geographer Volume 60, 2021 Stangl: “What Was He Doing on that Damned Bus?” 59
versus other modes of transportation, demonstrating that they can
successfully mobilize to obtain a range of goals for equitable bus service
(Brown 1998; Grengs 2002). Silicon Valley technology companies have
established private bus service to shuttle employees in from San
Francisco. Their free use of public bus stops has spurred protests (Nevius
Another important dimension of bus travel is that, unlike subway, the
driver plays a crucial role in the experience. The driver shares an open
interior space with the passengers and interacts directly with passengers
collecting fares and policing behavior. Whether friendly, rude, helpful,
or intolerant, they set a tone. They guide the bus through trac, making
decisions that add or detract from passengers’ comfort and safety. In
performing these duties, the driver is him- or herself at risk. Physicians
have found that drivers frequently have health issues, including low back
pain, due to sitting and vehicle vibration, as well as psychological issues
deriving from stress (Bartone 1989; Boveni and Zadini 1992).
Post-traumatic stress disorder commonly follows incidents of violence
(Zhou 2017).
Literature on public transportation reveals some commonalities between
bus and other modes, as well as some important dierences. This paper
will examine representations of buses in a series of lms set in San
Francisco, to identity their relationship to issues facing bus riders and
the impact they may have on popular perceptions of the bus. These are
important to understand, since negative perceptions of buses can help
shape people’s decisions to ride the bus and can aect political support
for funding buses.
Riding the Bus
Urban transportation is shown in lms for numerous reasons, and
particular modes of transportation serve some better than others for
practical and cultural reasons. This section reviews lms set in San
Francisco to determine why buses are used (as opposed to auto, rail, or
other modes) and how they are depicted in relation to broader cultural
views of buses and cities at the time of lming.
The Seventies
Filmmakers were slow to embrace the bus. The excitement that
accompanied the innovation of the automobile did not extend to its transit
counterpart. Only after decades of bus service, in the late 1960s and early
1970s, did buses begin to appear in San Francisco cinema. Urban decline
was accelerating and large portions of the white, middle-class urbanites
had ed cities. Mass transportation was seen as an archaic, second-rate
means of getting around the city.
The rst lm to incorporate the bus in San Francisco was Petulia (1968).
The bus is only briey shown, and the image is mildly negative. The
leading lady rides this inconvenient mode, attempting to transport an
oversized musical instrument. Had she taken a taxi, her “kooky” and
dependent personality would not be displayed as eectively. Fortunately,
the doctor swings by and spares her the aggravation.
As urban decline peaked in the early 1970s, bus took center stage in The
Laughing Policeman (1973). This was perhaps the rst lm entirely focused
on a bus, its passengers, and a bus station. While New York’s subway was
used in dystopian crime lms during these years, San Francisco had no
direct parallel. The new BART system was too clean and futuristic. Bus
was the grittiest mode available and oered the freedom of the road,
opening new possibilities for the use of public transportation in cinema.
The lm begins at the Transbay bus terminal at night. A man boards Bus
14 for the Mission District followed by an undercover cop. As the bus
departs, a car, the superior vehicle, races to a nearby bus stop, parks, and
the driver boards the bus. He takes a seat in the back, where he assembles
an automatic rie, then shoots everyone on the bus. The driver crashes
into a tree on Portsmouth Square in Chinatown; the Mission District,
Chinatown, and seedy portions of North Beach are peppered throughout
the lm as centers of exoticism and vice.
A team of detectives, including the protagonist Jake, investigate the crime
scene. Jake discovers his allegedly o-duty partner, Evans, among the
shooting victims on the bus. The Lieutenant growls at Jake, “What the
hell was Evans doing on that bus?” Permutations of the question are
heard eight times during the lm, each reecting relationships between
characters. Jake politely inquires of Evans’s wife, “Did you know what
he was doing on that bus?” Cops yell back and forth, “Why was he on
that goddamn bus?” A black cop coolly questions a pimp at the Transbay,
“What was goin’ down on that bus thing, man?” Why a cop with a car
would board a night bus would be puzzling, even if a massacre had not
All of the bus passengers were killed except for one elderly man, who is
hospitalized in an unstable condition. The passengers included an elderly
man and woman, a black man, a lesbian nurse, a Chinese man “high on
reds,” a white junky, and a white man with a suitcase containing condoms
and a bottle of Chivas Regal. The detectives examine the lives of each
passenger, hoping to establish a connection to the killer. Numerous
possibilities emerge, as the victims’ lives map onto a labyrinth of vice,
deance of social norms, and questionable activities across the city.
60 The California Geographer Volume 60, 2021
Harry’s sole car trip comes with some post-convention partying among
colleagues. A police ocer in Harry’s employ displays vigor, racing
through the streets with the revelers. Harry is a passenger, never a driver.
Nonetheless, his conscience propels him to take a half-step. He follows
a lead to a hotel room and listens in as the young couple murder the
executive. Misreading the situation, he believes the executive has killed
the young woman. The hotel scene cuts to a street with the ruin of a
building in the background. A bus arrives and Harry boards. He arrives
at the executive’s oce to confront him, but is forced out by security. He
sees a newspaper headline about the executive’s death, and witnesses the
young woman exit a limousine to speak with the press.
Whereas The Laughing Policeman pathologized and sensationalized the bus,
here it is mundane. Perhaps due to Coppola’s familiarity with San
Francisco, the white professional protagonist and an array of ordinary
people are comfortable on a bus that is not pathologized, but remains
second-rate transportation. Strong characters drive cars, powerful
individuals are chaueured in cars. Harry’s bus riding emphasizes his
alienation and passivity as he fails to take meaningful action against an
unfolding murder plot.
The Eighties and Nineties
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, the bus makes a few brief
appearances as a site of incivility. A punk blasts his boom box to the
distress of passengers (Star Trek IV, 1986), a bus driver comes on to Mrs.
Doubtre (1993) and a man running for a bus is mistaken for a criminal
(Kus, 1992). Those involved are largely white, avoiding any racial
connotations. The bus takes center stage again in Heart and Souls (1993).
In1959, a bus driver stares lasciviously at an attractive woman in an
adjacent car traveling down Bush Street. He loses control, sending the
bus o the top of the Stockton tunnel. The driver and all four passengers
die on impact. These victims are ordinary people, a mix of working and
middle-class, black and white, men and women. Their ghosts must
remain on earth with a newborn baby, Thomas, until he can help them
resolve their unfullled lives. Due to a cosmic slip up, they are unaware
of this until the driver returns in his ghostly bus to shuttle them to the
afterlife a few decades later. The passengers confront him as the “lousy
bastard” who killed them. The driver defends himself, “I’m doing
penance. I’m driving this bus around for the next ve hundred years;
believe me, I’m sorry.” The driver explains their situation, and the
passengers persuade him to extend their time on earth.
Thomas is now a successful businessman. The passengers make contact
with him as he’s driving, causing him to crash his car. They convince
Stangl: “What Was He Doing on that Damned Bus?” 61
Investigations at the Transbay bus terminal reveal a space inhabited by
minorities, the elderly, pimps, and prostitutes. Jake uncovers a number
of dead ends before connecting the junkie with a homosexual man, Henry
Cameraro, who committed the massacre to eliminate Evans. Cameraro
had murdered his wife a few years previously, and Evans was
investigating. Detectives use cars throughout the lm. In a climactic
chase, Cameraro attempts to ditch them by abandoning his car and
sneaking onto a bus. Jake spots him and boards while his partner follows
by car. Cameraro again assembles his automatic rie, but before he can
strike, Jake’s partner shoots him through the bus window and Jake
nishes the job. The bus and its passengers collectively represent the
abandoned inner city of the ’70s: those with few choices, the victimized,
and those who thrive on vice.
The Conversation (1974) uses the bus intermittently to emphasize Harry
Caul’s urban alienation. Harry is a nationally renowned security expert
who regularly rides the bus. Harry has a company van for operations, but
he does not own a car. He and his team of surveillance experts spy on a
young couple for a wealthy executive. The woman is the executive’s lover,
and she is having an aair with the man. Harry, a technical specialist,
avoids considering the social consequences of his work, though he is
haunted by a previous assignment that resulted in the murder of three
people. His main competitor, Moran, jokingly deems him “lonely and
anonymous.” This is on display at several points throughout the movie
as Harry boards and exits a bus, equally alone on a quiet street or in a
crowd. He is shown on the bus in just one scene, sitting in an otherwise
empty vehicle at night. The interior lights icker and go out as Harry
glances downward. He briey reects on the young couple, whose
conversation he has monitored. This is the rst in a series of a reections
on the content of his surveillance, as he grows increasingly concerned
that the couple may be in danger. However, he is literally and
metaphorically in the dark.
Harry’s oce occupies the corner of an empty brick warehouse in the
run-down SOMA district, where the slow decay of historic buildings
marks post-industrial economic decline. A nearby freeway with exit
ramps, and the elevated busway leading to the Transbay terminal, made
this an area people passed through in the safety of their vehicles—unless
one was part of the city’s “center of strange,” home of transients and
bohemians of all stripes (Paul 1984). Harry’s assistant, Stanly, suggests
they take a break, and the duo heads to Al’s Transbay, a tavern in a
ramshackle Victorian. In reality, Al’s had returned to its original name,
“Hotel Utah,” but the association with the bus terminal better
emphasized the characters’ marginality.
62 The California Geographer Volume 60, 2021 Stangl: “What Was He Doing on that Damned Bus?” 63
him to use his corporeal form to help resolve their lives. The bus riders
cause Thomas to have his car ticketed, towed, and to have another minor
crash. Yet, Thomas and the ghosts ultimately prevail. The bus returns to
retrieve the passengers, one at a time. As each ghost boards the bus, they
joyously bid their friends farewell: they have fullled their lives and now
ride on a bus freed from city streets and their inhabitants. Before the
nal ghost boards for the afterlife, the driver is seen working on the
engine. The comic relief is telling, since even a supernatural bus breaks
down. Even in this lighthearted comedy/drama, the failings of real life
and ghostly bus service are highlighted.
The New Millennium
From the late nineties on, San Francisco’s tech-fueled economic boom
heavily gentried the city. Depictions of the urban bus remained largely
negative, though some nuanced depictions gradually emerged. Sucker Free
City (2004) centers on Nick Wade as his family moves from the Mission
District to Hunters Point, a poverty-stricken, African-American
neighborhood. Nick is attempting to gain a foothold in a corporate career,
while engaging in petty crime with street friends old and new. Nick’s lack
of an automobile cues us in to his struggles. Near the start of the lm,
he meets his friend/associate, Fernando, to discuss business. Nick sits in
the passenger seat of what Fernando proudly refers to as “my ride.” This
full-time thug laughs at Nick’s career ambitions, and Nick transitions to
asking for a lift to work:
Nick: F— you, man. Just give me a ride to work.
Fernando: Get the f— outta here. You take the bus!
Nick: What?
Fernando: That’s for people like you, nine-to-vers. You take the bus!
Nick: C’mon, man. You’re right here.
Fernando: That’s cool. You still gotta take the f—‘n bus.
Nick: That’s f—ed up, man.
Gangsters drive sporty cars and SUVs throughout the lm. Nick rides the
As his family struggles to adjust to Hunters Point, they are harassed and
their house is burgled by local gang members. Keith, a gang member, is
interested in burning bootleg CDs, so he befriends Nick and they
establish a business relationship. Nick worries about his sister walking
home from the bus stop at night and pleads with her to nd an
alternative. He oers to have friends drive her home, but she refuses.
Nick waits for her at the bus stop and walks her home each night. During
one of their walks, the unhinged gang leader harasses his sister. Nick
intervenes, is beaten and threatened at gunpoint. After pleas from other
gang members, Nick and his sister are spared. Had his sister been driven
home, this could have been avoided. Nick is at a breaking point. Out of
fear and anger, he later stabs the gang leader in a bathroom. Keith
surprises them, and helps kill the man and cover up the event. As an
outcome, Nick could easily have been killed or jailed. The most
troublesome gang member removed, and Nick on good terms with the
rest of the gang, his family’s crisis appears to have been resolved.
Throughout the lm, the bus is inconvenient and deposits vulnerable
white passengers on dangerous low-income, black streets. Only Nick’s
risky moves and a twist of fate enable him and his family to overcome a
threatening situation.
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) follows the travails of Chris Gardner as he
struggles to nancially survive, while caring for his pre-school son and
completing an unpaid internship at a brokerage. His sole source of
income derives from the sale of bone-density scanners that he purchased
without knowing how dicult they would be to sell. At the start of the
lm, Chris has already lost his car due to unpaid parking tickets. He
experiences adversity on BART and the bus. Yet, a BART station oers
shelter during a night on the streets, while the bus uniquely highlights
his dicult situation. Chris’s introductory narration exclaims, “This part
of my life story. This part is called, ‘riding the bus’.” Chris sits at a bus
stop where a homeless man mistakes his scanner for a time machine. The
second section of the lm, which he titles, “Being Stupid,” begins with
his leaving a scanner with a hippie busker while rst inquiring about
the internship. She ees on BART with the scanner. On another sales
call, he spots her, then catches her on a bus and takes back his scanner.
BART is good for an escape, the bus not so much. Later, Chris sits at a
bus stop with two scanners, and his son notes that he shouldn’t have any.
Bus stops work well for the down-and-out.
Chris obtains the internship, his daily routine concluding with a bus ride
to a weekly motel after he’s been evicted from his apartment. He runs
out of money and is evicted from the motel. Now his daily routine
concludes with a cross-town rush to catch a bus to the homeless shelter
before all the spots are taken. As his internship winds down, Chris sells
the last scanner. He informs his son that they will not be going back to
the shelter, because some things are only fun the rst time you do them.
His son replies, “Like the bus?” Chris responds, “Yeah, like the bus.”
After work the following day, Chris takes his son to the beach to relax,
“away from the buses and noise and the constant disappointment…in
myself.” Chris comes out top of the class in his internship and obtains a
full-time job. Throughout the lm, the bus serves as a necessary but
inconvenient mode of transportation, and a symbol of Chris’s struggle to
make it in the city.
64 The California Geographer Volume 60, 2021
Some recent lms provide new twists on the bus, though a negative taint
remains. In 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002), Matt takes Erica for a date on a
bus. He asks, “Did any of the other guys take you on the bus?” She
informs him that one got them kicked o, another tried to steal a bus,
and most recently a guy she dated went through a phase where he thought
he was a bus. After the date she concludes, “I never had so much fun on
a bus before.” The joke is that they have a great time in one of the least
romantic places on earth, “slumming it” on the bus. Similar joking
appears in Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) as the protagonist makes elderly
bus riders uncomfortable as she records herself talking about sex. This
minor incivility passes as an innocent teen prank. These lms are able
to make jokes about the bus involving white riders in a gentrifying city.
In La Mission (2009), Che, one of the two main characters, is a bus driver.
Che is a physically powerful, well-respected man in the Mission District.
His character is established through his interactions with people in the
neighborhood, his workouts on a speed bag, and the fact that he not only
drives the bus, he commands it. When two teen passengers cause trouble,
he confronts them. One of the youths recognizes him and they quickly
back down. In several scenes, Che walks through the bus yard, chatting
with colleagues. Unlike other lms, bus drivers are decent people,
working for a living and, in the process, keeping the city functioning. Yet
for Che the bus is just an occupation. Lowriders are his love. He works
on them in his garage with neighborhood friends. His son Jes is also a
lowrider enthusiast, but he seems less interested in them lately. The plot
takes a major turn when Che discovers that Jes is gay. Everything the
viewer has learned about Che makes his furious reaction predictable. The
bus does not play a central role in the plot, but helps to reveal Che’s
character, his neighborhood’s identity, and his social world.
Bus scenes pepper The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), continuing
some themes while also presenting new ones. Two young black men,
Jimmy and his friend Montgomery, travel from Hunters Point to the
Fillmore District every day so Jimmy can tend to his former childhood
home, which he believes his grandfather built. In the opening scene, the
duo waits at a bus stop with a broken bench and no shelter. The bus
linking the periphery to the core is chronically late, so they opt to travel
by skateboard. The wait repeats several times in the lm. The second
time, they get a lift from an acquaintance, a homeless man who lives in
his car. Next, Jimmy waits at a bus stop in the Castro next to an older
naked man, when a cable-car themed tour bus with binge-drinking bros
momentarily halts in front of them. The occupants taunt the man, who,
along with Jimmy, see these outsiders as a hostile manifestation of the
loss of the city’s identity. On another trip, Jimmy encounters his
estranged mother, who appears warm but has checked out. The most
memorable bus ride involves two young white women criticizing San
Francisco. Jimmy defends his city, asserting that the newcomers had no
right to hate it unless they loved it. Bus ridership may be inconvenient
throughout the film, but these black passengers are depicted
A Brief Contrast with Rail-Based Transit
Other modes of public transportation have appeared in San Francisco
lms, but they do not share its negative image. When the rst movies
lmed in San Francisco were produced in the 1920s, the cable car was
already archaic, and in the 1940s pressure mounted to remove the last
cable car lines in favor of the more modern bus. Decades before the
historic preservation movement swept the nation, the three lines were
saved and are currently in operation, their primary ridership being
tourists (Scott 2014). Films depict cable cars very favorably. They
frequently appear in the background as quaint symbols of San Francisco.
Since the 1950s, they have become sites of romance (Pal Joey, 1957; Kiss
Them for Me, 1957; Play It Again, Sam, 1972; Time After Time, 1979). Slow
moving, open-air and nostalgia-laden, they are well-suited for this
purpose. In The Woman in Red (1984), Teddy pursues the beautiful model
from a major advertising campaign promoting the cable car—though in
the real world, cable cars were already an attraction with no need for
promotion. The bus is unimaginable in this role, associated with crime
rather than romance. Diverse uses for the cable car emerged in the 1990s,
usually fun, and often comedic (Mrs. Doubtre, 1993; So, I Married and Ax
Murderer, 1993; Getting Even with Dad, 1994; Woman on Top, 2000). At times,
the cable car becomes embroiled in an action scene, as some villain
interferes with an otherwise placid vehicle (Final Analysis, 1992; The Rock,
1996; Metro, 1997).
The electric streetcar began replacing cable cars in the 1890s, and it too
became outdated with the rise of the motor vehicle. In 1982, the city
began running a collection of historic streetcars on Market Street. These
historic vehicles appear in a romantic scene in Sweet November (2001),
apparently for the nostalgia-romance connection found in the cable car.
The streetcar made just this one appearance since the advent of “talkies,”
unable to compete with the cable car for quaintness and symbolism.
BART (commuter rail with elevated and underground segments) and
MUNI train (local light rail, underground in downtown) opened in the
latter part of the twentieth century. Unlike the aging New York subway,
this infrastructure seemed futuristic when it opened in the 1970s
(Hartlaub 2016). The distinction is reected in cinema. “Gritty city” lms
Stangl: “What Was He Doing on that Damned Bus?” 65
66 The California Geographer Volume 60, 2021 Stangl: “What Was He Doing on that Damned Bus?” 67
made in 1970s New York include subway scenes highlighting decay and
danger (Serpico, 1973; The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, 1974; Saturday Night
Fever, 1977, The Warriors, 1979). Similar lms made in San Francisco
largely ignored rail (Dirty Harry, 1971; The Laughing Policeman, 1973; Magnum
Force, 1973; The Conversation, 1974; Freebie and the Bean, 1974; The Enforcer,
1976). A rare exception occurs when Dirty Harry briey rides a MUNI
train to deliver a ransom payment, in accordance with the demands of
the psychopath, Scorpio, so that police cannot tail Harry. In these lms
and those made in ensuing decades, rail stations and vehicles are largely
free from junkies, muggings, and general foreboding. BART and MUNI
do appear in a few chase scenes, as the anonymity of large crowds and
frequent vehicles departures in the stations under Market Street provide
cover and an opportunity for escape (An Eye for an Eye, 1981; 48 Hours, 1982;
Kus, 1992; Getting Even with Dad, 1994; The Pursuit of Happyness, 2006). The
only negative depictions of BART come in two lms based on true events.
Black protagonists face the threat of violence in The Pursuit of Happyness
(2006) and Fruitvale Station (2013). The bus stands apart from all of these
modes for the consistency of negative portrayals.
The bus is faster and more modern than the cable car, has an internal
combustion engine like the beloved automobile, and rides on city streets
while BART and MUNI occupy dark, underground spaces. Despite all
these pluses, the bus has been persistently depicted in a pessimistic light
for half a century of lms set in San Francisco. These lms mimic widely
spread negative views of the bus derived from crowding, infrequent and
slow service, and an association with lower-income and minority groups.
The downsides of the bus were most emphatic during the inner city
decline of the ’70s and softened during the ensuing decades of urban
revitalization and gentrication. Empathy toward black bus riders
appeared in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a lm co-written by a young
black man who grew up in foster care and public housing in San
Francisco. As Aitken and Dixon point out, cinema is a construct. It may
amplify or understate cultural views. It may contradict them or provide
some alternative vision. Lefebvre suggests that through this, the arts
possess a potential to facilitate social progress, an idea embraced in urban
cultural studies (Fraser 2014). Yet, most of the movies reviewed in this
paper do the opposite. They amplify negative views of the bus and its
The bus and associated urban spaces (the bus terminal and bus stop) are
depicted as sites of danger, incivility, and crime. Punks blast music,
hooligans menace passengers, killers massacre them, and drivers crash
their vehicles. Buses connect neighborhoods that are run down and/or
inhabited by minorities and criminals (The Laughing Policeman, 1973; The
Conversation, 1974; Sucker Free City, 2004). Even a local tavern can be tainted
by association with a bus terminal, e.g. Al’s Transbay (The Conversation,
1974). Fear of crime is a legitimate concern of actual bus riders, but the
impact of its repeated depiction in lm may not be in their best interest.
Perhaps the general population’s empathy for bus riders will increase,
but more likely the takeaway is that bus should be avoided when possible.
Bus passengers are not only victims, but have themselves been denigrated,
even pathologized. Harry Caul’s (The Conversation, 1974) bus riding helps
establish that he is a chump. Nick (Sucker Free City, 2004) and Chris
(Pursuit of Happyness, 2006) are working stis with no choice but to ride
the bus. Chris dubs his early years of struggle “Riding the Bus,” and his
son makes clear that it is not fun. Chris succeeds nancially and leaves
the bus behind. The characters on the bus and in the Transbay terminal
in The Laughing Policeman (1974) include a handful of elderly and working
people mixed in with a rogue’s gallery.
The limited depictions of bus drivers are similar. In two lms they behave
salaciously (Heart & Souls, 1993; Mrs. Doubtre, 1993). In the former case,
this behavior results in a crash and the death of all on board. The bus
driver is murdered along with the passengers in The Laughing Policeman
(1974). These depictions contrast starkly with the frequent victimization
and suering of real bus drivers. Che in La Mission (2009) provides an
exceptional model of a bus driver protecting passengers. He is a man of
great condence and combative power, and his control of the disorderly
bus is a key means of establishing this. However, his exceptionality leaves
one aware that if he or she rides the bus, Che will not be his or her driver.
Rink (2017) and Wilson (2011) suggest that bus passengers’ common
experience and required mixing breaks down barriers between groups.
Bus trips on the silver screen bring the audience into contact with bus
riders in a virtual, shared experience. The vast majority of lms reviewed
denigrate the bus, propagating a widely held stigma of the bus, its driver
and passengers, and the urban spaces it links. Bus service may be slow,
some bus stops may be crime hot spots, and incivilities may be more
frequent than other modes of urban transport. However, when lms
regularly highlight these aspects, it contributes little to the plight of bus
drivers or passengers. Suburbanites, who prefer to see tax dollars go
toward highway projects and commuter rail, nd no reason to empathize.
Films like 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002) and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
show that riding the bus can be fun, but the joke is at the expense of the
bus and its passengers. In contrast, La Mission (2009) humanizes the bus
driver and The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2018) facilitates empathy for
68 The California Geographer Volume 60, 2021 Stangl: “What Was He Doing on that Damned Bus?” 69
young, black male bus passengers—the riders most heavily stigmatized in
real life (Fleetwood, 2004). Whether these views remain exceptional or
indicate a shift to new perspective on the bus remains to be seen.
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Appendix A—Filmography
Pal Joey Essex & George Sydney 1957 George Sydney
Kiss Them for Me Jerry Wald Productions 1957 Stanley Donen
Petulia Petersham & Warner Bros. 1968 Richard Lester
Dirty Harry Warner Bros; Malpaso 1971 Don Siegel
Play It Again, Sam Paramount; Rollins-Joe; 1972 Herbert Ross
Magnum Force Warner Bros.; Malpaso 1973 Ted Post
The Laughing Policeman 20th Century Fox 1973 Stuart Rosenberg
Serpico Artists Entertainment 1974 Sidney Lumet
The Conversation Directors Company 1974 Francis Ford
Freebie and the Bean Warner Bros. 1974 Richard Rush
The Taking of Pelham Palomar Pictures 1974 Joseph Sargent
One Two Three
The Enforcer Warner Bros.; Malpaso Co. 1976 James Fargo
Saturday Night Fever Robert Stigwood 1977 John Badham
Time after Time Orion Pictures; Warner Bros. 1979 Nicholas Meyer
The Warriors Paramount Pictures 1979 Walter Hill
An Eye for an Eye Adams Apple Film Co.; 1981 Steve Carver
South Street; Wescom Barber
48 Hours Paramount Pictures; 1982 Walter Hill
Lawrence Gordon
The Woman in Red Orion Pictures 1984 Gene Wilder
Star Trek IV: Paramount Pictures; 1986 Leonard Nimoy
The Voyage Home Industrial Light & Magic
Final Analysis Warner Bros.; Witt/Thomas 1992 Phil Jonou
Roven-Cavallo Entertainment
Heart and Souls Universal; Alphaville; 1993 Ron Underwood
Kus Dino de Laurentiis; 1992 Bruce Evans
Beginner’s Luck
Mrs. Doubtre Blue Wolf; 20th Century Fox 1993 Chris Columbus
So I Married an Axe Murderer TriStar Pictures; Fried/Woods 1993 Thomas Schlamme
Getting Even With Dad MGM 1994 Howard Deutsch
The Rock Hollywood Pictures; 1996 Michael Bay
Don Simpson/Jerry
Metro Touchstone; Caravan 1997 Thomas Carter
Roger Birnbaum
Woman on Top Fox Searchlight Pictures 2000 Fina Torres
Sweet November Warner Bros.; Bel Air; 3 Arts 2001 Pat O’Conner
40 Days and 40 Nights Miramax, Milo, Studio Canal 2002 Michael Lehman
Universal, Working Title Prod.
Sucker Free City 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks 2004 Spike Lee
The Pursuit of Happyness Columbia; Relativity Media 2006 Gabriele Muccino
La Mission 5 Stick Films 2009 Peter Bratt
Fruitvale Station Forest Whitaker’s Signicant 2013 Ryan Coogler
Productions, OG Project
The Diary of a Teenage Girl Caviar; Cold Iron; 2015 Marielle Heller
Archer Gray
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