The Social Hierarchy of Transportation

The social hierarchy of transportation as observed in my area:

  • Exotic sports car
  • Luxury sedan
  • Oversized SUV
  • Standard SUV
  • Minivan
  • Sedan
  • Hybrid
  • Motorcycle
  • Moped
  • Amtrak train
  • Commuter bus
  • Inner-city rail
  • City bus
  • Bicycle
  • Walking

I may have left something off the list, and the exact order is wide-open for interpretation, but you get the general idea. Obviously, around my neck of the woods, the motor vehicle still reigns supreme. It would be interesting to see how the order shifts from one city to another. What’s it like where you live and work?

34 Responses to “The Social Hierarchy of Transportation”

  • doc says:

    What! No pickup trucks! You city folk…

  • Adrian Q says:

    I wouldn’t know how to rank them, but in my neck of the woods (Bainbridge Island, WA) bikes are much closer to the top. Many types of people ride many types of bikes here and if you have a rare close scrape with a car, it’s more likely through inattention, not aggression.

    That’s not to say the motor vehicle isn’t still the primary mode of transport (and really, the ferry to Seattle is king of all for many of us) but it’s definitely not a knock against you if you ride your bike or the bus on your commute or while you’re out. We do have a couple more sub-demographics though:

    – Spoiled teenager with Audi

    – Vanpool van
    – Guy on a carbon racing bike w/ 53-39 front chainrings blowing by you on the flats looking smug until you pass him walking his bike up the hills

  • Ari Hornick says:

    I’m not too far from you (San Diego). I’d say the list is in the same order here. Within the house though, the descending list is: LWB recumbent, comfort bike, walking, inner city rail, city bus, carpool. Also, internal hubs are above derailleurs.

    Six year old said, “I don’t like that thing. It’s just hanging down there waiting to get broken.”
    Wife said, “I wonder where he learned that.” I said nothing and smiled.

    The headline in the newspaper a couple weeks ago made it sound like non-car transportation is going to take a big hit in the upcoming California budget cuts. I’d love to do something about that, but I just moved to CA, and I’m not plugged into bicycle advocacy around here. I’m working on it. Anyone want to reach out to me? I’ll do the work. I swear.

  • Tamia Nelson says:

    o Huge Pickup Truck, gasoline

    o Huge Pickup, diesel

    o Huge SUV

    o Large Pickup

    o Large SUV

    o Pickup

    o SUV

    o Farm Tractor

    o Dump Truck

    o Small SUV (crossover vehicle? – taxonomy eludes me here)

    o Large Sedan

    o Mule (an ATV with a bed in back)

    o ATV/Snowmobile

    o Motorcycle

    o Small Car

    o Hybrid

    o Bike

    o Legs

    No public transportation except Greyhound to some larger towns.

  • Nate Briggs says:

    Hey Alan:

    Cute idea.

    Ditto for me on the pickup trucks. And there’s evidently some statute here in Utah that requires drivers of these trucks to be continuously talking on their mobile phones.

    The larger question here, of course, is one of Status. We can talk about commuter safety and commuter hygiene – but one of the big changes, from car to bicycle, is that sudden Loss of Status.

    One of my fellow riders jokes that, if you are on the street – and not riding in the spandex logo uniform – most motorists automatically assume that you are a homeless person.

    Nate (SLC)

  • Alan says:


    “The larger question here, of course, is one of Status. We can talk about commuter safety and commuter hygiene – but one of the big changes, from car to bicycle, is that sudden Loss of Status.”

    That’s actually what I was getting at. I have a surprising number of people quiz me about bike commuting, but still, I’m guessing that among the general population most bike riders in street clothes are viewed as odd and maybe even deficient in some way.

  • Ari Hornick says:


    I notice that I get different reactions based on which bike I’m riding and what I’m doing with it. Descending order of status: Anything to do with a Gold Rush gets respect, comfort bike with the kids in a trailer gets respect (I think that’s because it blends in with suburban recreational activity), comfort bike without kids in a trailer has *much* less status. And, road bike with drop bars but no spandex clothing is apparently very low status. That was my situation 6 or 7 weeks ago when a car plowed into my right side. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.” Really? You didn’t see the six foot tall, 300 pound guy on a racing bike who was wearing a gigantic, bright red backpack? In broad daylight at a four way stop? Okay, so I’m a little grumpy about it, but it definitely gets to your point about status.

  • Croupier says:

    In Santa Cruz County, CA:
    -Japanese, German, or Swedish sedan or wagon
    -Small SUV (preferably a hybrid)
    -Vintage beater with occasional bits of highly polished chrome and at least two panels painted primer gray (it’s an attempt at a lowrider in the south county and a The Dude’s car in the north)
    -VW Bus
    -Luxury Car (driven by kingpins in the south and soccer moms in the north)
    -Lifted pick-up truck
    -Razor scooter

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I get absolutely livid when I hear “I didn’t see you” as an excuse. It is admission of guilt in my eyes. A ticket for reckless driving should be issued immediately upon hearing such a statement.

  • Bob says:

    I don’t get the point. Are you putting a value judgment on how people move themselves from one place to another? Who has more status? The surgeon driving his luxury car to the hospital 30 miles away, or the drunk walking to the corner bar for another drink? There are people who have lost their driver’s license due to a d.u.i who ride 50cc scooters because they don’t require a license. Are they somehow more noble than the guy who needs a pickup truck for his profession? There is a place for exotic sports cars and a place for bicyclists. The answer to global warming, overpopulatioin, etc. is for all of us to decide for ourselves what constitutes gluttony and then abide that decision. But as with any value judgment, mine is different than someone else’s. I know it when I see it, though. That’s why I drive a car when I need to and I ride a bike when I want to (which is as often as I possibly can.)

  • Ari Hornick says:


    I think a discussion about status is important. The idea is not to judge the person riding based on their chosen mode of transportation. Rather, if society were to view a car and a bicycle as representing equal status in our society, cyclists would have more of the infrastructure that we need, and the freedom to choose of which you speak would be within reach of far more people. The status of different forms of transportation rests largely on aesthetic ethics. If we value the large, hard, fast, and loud, then the descending order of status will be jet, yacht, car, motorcycle, bicycle, feet. That list certainly reflects the relative value that each of those items has as a status symbol. On the other hand, if we value the efficient, the utilitarian, the minimal environmental impact, and the self-reliant, then the descending order of status would be bicycle, feet, motorcycle, car, yacht, jet. I would encourage you (and everyone) not to underestimate the importance of the status of these items. The status has a direct impact on public policy including the infrastructure that allows you the freedom to choose.

    Or maybe Alan meant something completely different, and I’m way off track… :)

  • j.w. says:

    where are you located alan?
    here in Denton, TX – a small college town with 2 universities (UNT & TWU) it is actually very surprising how few bikes we see around this town – although the local bicycling community does appear to be picking up steam, with folks like Qurencia

    stepping up….

    from the more styles i see to the less around my community…
    old rusty/squeaky huffys
    mountain bikes which rarely see any dirt trails
    fixed gear bikes
    nice racing style roadbikes
    touring/commuter style bikes (racks, panniers, etc)

    no matter to me – as long as I see another bike on my commute – im excited!
    peace, y’all

  • Alan says:


    “I don’t get the point. Are you putting a value judgment on how people move themselves from one place to another? Who has more status?”

    To answer your question… no. It appears you missed my point and turned it 180 degrees on its head (probably because of my weak writing skills :-)). It sounds as if you thought I was making a value judgement, and what I was trying to say is exactly the opposite: driving an exotic sports car should provide no more status than walking or bike riding, and vice versa.

    I’ll attempt to restate it more clearly. For better or worse, where I live, people with more money enjoy higher status. Those with more money tend to utilize the transportation modes toward the top of the list. Those with less money tend to utilize the transportation modes toward the bottom of the list. Those who utilize the transportation modes toward the bottom of the list are often viewed as second class citizens and sometimes suffer a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) form of prejudice. I don’t think that’s right, for all the obvious reasons.


  • j.w. says:


    that is
    Querencia Community Bike Shop
    Denton’s Non-Profit Bicycle Cooperative

  • Alan says:


    “Or maybe Alan meant something completely different, and I’m way off track… :)”

    You stated perfectly, and much more clearly than I could have. Hey, are you looking for a writing gig? ;-)

  • Bob says:

    What a great discussion. I believe that society will necessarily bestow the greatest status to the evolved efforts of collective minds. Modern jet aviation evolved through the efforts of thousands (maybe millions) of minds and a hundred years. Now we routinely travel anywhere in the world. The modern jet airliner is high art. So of course is a well designed bicycle. But the bicycle’s influence to alter the human condition in as dramatic a way as the aviation industry is questionable. So, taken to extremes, should society bestow greater status to a Boeing 777 than an A.N.T. Roadster?
    I. of course, would prefer riding my bike than flying commercial on any given day. But at 55 years of age, I still look up at every jet that flies by……..

  • Josh says:

    Here in Seattle (at least Capitol Hill/downtown), the list would be largely inverted.

  • Bob says:

    “For better or worse, where I live, people with more money enjoy higher status.”

    This is the problem, Alan. I don’t agree that a person with more money necessarily enjoys a higher status. In what way is that higher status manifested? That he can buy more things?

    Those with more money can choose from anywhere on your list.
    Those with a lot of money can choose from the top of your list to the bottom. The less money a person has, the fewer choices he has. His choices start at the bottom of your list and go upwards according to his means. The poor guy who walks or cycles because he has to is no hero. The hero is the rich guy who can fly the private jet but walks instead…..

  • Alan says:


    “In what way is that higher status manifested? That he can buy more things?”

    Sure. There’s plenty of “conspicuous consumption” going on around these parts; mini-mansions, big fancy cars, mega-malls, expensive restaurants (though the recent state of the economy is starting to put a damper on all of that). Bicycling for transportation and bus riding don’t garner much respect within our local Culture of the Consumer…. LOL.

    “Those with a lot of money can choose from the top of your list to the bottom.”

    True! The problem as I see it is that most (not all) people with this freedom of choice will tend to choose as far up the list as their means will comfortably allow (again, I speak only of what I observe locally; it is undoubtedly different elsewhere). I think at least part of the reason is because of the low status associated with those modes toward the bottom of the list. Hopefully, as general awareness of the need to protect the environment continues to increase, the “low status” modes will move up the list, and those modes that are inefficient will lose status and move toward the bottom, leveling the playing field. As others have stated, this is already taking place in some areas; it’s this feedback about local conditions that I was initially trying to ferret out.

  • ksteinhoff says:


    Interesting topic, as always. I was talking with a cop the other day about the fact that there are really more bike riders in South Florida than you might think.

    Sure, there are the gaudy pacelines that run up and down the coast torquing folks off, but they are the minority. A highly visible minority, but a minority.

    The bulk of the two wheelers are what I term “stealth” riders. We have a very large third-world population for whom a bike is the only alternative to walking.

    These riders are unfamiliar with traffic laws and attempt to get around by being as invisible as possible. (Sometimes almost literally when they are wearing dark clothes at night and riding without lights.) They pop on and off sidewalks, ride against traffic and dodge off the road wherever there’s a gap in a row of parked cars, only to jump out a few feet farther down.

    The cop said that there’s a convenience store on his beat that has at least 300 to 400 beater bikes show up when the farm laborers go to meet their buses. (Note to self: gotta shoot that.)

    Here’s an account of a guy I met on a ride one day in 2001 who logged more commuter miles in six months than I had in two years.

  • Alan says:


    Great story. Thanks, Ken.


    PS – Looking forward to that photo…

  • Donald Moore says:

    Donald says;
    Unfortunatly the amount of funds to be allocated to bikeing infrastructure in the stimulus package will be dependant on our status more than our need. Does any one have any ideas on how we can get our fair share?

  • Ari Hornick says:


    “You stated perfectly, and much more clearly than I could have. Hey, are you looking for a writing gig? ;-)”

    As long as I don’t have to move away from San Diego – YES. Now, if only someone were hiring…

  • bongobike says:

    I can’t believe nobody has added the “king” of the road to the list: the 18-wheel semi truck!

  • Elisa M says:

    Here in the deep south, I doubt anyone who doesn’t ride would even think to add bicycle to a list like this. It is probably (maybe) one step above the bus system, but only because our public transport system is such a disaster.

    In my book, biking is #1, obviously

  • Geoff says:

    As we begin to engage in ‘senior’ activity in the gathering twilight of life, there are things you might add to the bottom of the list….(thinking of my Mother, who died of Parkinson’s Disease…and now that I’m 66 and semi-retired). After “Legs”, ponder adding “walker”, “wheelchair”, “gurney”, “hospital bed”, “casket on wheels”, “hearse”, and then “Salvation….and the BEST ride of your whole life — fasten your seat belt!!”

  • ksteinhoff says:

    Ah, Geoff, now we’re getting into an area that I’ve given some thought. My dad and his two brothers died of heart attacks by the time they were 60. When I hit 60, I considered every day after that a gift. That was one of the reasons I jumped at an early retirement buyout at the end of August 2008. I had no desire to be carried out of the workplace on a gurney.

    Here’s how I see life cut up:

    1. Isn’t he cute? -baby
    2. My, how you’ve grown. – toddler to middle school
    3. Lookin’ good. – high school / college
    4. You’re looking good (for someone your age) 40s
    5. You’re looking good (for someone I thought was dead) 50s-60s
    6. Doesn’t he look natural? – the end

  • Geoff says:

    For ksteinhoff (and all with coronary factors in family history):
    Yup. The heart attack risk is really something to pay attention to if it’s ‘in the family genes’. I’ve had high cholesterol since teenagerhood (216 or so). My paternal grandfather died two days after a major heart attack at 62. My Dad was a lifetime smoker and “felt funny” at roughly the same age. All routine testing on him was ‘normal’, but they did an angiogram (fortunately) and found him to be 95% + blocked in most arteries around the heart. He had a quintuple by-pass surgery at 60 and lived until age 80. I have been a bike commuter for 25+ years in Washington DC and thought I was in excellent shape. Had chest discomfort on first few days of below freezing weather after onset of winter back in 2004. Same deal. Routine testing showed absolutely ‘nothing’ wrong (BP, EKG, EEG, etc. all ‘normal’) and that I was generally in excellent condition from the daily riding. BUT….Surprise !! My doc was extra-cautious and ordered a high level stress test, which revealed some anomalies after 13 minutes of running my butt off on a treadmill and being scanned with a camera photoing radioactive dye. An angiogram revealed a pinched artery with a 90-degree bend and plaque on the backside of my heart and a main coronary artery severely blocked and at high risk on the front side (they call that spot the ‘widowmaker’ location). Open heart surgery with a double by-pass and one stent hopefully have fixed it for good. Also a MAJOR diet and nutritional change (see: and going on a statin drug with daily small dose of aspirin is now keeping my cholesterol level below the 120 threshold. I’m 66 this coming May. If you have any coronary risk at all from ‘family genes’, then you may want to consider getting a high-level stress test (with scanning camera) to be sure you’re not at risk. Also suggest have your carotid artery checked with ultrasound (i.e. Google “LifeScan”).
    Blessings, Geoff

  • ksteinhoff says:

    Thanks, Geoff. Good advice. My dad and his brothers were all smokers, although dad quit cold turkey one New Year’s Eve about 10 years before he died.

    I had a stress test with the scanning camera October a year ago. I guess I’m going to have to blog about the experience. The doc and tech were surprised that an old fat guy could get his heart rate in the 170s and sustain it. Cycling is good for something.

    My middle brother had quadruple bypass surgery at the end of the year, but he’s been a smoker since his teens. They don’t call those things coffin nails for nothing.

  • Duane says:

    might wheelchairs and three and four-wheel scooters (for the disabled) belong on the list? nobody wants to have to use them for transportation but they are a fact of life for many.

  • ksteinhoff says:


    My wife decided to do battle with a root in our backyard this summer.

    The root won and she had back pains for several weeks. She went along when I had to speak at a conference in Las Vegas, but was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to handle all the walking. We rented one of those motorized scooters for her to get around.

    It was a worthwhile investment. She could tool around all over the place without pain.

    On the other hand, we learned a lot about the problems encountered by folks who have mobility limitations, even in a place like Las Vegas, which is fairly ADA compliant. I have a whole new appreciation for the difficulties faced by folks in wheelchairs.

  • Audeamus says:

    Here also in the Deep South, our list would certainly have vanity pickups on the same place as luxury SUVs (usually SUVs for the ladies, truck for the men), and we don’t have Amtrak trains, or Inner-city rail. We have a commuter bus, but since we live in the mid-town area and not the extreme suburbs, I’m not sure how much it’s used. Nevertheless, the arteries are constantly clogged with traffic. Americans are such weenies about their cars.

    When I commute to work or ride to the store in my civvies, my attitude varies between anger and joy. Anger at all the cars, the unnecessary trips, the constant breaking of traffic laws, the arrogance and thoughtfulness of most drivers. Wondering if I’m perceived as a threat (is he homeless?), or as an object of pity (did he lose his license?), or as a target (&*@#$% cyclist!). Joy for my health, for being outdoors, for riding down a quiet residential street and saying hi to the people in their yard, or to the occasional sighting of a biped.

    Jesus said “He who is first shall be last.” When my despair at being the only bicyclist within sight threatens to overwhelm me, when I think I must be crazy, eccentric, or merely a crank, I try to remember that I’m at least doing my part, and that I’m definitely having more fun than the average driver, no matter what he drives or how much “status” he perceives himself having based on the size of his car payment.

  • Magnus says:

    As a European (living in Sweden) it is always interesting to read these kind of discussions, especially if they have a US focus.

    In our part of the world I would say that the choice of transport is not directly related to income or wealth. You are as likely to see a lawyer cycling to work as seeing a student riding to class.

    Look at cities like Copenhagen in Denmark, where about 40% of all citizens commute to work by bicycle. In Sweden, Denmark, Germany and many European countries the bicycle is seen just as another mode of transport.

  • Geoff says:

    Hello to Magnus in Sweden! You have a beautiful country !! My wife and I (second marriage for us both) were blessed to ride across southern Sweden for our honeymoon in late August of 2004 on the Sverigeleden national bike trail network. We took the Gota Canal cruise boat, the “Juno” from Stockholm to Goteborg (4-day trip), taking along our Bike Friday “TwosDay” tandem on the rear of the upper deck, and a Friday bike trailer containing our clothes in our small cabin. After arriving at Goteborg, we stayed overnight in a lovely youth hostel on the northeast side of the city, then started back toward Stockholm the next morning. We lost 1-1/2 days to rain in mid-trip, so we only got as far as Nykoping on the east coast (about 60 miles below Stockholm), but we experienced the beauty of your country, met many friendly people along the way and stayed in a variety of wonderful overnight places. The landscape was gorgeous — with lots of wheat fields and forests, the long summer daylight hours were helpful (a gift of your northern latitude), and the almost perfect weather (low 70s, with tailwinds about 80% of the time) was fantastic. More about the trip can be seen on Bike Friday’s website (See Page 17 of their “customer reviews”). Your Sverigeleden bike trail network is outstanding and well-marked with ‘national’ (green), ‘regional’ (red) and ‘local’ (blue) trail signs in most places!! We need to do that here in the U.S. Greetings to you, Magnus…and thanks for sharing your lovely country with us. Geoff & Sandy Steele (now retired in Huntersville, NC, USA)

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