What does “our customers” really mean?

The debate over rapid transit in London, Ontario continues despite the presentation of a robust, comprehensive, and widely-consulted transit plan last summer. Now, a group of downtown businesses (a significant number of them) have begun what is amounting to be a misinformation and smear campaign—they claim there was no consultation and that the plans were only given to them a few weeks ago, despite a lengthy consultation process that began much before I even arrived in London last year and open, transparent plans published over eight months ago—in order to destroy whatever possibility there was to secure provincial and federal funding for a rapid transit plan in the city. (At this point, after waiting so long for a proper proposal and now seeing the immense level of disfunction even at this late stage, I would understand the feds and province if they just ignored the city’s request for funding altogether.)

The frustrations of living in a city with a sub-par transit system (and a massive proportion of the population who are looking to sabotage transit at every step of the way) aside, what I’ve been really dismayed by is the rhetoric I’m hearing from lots of downtown businesses, many of whom I frequent regularly and would be even more regular if there was reliable transit to get downtown.

Here’s what I hear from them in response every single time someone mentions that better transit actually increases economic activity and business prosperity in urban cores: “but our customers need their parking spaces, and putting in rapid transit will get rid of that parking."

No matter how many studies you show them about how transit and bike lanes are better for business than parking spaces, they still fall back on this “our customers” rhetorical crutch.

I’m not afraid to say it: the “our customers” refrain is a dog-whistle for racism and classism. If that’s the reason you use to justify the elimination of bike lanes and transit, you are classist and racist, no matter how much you protest.

If every piece of information tells you that transit and bike lanes will bring in more, new, diverse customers, and you continue to shun that information in the service of “your customers” that, in this city, are mostly middle-class and white (and who own cars, can afford to pay downtown parking rates, and very often can drive home after having a few drinks knowing that they won’t be pulled over because of their skin color), then you are blatantly telling me that you don’t want to attract customers who have different racial and socio-economic backgrounds.

Effectively, you’re telling me that you don’t want me (and people like me) to be your customer, because I don’t look like, or fit the mould of, who you think your customers should be, and who you want your customers to be.

You might not think you’re being racist and classist, but you are. This is the kind of insidious, systematic exclusion that isn’t noticed by the excluders, mostly because it’s couched in a dog-whistle around “traditional” business and its customers. But people like me, we know what you’re doing even if you don’t—we have to face this kind of exclusion, subtle and unrelenting, every single day.

Scream all you want about how you’re progressive, and how your best friend is from a marginalized community; if you’re making it harder for racially and economically diverse people to frequent your business because they aren’t what you see as “our customers,” then you’re practicing implicit segregation, no matter what you tell yourself to deny it.