The Geography of Furry Conventions: How we can make getting to our conventions easier for everyone
This is Part 2 of my commentary on furry conventions, in relation to geography, demographics and statistics. Reading Part 1 might provide more about my perspective and understanding this in context.
Furry conventions are hard to organize, put together, and run. They require staff, a venue, and many other complicated things. One aspect that isn't brought up enough is something that con staff don't necessarily "need" to worry about: transportation. Besides the hotel cost, transportation is perhaps the most prohibitively expensive barrier to someone attending. The low focus on this is partially because cars are the most common (and often most convenient) way to get around in the United States and Canada. I would argue that due to the sheer dominance of the car in these countries, it's hard for a lot of people to realize just how disadvantageous cars can be - on both an individual and societal level. I won't focus much on the societal level, but I will focus on the individual level, to show why I care so much about transit, even in a furry context. I'll also talk about how it relates to poverty, and what we can do about it.
The Problem with Cars
Cars require a great amount of focus to operate. You need to watch for obstacles in the road, other drivers, pedestrians, traffic lights, and many many other things; on a bus or a train, you can let someone else worry about all of that. Bicycle riders also need to pay attention on the road, but less critically than car drivers - it's a lot easier to kill someone with a car than with a bike. Unfortunately, many drivers simply don't pay attention. According to an All State study, 35% of drivers (and 63% of drivers aged 16-29) have sent a text message while driving, and 15% admitted to driving while drunk. I don't think these numbers are necessarily all the fault of those drivers, however. Our society encourages people to drive. America is a ridiculously car-centric country, and the percentages are increased by the sheer fact that much of the infrastructure is based around needing to drive to get pretty much anywhere. Bars are often in locations more easily reached by car than other forms of transport. The inconvenience of having to pick a designated driver can result in some people deciding that driving themselves home is worth it, despite the many risks. Compare this to public transportation, where using your cell phone is practically encouraged, and being drunk is commonly accepted, especially during the late hours of the night.
Now, consider the simple capacity of public transportation versus a car. According to the Federal Highway Administration, a car on average carries 1.7 people. This means that a lot of trips are taken by only one or two people, and that carpooling is rare. Compare this to the average of 5.1 people per bus in Dallas, Texas. It's 10.3 in Houston and 13.9 in Los Angeles. Even with Dallas being the worst example I could find in that document, the capacity is significantly higher than cars. This intuitively makes sense - bus routes are literally designed to accomplish this, and to provide multiple trips. It's both a benefit to society and to individuals. Public transit carries more people with less space. Even though cars (theoretically) can carry up to 5 people, their full capacity is rarely used. Thus, if a city was designed around public transit rather than cars, there would be less people in their cars looking at their phones or multitasking to music. Travelers wouldn't have to sit through as much traffic and could instead enjoy a train ride.
And cars are disgustingly expensive. It's not just the upfront cost of buying a used car ($35,000 USD on average; brand-new cars cost even more), it's also about the hidden costs. Loan payments, maintenance, insurance, gas, and even the DMV fee all contribute to the cost of owning a vehicle, which can easily reach over $1,000 per month.
For those who aren't below the poverty line, Denver's monthly transit pass (one of the most expensive in the US) is $200. That's a whopping $800 saved. If you don't like the bus, then bikes are really nice too. The upfront cost of a bike can also be a bit of a challenge, but still, its other associated costs are much more affordable than a car. Then you can spend your money on anything that isn't a car - for example, on a fursuit.
For those who are at (or below) the poverty line, monthly income is a bit less than $1200. This is taken from the US Census. For a single adult who makes $14,097 dollars per year. Factor in worrying about the costs of food, rent, and much more, then it's easy to see that a car would be a huge additional expense.
A Better World Exists (in Europe)
It's easy to see how public transit can be advantageous to individuals, but it may seem impossible to see it applied in practice. I want to point out an example that already exists in Europe. Andorra is a small nation located between Spain and France with a population of about 75,000 people, with a lack of long-distance rail transit (key word: RAIL transit). Similarly, Flagstaff in Arizona has a comparable population size, and has very little rail transit, apart from a daily train to Los Angeles (not even Phoenix). The distance from Andorra la Vieja (Andorra's capital) to Barcelona in Spain is about 2.5 hours by car, or more depending on traffic or avoiding tolls. In total it's about 200 km (125 miles). A drive from Flagstaff to Phoenix is about 2.25 hours, where tolls are irrelevant or nonexistent, and congestion is mostly a concern within Phoenix. This covers a distance of 235 km (145 miles). The Phoenix metro area has a population of about 4.9 million people, whereas Barcelona has a metro population (including the suburbs) of 5.5 million people. These two journeys should have very similar demands for buses. Let's look at how many buses serve them.
Flagstaff to Phoenix has three main options: Greyhound, FlixBus (a recent addition), and "Groome Transportation", which also operates the Amtrak Thruway bus service. Greyhound provides two buses per day, Flixbus two as well (not every day), and Groome does one via Amtrak Thruway, but you have to book a train in order to use it. You can also book a private, individual shuttle from Flagstaff to Phoenix, but I don't exactly think that a private, non-scheduled "bus" exactly counts as something useful. Ok, so a total of about five buses per day that serve this route. Now, let's take a look at Europe.
Flixbus alone has an astounding eight buses per day between Andorra la Vieja and Barcelona. Don't like the awful, cheap service of Flixbus? That's fine, there's also Alsa, which has ten buses per day. I don't even know if these are all the companies that travel this route. With the combination of just these two companies, you get 18 buses per day. This isn't even including the airport express from Andorra that Flixbus operates to Barcelona's airport. 18 buses is very obviously better than a measly 5 - more than three times as better, in fact. I'm not even talking about when there is an option to take the train in these areas, where it's often not only faster than driving, but also competes with flying, depending on the distance and route.
True, the US is significantly more car-dependent than both the European Union and the UK, meaning that the people who are going from Flagstaff to Phoenix likely already have cars, and don't need to take a bus. I don't think that this is a justifiable excuse for how awful American intercity bus service is, in terms of frequency. There are many occasions for choosing a bus over a car. For example, the stop that Flixbus uses in Phoenix isn't downtown, it's at the airport. It's understandable to take a bus to an airport to travel somewhere. In fact, American Airlines is replacing some of their shorter flights to Philadelphia's airport, which is a hub for them. Many potential routes for public transit don't exist in the US because of the presence of the car. Allentown, Pennsylvania has more than 800,000 people in its metro area, and is about a 2 to 2.5 hour drive away from New York City. In a European country like France or Germany, an intercity rail line would exist between these two places. However, this is the US, so an intercity train route simply doesn't exist. There are only buses. I'm willing to bet that there aren't as many buses as there is demand, as having to drive to New York City is an awful, awful idea.
Public transit is nearly always cheaper than individual car transportation, meaning that for a lot of people it's simply a better idea to go to a venue without having to worry about parking, gas, navigation (etc.) by simply taking a train or a bus. This is very possible in Europe, even when the venue location isn't ideal. Eurofurence is essentially located in an industrial area where passenger travel is not in high demand. However, it's still within a five-minute walk to the nearest S-Bahn station, which connects to many other places in Berlin (and via DB, outside of the city). If you don't want to use a train, there are three local bus routes nearby, one of which runs at least every 8 minutes from what I'm seeing on Google Maps. (I checked at 3 pm in Mountain time, so it's close to midnight over in Germany.)
Compare this to Further Confusion in San Jose, California, which is plainly located in the center of a large American city. Its nearby transit is as good as Eurofurence's - but there's a key point missing. I just said that an industrial, outer part of Berlin has just as good transit connections as the middle of an American downtown. Imagine how much better the transit must be in the middle of Berlin, and how much better the experience would be if a furry con were to be located close to the center of a European city. Actually, I don't have to imagine that latter part, as there's another furry convention in Europe that has possibly the best location for a furry convention in the world (at least in terms of transit).
Nordic Fuzzcon, located about 5 minutes to Malmo's main train station, has plenty of restaurants nearby, is very accessible, and has a lot of venue space. Oh, and that's 5 minutes walking. You have access to trains to Denmark (most notably Copenhagen's airport), trains to other parts of Sweden, and even a train or two to Norway. (I don't know how many trains there are, in all honesty, I just know that international rail links in Europe are not ideal nor good.) This is very much an expensive venue, given its central and incredibly convenient location, but in my honest opinion it's well worth it. It could easily add to the experience of the convention to not drive to the venue, especially in a traffic-choked central European city such as Malmo. (I understand it's not usually described as such, but this is in comparison to a lot of the US.) The greater capacity of public transit is a way to reduce the costs of having to travel there by car, as Scandinavia is more expensive. This isn't always ideal in the rural north, but in the more urban south it's obvious and especially possible.
It's sad that we don't often see this same level of transit availability in the US and Canada. It exists in parts, such as in New York or San Francisco, but realistically those places are obscenely expensive to have a convention, or do much of anything. It's also sad that walking and biking, which are other alternatives to driving, are similarly neglected. I think that if we were more accepting of these other transportation modes (especially transit), it would be a far better place to live for everyone there.
The (Monetary) Costs Involved
What does all this have to do with furry conventions? Bear with me. Conventions can't do much about their locations, but similarly to how cars are obscenely expensive in the US, furry conventions are expensive too. Nothing new here, but I still think it's worth underlining just how expensive attending a con can get. I'm going to calculate my would-be budget for Denfur, my local convention, that is by far the easiest (and cheapest) one for me to attend. I'll try to keep things as cheap as reasonably possible, while still being somewhat realistic. I'll need to worry about four main things when going: transportation, food, the cost of the convention itself, and optional costs such as merchandise. The dates of Denfur are from the 18th to the 20th in August in 2023, though I'm including the 17th as well.
The first and most obvious cost is to attend the convention, which will set me back $75. Next is transportation. A regional three-hour fare on RTD (Denver's transit agency) costs $5.25, which is cheaper than getting a taxi. However, there are some limitations here, besides the speed. For example, what if I wanted to stay up late for a room party or after-midnight dances? Well, RTD doesn't run 24 hours, so I'd either have to stay in a hotel overnight (which would set me back by a lot), or I would have to take an Uber back. Per night (four, with pre-reg on the 17th), I'd have to pay about $30 per Uber ride back home. This is because there's an upcharge late at night, when there's significantly more demand. Adding up the transportation: $35.25 per day, or $141 total. This is unless I went home via public transit, decided to come home earlier, and miss late-night events.
Then there's food, which can be hard to calculate. McDonald's is likely the cheapest nearby option, though it still costs about $15 for a Big Mac combo meal. It's more expensive than other locations, as it's in the 16th Street mall. While businesses there get significantly more foot traffic, simply having a location there incurs higher rents. So I'll plan to eat breakfast at home (a bowl of cereal or something). I estimate food will set me back about $33 per day. Even with cheap options mixed in, the total would probably be around $118.
I'll still have to worry about buying things at the convention, so I'll be vague and add $100. (Though I'd likely spend more.) This totals to $434 dollars, at pretty much the very minimum. This inevitably goes up if I make other decisions, such as booking a hotel room, or if I'm coming in from elsewhere in Colorado. If I were to drive directly to the venue, I'd have to worry about gas, parking, and other costs.
Also consider the daily costs of living outside the convention. I'm a white suburbanite who lives with supportive parents. The convention costs will be harder for those in a worse economic position. There are more than 40 million households or people without children living below the US poverty level. For couples without children, the poverty level is $18,145; for single adults, it's $14,097. I'll look at single adults, for although the fandom is quite old, the majority of furries don't have children (by choice and/or finances). $14,097 divided by 12 is an income of a bit under $1,200 per month.
Now, according to Earnest.com, the average rent in the US is $1,249 per month. This doesn't factor in where you live, nor the utilities, food, transportation, and even sneaky toxic costs on the poor such as loan interest. Not to mention that Black, Hispanic, and Asian people are often far more heavily affected by poverty than white people are. This means that many costs that people like myself often take for granted are simply unfeasible for millions of people in the nation. (Don't get cocky, Europeans - you have huge problems with poverty too.)
It would make sense that probably a minority of furries in the fandom simply aren't able to go to a convention. As someone who's had the opportunity to go to both Denfur and Confuror this year, I fully understand their appeal. For one, it's a way to get together and do nerdy things. For another, you get to see friends from near and far, and to turn online interactions into in-person ones. It's absolutely amazing and cool, and something more people should be able to experience. I don't think that a bigger convention is necessarily better than a smaller one, but I do think that we should provide the opportunity to go, especially for those who haven't been able to. Maybe cons aren't for everyone, but being able to be surrounded by people who also enjoy this weird, niche, sometimes sexual thing, is something that's incredibly refreshing and good. Especially so for those in the LGBT community, who are often more likely to suffer from family abandonment and poverty. So it's a good thing to improve access to furry conventions, either by helping smaller conventions get off the ground, or by helping poorer furries be able to access conventions. In general, I believe that transportation will play a key role in how we can most effectively do this.
What to do about Transportation
I believe that there are two main ways we can improve the transit accessibility of furry conventions. The first is simply to choose a venue with good transit access. My original idea for this article was to go through a list of conventions and evaluate the adequateness (or not) of public transportation. Instead, I'll say that there are three main types of conventions: downtown, airport, and suburban ones. Anthrocon is a weird example of a downtown convention, because it doesn't have good access to its airport nor to other parts of the country within about 500 miles, but transit to the downtown from within Pittsburgh itself is actually quite reasonable. Not perfect, but much better than somewhere like Boise, Idaho.
Then there are airport conventions, which I'm not familiar with but are likely flawed in terms of transportation, as according to Google Maps it's harder to access hotels close to the airport than reaching the airport iself. A great example is Midwest FurFest.
Finally, there are suburban conventions, which... well, a really good example is actually the abomination that is Free Fur All. If you look at Denfur's website, it partially describes the main way to go from the airport in Denver to downtown, where the convention center is located. If you're trying to look for the same thing with Free Fur All, you'll get a boast about how there's free parking. It's not like there are any public transit options, of course (not even a bus), but it's still emblematic of what happens when you don't care about your venue other than whether it's convenient for cars instead of your guests. I don't think that suburban conventions are necessarily bad for transit availability, rather it's America that's bad for transit availability. I do think that if one were to look at where to put a convention, transit options should be closer to the top of points to consider. It doesn't have to be perfect, as America is far from it, but even just one bus line that comes every 30 minutes is better than whatever Free Fur All thinks it's doing.
The second main way we can improve accessibility to cons is a lot more... radical. It would be for the con to provide our transportation, by hiring a bus company to run a shuttle or a full-sized bus from one place to another. If the hotel isn't already providing that, or only to and from the airport, then it's very possible to hire more buses to do more trips. This can also fill in the late-night tranport gap after con events finish for the evening. If a transit network doesn't run 24 hours a day (like RTD for example), then hired buses can be used as a way of bringing people home, or at least part of the way to a central point. It can also be done before and after a convention for those that paid for a room. Perhaps, for those harder-to-reach suburban conventions, or even for furries in more rural areas, it'd be a great option to take a bus that leaves after closing ceremonies, rather than the day after a convention finishes.
However, there's a big problem with this line of thinking: money. It's simply quite expensive and difficult to fund and organize a furry convention in the first place. It explains a lot about why furry conventions act the way they do. A reason why many furry cons (especially the suburban ones) don't seem to care about transit is because they're far more worried about other pressing concerns. Money is why so many furries have to take road trips and book rooms together in order to attend. It explains why so many are unable to go to a convention in the first place, and why furries with more money are able to attend multiple conventions. Money is the common thread linking these together, just as it links our economy and ourselves, unfortunately. I don't fault furries for falling into the common traps of car culture, nor fault them for having conventions in hard-to-reach places. In fact, I'm much angrier at the people in our collective past who decided to embrace cars, rather than implement transit options carefully.
I do think, however, that there are things that furries can do to mitigate the many expenses of furry conventions, especially in regards to transportation. Due to the sheer cost of cars and the lackluster experience of them, I also think that focusing more on public transportation is a good idea. I don't know the best way that we can improve public transportation in the US such that it's easier for our fellow furries to go to conventions. Perhaps it would be worth starting a charity to help poorer furries go to cons, and perhaps I would be the one making that charity. But I think that I would be fine with paying a little bit extra for registration if it meant it could help others attend. After all, it's not exactly the venue that makes a convention great - it's the people, and forcing them to drive is inhibitory and annoying. So, let's give them an option to take the bus instead. Or, at the very least, make the bus options better for conventions.