Wide racial gap exists on speed of Boston-area commutes
Disparity particularly bad on buses, averaging 80 minutes more per week
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On the other side of the T map, the immigrant-rich city of Chelsea is similarly bus-dependent, marooned between the Blue and Orange lines, despite being more densely populated and closer to downtown Boston than several Boston neighborhoods.
Transportation agencies that receive federal funding are required to consider equity, but their models do not fully capture reality, said Penn Loh, who helped create the T Riders Union to advocate for lower-income and transit-dependent riders in 2000.
“We were claiming that there were significant disparities between communities by race, by income, and we certainly had a lot of anecdotes to back that up in terms of both daily experiences of people on different modes as well as historical experiences of where investment happened,” said Loh, then a community organizer and now a Tufts University professor.
But state planners were better equipped to calculate whether a bus route stuck to its schedule than whether that route adequately served the public, Loh said.
Boston is not alone in confronting transit inequity. Conventional wisdom says a long commute is a life choice, a trade-off for a picket-fence home in the suburbs.
But research by New York City’s Pratt Center for Community Development found more than 750,000 workers living within the city limits commuted an hour or more each way, a burden shouldered disproportionately by lower-income people of color.
Among New York City dwellers, black people spent 22 minutes more per day commuting than whites.
“The degree to which that was segregated was shocking even to us,” said Joan Byron, the Pratt Center’s policy director.
Constructing subway lines can cost billions of dollars and take decades. Pratt research made the case for bus rapid transit, which costs less to design and operate than subways. With bus rapid transit, buses travel in dedicated lanes, have the power to turn traffic lights green, and do not linger at stops because customers pay before boarding.
In Boston, the Silver Line is sometimes portrayed as bus rapid transit but it lacks most of the defining features needed to fit that category.
New York debuted its first “Select Bus Service” line in the Bronx in 2008, spurred by advocacy among local groups and coordination between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs buses and trains, and the city Department of Transportation, which controls streets, curbs, and traffic lights.
“Select” routes now exist in four boroughs, with travel times cut by nearly 20 percent even as ridership has grown, according to the Pratt Center and the MTA.
“The big constraint here, the reason we have, like, four Select Bus Service routes instead of 15, is agency bandwidth, not money,” Byron said, citing the political leadership and attention needed to win support for the streetscape changes that enable the buses.
That was evident in Boston with the state’s aborted 2009 attempt to bring bus rapid transit to the 28 line, a project known as “28X.” Under a rushed timetable intended to capture federal stimulus money, the state failed to win support from leaders, activists, and merchants in neighborhoods wary of past promises and still smarting over the Orange Line’s 1980s rerouting.
Davey, who inherited the aftermath, said the state is now working from the ground up on a pilot program to explore adding some bus rapid transit features in that corridor and in Chelsea.
The state is also spending tens of millions of dollars to add stations to a commuter rail route known as the Fairmount Line that has run for years through Dorchester and Mattapan with few stops. But it lacks the money to run trains on weekends or with the frequency of subways and trolleys, undercutting the line’s usefulness.
That could change if lawmakers approve sustainable funding, Davey said. Longer-term and at greater expense, planners are intrigued by self-propelled cars known as “diesel multiple units” that provide transit-style service on shorter commuter rail routes in Europe and Asia, without the lengthy locomotive-and-coach sets found here.
Until then, residents in underserved neighborhoods will rely on sluggish buses. At Roxbury’s Dudley Square bus depot, commuters waiting in the cold on a recent weeknight hardly seemed surprised by the statistics.
Liiban Mohamad, a 24-year-old immigrant from Somalia, said he spends an hour each way on a multibus commute between his home near Jackson Square and his restaurant-cleaning job in South Boston.
Waiting for the 44 and the 45, respectively, Ron Henry and John Owens studied a graph of the commuting disparities with resignation.Continued...