Bus-ted

This was the headline of the Boston Glob story:

Black commuters face longer trips to work

And this was the letter of outrage that story provoked:

THE FACT that “Black commuters face longer trips to work” (Page A1, Nov. 252) is not news. It is simply a fact of life, part of the daily drudgery in which the most pervasive racism and discrimination persists in our falsely characterized “postracial” America. I think that black people know that services will almost always be less for them than for white people, and I think that most whites simply ignore the quotidian reality. What would be front-page news is if something significant were done about this reality.

As soon as the rerouting of the Orange Line to the Southwest Corridor was announced decades ago, the black community that the line once served knew the promise of filling the void was a hollow one.

Scott Cooper
Newton Highlands

The author doesn’t identify himself as black—in fact, he implies that he’s not—yet he sounds intimately familiar with the “daily drudgery” of “pervasive racism and discrimination”, even from his suburban remove of Newton Highlands. It reminds me of the great “All in the Family” episode, summed up thusly:

In the episode Edith Writes a Song, where the family is held by African-American burglars, Mike attempts to intervene on Archie’s behalf, explaining to the burglars how Archie does not know about the pain of ghetto poverty. One of the burglars, played by Demond Wilson and Cleavon Little, responds: “And you do?”

Anyway, on to the racism!

At the end of a recent community meeting on the state transportation system, a grandmotherly woman with a lyrical Caribbean accent strode up to the top transportation official in Massachusetts, dispensing with pleasantries.

“Let me tell you something,” she told Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey. “I am so upset with Number 28.”

She meant the bus route between Ruggles and Mattapan, which she boarded just after 5 p.m. at Roxbury Community College, to reach the meeting 4½ miles away at Mattapan’s branch library. “It took an hour and 15 minutes to get here,” she said, narrowing her eyes.

Davey apologized, promising to look into it. But even when the 28 runs on schedule, it covers that stretch in 40 minutes, averaging less than 7 miles an hour — a halting trip of red lights and one-by-one boardings.

That doesn’t sound like racism; that sounds like Boston traffic! Any driver stuck behind a Boston bus is all too familiar with Purgatory, if not Hell.

When I lived in New York and occasionally took the buses, I was often frustrated, if not infuriated, by the frequency of the stops—every other block on the north-south routes. Why couldn’t they stop every four blocks, and greatly speed up the trip? No one would have to walk more than two blocks to a bus stop.

But buses were the main form of transportation for the elderly or infirm, who couldn’t handle the stairs, standing, and stress of the subways, and who couldn’t walk more than a block anyway. They might take a bus to the local market and back only a few blocks away. Buses were for old people.

Note the woman quoted above was not only described as having a “Caribbean” accent, but as “grandmotherly”. Buses are for old people. They need to make frequent stops because many old people can’t walk very far.

Still, commuting racism persists:

Among Greater Boston workers, white commuters who drive have the shortest trips to work — averaging less than 27 minutes each way — and black bus riders the longest, exceeding 46 minutes each way. But a gap exists even among those who take the same mode, with shorter commutes for white workers whether they drive or ride mass transit.

The biggest gap is by bus. Black commuters spend an extra 66 hours a year waiting, riding, and transferring than white bus riders, according to a new analysis from Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

It’s a little unclear to me if they mean the trip itself is longer, or if they are including the wait for the bus. But how could they include the wait? Buses run on schedules (or are supposed to), so the wait’s on you (or them). Why would black people have racist bus lines?

They don’t:

[A]ffordable housing is scarce and often far from desirable subway and rail stations. Those who can afford to drive largely do so, because it is faster. And a transit system built up over a century to funnel commuters toward downtown Boston does a poorer job connecting to the service and physical-labor jobs not concentrated downtown — meaning longer, slower bus rides, often with transfers.

“If we care about equity in our transportation system, we have to pay attention to the bus system, which serves so many low-income and people of color,” Pollack said. “We have to do better.”

“We want a system where nobody’s commute is longer because of the color of their skin,” she said. “What would it take to create that system?”

So, it’s not the buses that are racist—it’s the lack of affordable housing in the wealthier parts of town. Of course it takes longer to get from Brockton to Federal Street than from Beacon Hill to Federal Street. (And if you want to build a hi-rise housing project next to John Kerry’s Louisberg Square townhouse, you go right ahead.)

Look, I’m not entirely unsympathetic. I live close to two bus lines: one serves the wealthier part of the neighborhood, one the working class part. Needless to say, I’m closer to the The People than I am to The Man. No racial disparity, just income. But on those rare occasions I take the bus, I have learned from bitter experience to walk the extra few blocks to the Champ Line than wait an eternity for the Chump Line (schedule my a**). Hey, maybe the MBTA knows something I don’t. Maybe the ridership dictates the number of buses. But I doubt it. I just think those who pay the higher tax rates—heck, those who pay taxes, period—expect and receive better services.

I know, stop the presses, right?

How do you fix it? The answer’s staring us in the face: drive.

You don’t like our racist buses? Our roads are positively post-racial!

Okay, seriously, here’s another try:

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.

So, it’s not racism and not money, but “agency bandwidth” and suspicious “activists” (and old people, damn them!) that are ruining the lives of black bus riders. And all brought to you by the entrenched Democratic system in the city and environs.

Wake me when there’s any actual news. And you can wake yourselves up now too.

1 Comment »

  1. Buck O'Fama said,

    December 4, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

    I got a question: are there any sewerage plants in Taxachusetts? Or does the state just store poop in the crania of Boston Glob readers?

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