The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ranks among the best public transportation agencies in the United States, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology. This might be surprising to many Bostonians and those living in the surrounding suburbs, considering the mass-disapproval (pun intended) of our state’s public transportation, ranking a mere two-and-a-half out of five, according to MassLive. However, beyond the constant repairs, the frequent delays and the occasional fire is another fault. The MBTA’s map is a curious image that reveals the sad truth about Boston: rampant segregation.
During WriteBoston’s Summer Journalism Institute, I took the Orange Line to work, from Forest Hills to Chinatown. As a Hyde Park resident, this is the most effective means of travel. The Orange Line is full of people of different ages, races, genders, religions and socioeconomic standings. While it can have some rambunctious riders, it is still highly diversified. During the school year, I take the Commuter Rail’s Needham Line from my high school in West Roxbury to our newsroom near Downtown Crossing. The differences between these two commutes are so very clear. While the Orange Line can have a homeless African-American woman sitting next to a wealthy white man, the Needham Line Commuter Rail trains are mostly filled with the latter.
Social segregation in Boston is not a secret but it is very much glossed over. While the MBTA is not inherently classist, the mapping of the MBTA paints a clear picture of the disparities among Greater Boston communities, and chief among them is transportation. There are a number of factors as to why Bostonian segregation manifests itself in the MBTA, and why it has quickly become a grave problem in need of immediate review.
I sat down with Stuart Spina, who, at the age of 17, confronted the MBTA’s board of directors about bus reliability issues. Spina’s passion is the MBTA, and he delivered much-needed expertise into the specifics of the transportation authority’s problems.
Spina and I talked about gentrification, which is a process by which the demographics of a certain area are shifted. In Boston, signs of gentrification have appeared as new development agencies continue to build new and expensive homes and complexes in areas once considered low-income communities like Roxbury, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.
Spina said due to the worsening image of the MBTA, the T is actively looking for ways to upgrade its appeal. The brand new Orange and Red Line cars and upgrades to tracks are among these publicity stunts. Spina further addressed the sad reality of this situation. With gentrification pushing out lower-income residents from areas like Roxbury all the way out to Worcester and Lawrence, the traditional residents will not be able to enjoy the new cars that will run on the lines where they used to live. What’s more, they will not be able to use the MBTA to get to their jobs, family and lives that are still in Boston.
The MBTA’s incompatibility with lower-income populations is further linked to its scheduling. The biggest issue here is the T’s reduced service on weekends, especially Sundays. Spina explained that many people with hourly jobs have to do the less convenient tasks that require a very early rise or a very late dismissal. These obligations can include an employee who needs to get up early to open a morning café or a janitor who is out late after cleaning an office building. Spina asserted that the MBTA operates under a belief that most people work Monday to Friday, nine-to-five, and are home on the weekend. In reality, the MBTA does not cooperate with the many people who have to work early, even on a Sunday.
As I mentioned, the MBTA is not promoting segregation, however, they are not actively seeking social justice either. In the 1980s, there were plans to extend the Orange Line both ways. Instead of ending at Forest Hills, the Orange Line was set to go through Roslindale, Hyde Park and West Roxbury, and then end in Needham, a suburb of Boston. The northern extension was planned to extend from Oak Grove to reach Reading and Route 128. This endeavor for the MBTA would have made quite an impact on its wallet. After some deliberation, the MBTA showed signs of wavering, and resistance from locals pushed them over the edge. The T saved money in the end, so there was no need to oppose the exclusion of the more suburban neighborhoods.
Spina’s last point made an interesting distinction between neighborhoods that are majority homeowners versus majority tenants. The MBTA’s lines show this, specifically along Commuter Rail lines. The Commuter Rail services towns like Needham, while the subway services towns and neighborhoods like Roxbury. These two example towns have a home value difference of $500,000. Roxbury, showing lower home values, tends to house a rent-paying majority in its community. Given this layout, the Commuter Rail starts from major suburbs and single-family housing neighborhoods and runs into the city, stopping at major centers for white-collared work. For example, the Needham Line picks up homeowners from Needham and stops in the practically suburban West Roxbury. The train then stops at Forest Hills, Ruggles, Back Bay and South Station, major urban stops for transfers and centers for places of work that provide upper-incomes.
It is worth emphasizing that the MBTA’s recent efforts to self-improve are indeed coinciding with the rising gentrification in Boston. With lower-income residents being pushed out of the city, often to areas where the T is inaccessible, action should be taken to soften this inevitable blow to these affected communities. T accessibility has been, is, and will continue to be a necessity. Gentrification is moving faster than what the MBTA can react to. Many jobs will be lost and families will be devastated if action is not taken and these populations are not considered as changes are set in motion.