Chelsea and East Boston deserve true transit equity

Communities hit hard by COVID-19 must get priority in transportation planning

REMEMBER FOR A moment what life was like before COVID-19 upended our sense of normalcy. For Chelsea residents, that meant waiting much longer than the scheduled 8-12 minutes for the MBTA Route 111 bus, the busiest route in the state. Once on that bus, we were jammed in like sardines. East Boston residents faced a similar situation on the Blue Line.

Even as Gov. Baker announced statewide shutdowns and six-foot social distancing rules, the T implemented a Saturday schedule, again forcing residents to crowd onto buses and trains.

During the peak of the pandemic, bus and subway routes serving Chelsea and East Boston riders saw the highest ridership rates compared to other communitiesMore than 80 percent of our residents are essential workers and most are transit dependent. The ridership has been so high that we had to request that the MBTA provide additional bus service and Blue Line service to reduce crowding and ensure safer rides.

Chelsea and East Boston riders, and all riders in low-income communities and communities of color, deserve safe and just transportation. Our communities provide so many of the region’s benefits including the airport, all of its jet fuel and related industries, heating fuel for 80 percent of New England, road salt for hundreds of communities, and a thoroughfare for North Shore commuters to get into Boston.

Our residents are paying the price with their health. For decades, our residents have shouldered a disproportionate share of health and environmental burdens. It is time for public officials to recognize and respond to this inequity. It is time to give respect to environmental justice communities by providing true transit justice.

We have some of the highest rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer. Now, Chelsea finds itself as the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with rates that are six times the state’s rate. East Boston is not far behind.

Not surprisingly, recent data show that the locations with the greatest COVID-19 infection rates are communities with higher percentages of people of color. In fact, decades of racial and class inequities are multiplied by the spread of COVID-19. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels like oil and gas damages people’s lungs and makes them more likely to experience worse symptoms of COVID-19 and more likely to die.

One in five children in the United States has asthma because of car exhaust. Children with asthma are disproportionately people of color and tend to live closer to highways. A recent study found that people who live in places with higher air pollution from transportation and other sources are more likely to die from COVID-19 than people who live in less polluted areas. Another study done in England shows that people who have been exposed to air pollution for approximately 15 years or more are much more likely to die from COVID-19 than people who live in less polluted areas.

As the Commonwealth plans to reopen the economy, we cannot return to the old normal – which was pretty horrible for low-income transit riders – but rather, we must learn from COVID-19 and the mistakes of the past. Together, we must correct the long-standing injustices in Chelsea, East Boston, and other environmental justice communities. The following must be part of the solution:

  • Invest in more frequent public transit service on bus routes 111, 112, 116/117, and 426.
  • Increase service on the Blue Line.
  • Continue fare-free trips and allow all-door boarding.
  • Provide masks for all riders and prevent disproportionate enforcement against people of color.
  • Provide hand sanitizer on all buses and in stations.
  • Ensure frequent cleaning on buses and trains.
  • Commit to implementing bus lanes on the Tobin Bridge to reduce air pollution for Chelsea and to increase public transportation use.
  • Commit to electrifying the bus routes in environmental justice communities and begin deploying those buses in Chelsea and East Boston immediately.
  • Commit to a low-income fare.
  • Recognize the value of all MBTA employees and give them hazard pay.
  • Prioritize the voices of transit riders, in particular frontline workers and essential employees. This means implementing community-based solutions and giving transit riders a seat at the new MBTA governance board.
  • Use CARES Act funding to explicitly benefit Chelsea, East Boston and all environmental justice communities.
Meet the Author

Staci Rubin

Conservation Law Foundation
 If COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that essential communities like Chelsea and East Boston are continually put at environmental risk. We deserve better. We must invest in transit systems that serve Chelsea and East Boston riders affordably, reliably, and safely. Doing so will not only improve our ability to get around, but will improve our public health and our climate.

The Chelsea Transportation Task Force includes Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino and City Councilor Damali Vidot, and GreenRoots staff Roseann Bongiovanni, Maria Belen Power, and Olivia Nichols, and members Maureen Cawley, Paula Garrity, Stuart Spina, Mayra Romero, Maura Garrity, and Sharlene McLean. Staci Rubin is a senior attorney at Conservation Law Foundation.