State transportation policies fail communities of color

More can be done to address public health and environmental inequities

IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND the intersection of public health, transportation, and the environment, come visit Chelsea.   

Though just 2.5 square miles and one of the densest municipalities in the state, the community is cut in two by Route 1 and the Tobin Bridge. It hosts one of the largest fruit and vegetable distribution centers in the country — bringing hundreds of diesel-fueled trucks onto its streets day after day. Oil tanks dotting the shores of the brackish Chelsea Creek store all of the jet fuel used by Logan Airport and a staggering three-quarters of the region’s home heating fuel supply.  

As a result, Chelsea is home to some of the worst air quality in the state. The people of Chelsea suffer from the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations of any community in Massachusetts. The airborne particulate matter spewed by vehicle tailpipes leads to higher rates of heart disease for elderly residents, greater risk of complications for pregnant mothers, and lower test scores for students. Chelsea’s environmental and public health burdens demonstrate the many ways that the Commonwealth’s transportation policies are failing working-class communities of color.  

Those inequities also extend to opportunities to access jobs. Despite its density and proximity to employment centers, Chelsea is poorly served by quality public transit. Chelsea’s lifeline to Downtown Boston is the #111 bus, which serves more than 12,000 trips per day. But as traffic backs up on the Tobin Bridge, that bus can regularly take 45 minutes or more to go 2.7 miles from central Chelsea to its terminus at Haymarket — an average speed of less than 4 miles per hour. It would be faster to walk or bike over the Tobin, but MassDOT long ago made both of those activities illegal. Instead, Chelsea residents trying to get to work or appointments cram like sardines onto buses. The MBTA’s new “Silver Line III” service has added a new transit option, but this bus still gets stuck in vehicular traffic in the Ted Williams Tunnel; and it halts completely each time the Chelsea Street Drawbridge is raised to accommodate those fuel deliveries on Chelsea Creek. The commuter rail line through Chelsea serves just one stop (Wellesley, a community with just three-quarters of the population of Chelsea, has three stops). 

These transportation inequities and negative public health outcomes impact similar communities all over the Commonwealth. Springfield was named the asthma capital of the United States by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, and yet its regional transit authority that provides critical bus service in Springfield was forced to cut routes and hours due to lack of funding. Because state aid for local roads includes a weighting for lane-miles, dense, urban, Lawrence receives half as much funding per-capita ($17) as sprawling, wealthy communities such as Concord ($38) or Lincoln ($40). As our climate warms, many urban communities will suffer increased flooding from non-porous road infrastructure and the “heat-island” effect of all that concrete and asphalt, further exacerbating air quality and public health outcomes. 

Our organizations, T4MA and GreenRoots, take different but complementary approaches to addressing these fundamental problems. We recognize that in order to improve equity for communities like Chelsea, our advocacy needs to be fierce, flexible, and focused on the right policies and policymakers. GreenRoots works on the front lines of Chelsea’s transportation challenges.

This grassroots approach seeks to improve transit justice, environmental justice, and public health by fighting for improved transit service on the #111, #116/117 and other key bus routes, advocating for safer street infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists, and working with local stakeholders to convert delivery trucks to cleaner vehicles. T4MA works at the state level to advocate for reduced congestion on the Tobin Bridge and other regional roads through smarter tolling, more robust state investment in transit from progressive revenue sources, and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions through environmental reforms like the Transportation & Climate Initiative. 

Any of these policies hold promise — and all of them must make progress in the year ahead. However, they need to be developed and shaped by a broad base of stakeholders, primarily including the communities most impacted by transit and environmental injustices. As we transition from a fossil fuel economy to a regenerative and renewable one, we have to work together to ensure those most-impacted by the climate crisis are at the forefront of the green economy.

Meet the Author

Chris Dempsey

Former head / former candidate, Transportation for Massachusetts / State auditor
Meet the Author
If we get it right, the result will be well-paying jobs for working class communities, electrification of bus fleets in environmental justice communities, and meaningful investments in public transit infrastructure like the MBTA and regional transit authorities. The future of Chelsea and communities like it will be more equitable, healthier, and more resilient if, and only if, the policies we develop today are based on principles of equity and environmental justice.  

María Belén Power is the associate executive director of GreenRoots, based in Chelsea. Chris Dempsey is the director of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition.