Rosa Parks resonates for the MBTA today

Bus system often doesn’t work for low-income people

THANKS TO A BILL signed in January, the MBTA is displaying a permanent decal or utilizing LED boards on buses to recognize civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

Parks was arrested when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Her actions inspired a year-long boycott of the bus system by African-Americans and became a touchstone in the civil rights movement.

Over 60 years later, Boston Globe columnist Nester Ramos wonders what her thoughts would be on the state of MBTA’s bus system today, with structural inequities that have led black riders to spend 64 hours a year longer on buses than their white counterparts.

“If Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Boston today,” Ramos wrote, “she wouldn’t see black and white sections; she’d see a dysfunctional system that is disproportionately failing the low-income people — largely people of color and immigrants — whose livelihoods depend on it.”

The MBTA updated its State of the Bus System on February 1, as a part of its efforts for The Better Bus Project. The program aims to rethink how bus service is delivered in accordance to the expectations of riders in 2019. With 176 total bus routes, and over 400,000 riders to support, the challenge is hefty.

Assessments of ridership, routes, and stops are all being taken into account as the T prepares to undertake a network redesign of the entire bus system. Of those 176 routes, only 19 have frequent all-day service. That number drops to 14 on Saturdays, and 8 on Sundays.

Sixty-three percent of residents in the MBTA service area are not served by any route that offers all-day frequent service. Some of those people work weekends, or early morning and late hours. Many are people of color and immigrants who work low-wage jobs.

The agency has identified problems, including overcrowding, slow service, buses starting too late in the morning, and irregular schedules. Public meetings are being held to discuss potential changes. But change won’t come easy. A shift in the pickup location for the 435 bus in Lynn  could mean a half-mile extra walk for some riders, but the change is meant to reduce wait times by 10 minutes.

About 21 percent of Lynn’s population is below the poverty line, and the median household income is also low. Some commuters have multiple jobs and rely on reliable service to get from work to home, or even more importantly, work to work.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The bill to honor Parks on MBTA buses was spearheaded by Braintree residents led by Natalie Ornell, who saw similar decals on a trip to Miami and wanted to replicate them in Boston. Ornell told Ramos that her goal was more than just remembering a courageous woman.

“Raising awareness of T inequities is one of the many reasons why I thought this would be important for Massachusetts,” Ornell said. “I hoped this would be a conversation starter for people on all bus routes and I hoped it could create more engagement on these issues as people ride the bus and see her name, which is now permanent on the buses.”