Transportation equity key to unlocking state’s potential

Improvements can help lure companies, but we should make them for people who are already here

“IF YOU BUILD IT, they will come.” It’s an appropriate quote for iconic baseball movies, and for a state focused on economic development.

Here in Massachusetts, the chatter has been about luring Amazon’s second headquarters either to Greater Boston or one of the other cities across the Commonwealth with bids in the mix. Our state has so much to offer a company like Amazon, and in return Amazon’s HQ2 would spur economic growth, job creation, and infrastructure improvements.

Transportation – the ability to get people and products from A to B, safely and reliably – was one of the main requirements in Amazon’s request for proposals. And more than most other investments, transportation lives up to the famed prophesy of movie baseball fields. Look at Assembly Square, the Hingham Shipyard, or Boston Landing. Transportation infrastructure was built, and the people came.

It all begs the question: If Massachusetts wants to attract the Amazon of the future – the game-changing company of 10 or 20 years from now – what do we need to build now to make sure they come? I would argue the answer to that question isn’t about a specific project or neighborhood. Rather, it’s about building transportation equity.

Earlier this year, U.S. News and World Report ranked Massachusetts 45th in both transportation infrastructure and income equality. These stats would suggest we have significant work to do, specifically for our low-income neighbors who are left behind.

A 2016 Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy report revealed that black bus riders in the Boston area spend, on average, 64 more hours each year commuting than white bus riders, and 31 additional hours on the subway. More time commuting and unreliable service translates to less time spent working, learning, and attending appointments.

Not only are minority bus riders spending more time commuting, but 41 percent of the MBTA’s bus routes in largely minority communities run a below average number of buses compared to the 25 percent “non-minority” routes, according to the MBTA’s own study. Minority bus riders already facing limited economic opportunities due to a reliance on public transit are met with even greater obstacles when the service is unreliable.

Such discrepancies contribute to the fact that Boston is the most unequal city in America, according to the Brookings Institution, with the median white family having $265,500 in assets, compared to $700 for black households, and less than $15,000 for Hispanic households.

Gateway Cities hold 30 percent of the state’s low-income families, and yet, according to MassINC, “Incomplete transportation networks represent the most visible shortcoming in the Gateway Cities’ infrastructure connectivity.” While not the only contributing factor, limited and unreliable transportation options in underserved communities are a driving force in further widening equity and social gaps. If you can’t afford a car, and don’t have access to public transportation, how are you supposed to get to work or school to better your circumstances?

At Eastern Bank we have employees across the Commonwealth, many of them in Gateway Cities such as Lynn, Lawrence, Revere, and Brockton. We are committed to investing in the success of our team, but these investments alone won’t lead to wide-scale change if our most diverse and lowest-income communities continue to see the worst public transit service. As suggested by the Metropolitcan Area Planning Council and the Dukakis Center, “Academic research has shown evidence suggesting households of color, specifically black and Latino households, are disproportionately burdened by higher transportation costs, longer commute times, and less access to private vehicles.”

Without a well-maintained public transit system that allows equitable access to jobs, services, and opportunities, we’ll never truly close social and equity gaps.

Tackling transportation equity in Massachusetts doesn’t just make the Commonwealth more enticing to the major corporations of 2027 and 2037, it invests in the people and businesses calling Massachusetts home today. Companies that are already here will benefit when a bigger percentage of the talent pool has access to safe and reliable transportation. People who are already our neighbors will benefit when they can get to work or school to pursue opportunities.

The good news is that opportunities for progress abound. Studies show that investments in rapid transit systems along bus-dependent routes such as Dudley Square to Mattapan, or Harvard, can reduce travel time up to 10 minutes, or in some cases 24 minutes. In areas such as Forest Hills, where more than half of the people traveling on Washington Street are on a bus, priority for bus routes could change lives and expand economic opportunities for riders, including access to competitive job markets and workforce training.

Worcester, the state’s largest Gateway City, launched a new express train to Boston last year, offering residents the option to ditch gridlocked highways, cut their commute time to under an hour, and still have access to well-paying jobs in Boston.

Meet the Author
Yes, if we build it, they will come. But if we build a more equitable transportation system, we won’t just be making a Massachusetts bid for the next big thing in corporate headquarters more competitive, we’ll be creating growth and opportunity for those who are already here.

Quincy Miller is the president of Eastern Bank.