MBTA Fails Its Low-Income and Riders of Color | Conservation Law Foundation

MBTA Fails Its Low-Income and Riders of Color

Kathleen Nay

When the MBTA cut its late-night service in March, it left many riders who relied on the service stranded. The cut means that those of us with third-shift jobs – in the healthcare, service, and entertainment industries, for example – can no longer get to work on the bus or train. That almost 60% of MBTA late-night users live on low incomes and close to 50% were people of color makes the service cancellation more than just inconvenient. It makes it discriminatory and a violation of the Civil Rights Act.

That’s why CLF and our partners at Alternatives for Community and Environment and Greater Four Corners Action Coalition are filing a formal complaint against the MBTA with the Federal Transit Authority. We’re calling on the transit authority to provide meaningful and affordable alternatives to late-night service now.

Rushing to Make (Poorly Informed) Changes

The MBTA’s decision to pull the plug on late-night service was made with little consideration for its riders, many of whom rely on the T as their only mode of transportation. In doing so, the transit authority blatantly disregarded the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) regulations, which require it to analyze potential adverse impacts before deciding on changes to service, in keeping with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The MBTA only conducted the analysis after being ordered to do so by the FTA (and after it had already decided to cancel late-night service). And when it finally did conduct the study, it relied on a method that failed to follow the FTA’s guidelines – but which conveniently led to the conclusion that the service cancellation placed no adverse or inequitable burden on low-income or communities of color (despite the fact that another method they applied did show a discriminatory impact).

But those conclusions were wrong.

The MBTA’s study measured impacts based on an overly broad data set – by considering an entire town or city as a particular bus or subway stop’s service area – instead of using the FTA’s recommended guidelines that define a service area as extending a quarter- and half-mile around a stop. In other words, when looking at any bus stop in the City of Boston, they considered the entire population of Boston as that stop’s service area, rather than the people who rely most on that particular stop – those that live and work within a reasonable walking distance to it.


Click to enlarge.

Looking citywide rather than neighborhood by neighborhood naturally made the overall impact on low-income and riders of color skew in favor of the MBTA’s plans. But when Dr. Marcos Luna, a professor at Salem State University, performed his own evaluation, he correctly following the FTA’s guidelines. His investigation showed clearly that ending late-night transit service does in fact cause a bigger disruption for riders of color or those with low incomes – in violation of the Civil Rights Act (see map at left).


All Talk and No Action

In April, nearly a month after ending late-night rides, the MBTA announced it was considering new early-morning bus routes that would serve transit-dependent Bostonians, in a “voluntary” effort to make up for this major gap in public transit options. The MBTA staff proposed adding these early morning services in Chelsea, Revere, Lynn, and Roxbury. With a price tag of $562,860, adding these new bus routes could mitigate some of the impact on these communities, while still marking large savings over the $14 million the MBTA spent to run late-night trips in 2015. MBTA staff also presented the Fiscal Management and Control Board – the entity that has overseen the transit service since its disastrous performance in the winter of 2014 – with another cost-effective alternative, proposed by transit advocacy group TransitMatters: an overnight bus route geared primarily to getting people to their late-night and early morning jobs.

However, the Control Board put off the vote on these proposals. Had they come to a decision back in April, the new early-morning routes could have been in place by July 1st. As of today, nothing has been done to provide extra transit options to the people who need the T for late-night work shifts.

The MBTA Needs to Work for Everyone

CLF and our partners at Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) and Greater Four Corners Action Coalition have filed a formal complaint with the FTA, citing violations of the Civil Rights Act Title VI and the federal Executive Order on Environmental Justice, which together prevent recipients of federal funds from discriminating against those of us with low incomes and people of color.

We are calling on the MBTA to carry out a complete analysis of alternatives to late-night service – including the ones already recommended by MBTA staff as well as the solution presented by TransitMatters – and to provide a meaningful opportunity for public comment. In the meantime, the MBTA should enact a temporary late-night service until it can offer a permanent, nondiscriminatory, and affordable alternative so that we don’t have to rely on cost-prohibitive options for getting to work.

We need the T. We also need it to work for everyone. That the MBTA did not do its due diligence before enacting changes is not just disappointing; it illustrates a simple truth about our transit system: it does not serve everyone equally. When making service changes, the MBTA must consider people for whom the basic ability to ride public transportation at night means the difference between having a job or losing it – and the insecurity that comes with it.

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