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Dukakis Center convenes forum on public transportation inequality in Boston

Public transportation advocates and policy-makers gathered at Northeastern to discuss how research-based transportation policy initiatives can address economic and racial inequalities in Greater Boston. Participants in the October 19th Forum, Closing the Gaps in a Just City,” considered ways of improving public transportation for people with limited access to reliable travel in Greater Boston’s neighborhoods. The Forum was convened by the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, in conjunction with research and teaching programs at Northeastern University designed to improve public policy formulation, and to facilitate communications among scholars, policy practitioners, and community activists.

Race is a predictor of transportation inequality

“Public transportation doesn’t work for the people who need it most,” said Mary Skelton Roberts of the Barr Foundation, a Boston philanthropic organization that has funded transportation research. “We have to stop pretending race doesn’t matter,” said Roberts, who also works in areas of urban resiliency.

Roberts presented information on how access to reliable public transportation in Boston and other cities around the globe is disproportionately worse in neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. She said this lack of physical mobility limits economic mobility for people of color who rely on public transportation to get to school and work.

Change should start with bus access to employment opportunities

Robert’s thoughts were echoed by Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who was recently elected to Congress from Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District. She is the first African American woman to represent the state in Congress. “Everything you need to know about the Seventh District you can learn on the Number 1 bus that goes from Cambridge to Roxbury,” said Pressley. She said people who live in Cambridge (a portion of which is within the 7th District; 67% of Cambridge’s population is white) make an average of $50,000 more per year and live an average of 30 years longer than people who live in Roxbury (which is 90% people of color).

The Seventh District, which includes half of the city of Boston, is the most diverse and the most unequal district in the state, she said. Congresswoman Pressley said that African American people who use the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system have longer commute times than white riders, and spend 66 more hours per year waiting for and riding buses than white riders. Pressley said riding the bus is often the only option for low-income minorities in her district who live in the gaps between rail lines. “People close to the pain are the ones that need to be involved in creating the solution,” said Pressley. “This is about so much more than navigating a city, it’s about self-agency and the soul of a city.” She, and other presenters, said the state’s priority should be to make buses more frequent, reliable, and comfortable for riders.

Housing, transportation, and employment access are closely related

Several of the panelists said that adding and upgrading transit options won’t be enough to reduce inequality if the need for affordable housing is not addressed. “People who need transportation justice don’t live in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Transportation needs are directly tied to housing needs,” said Marc Draisen, Director or the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. “We need to create permanent affordable housing in these centers of opportunity.”

Former Governor Michael Dukakis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Northeastern, said that some Boston-area businesses are unable to fill job vacancies because potential employees are living in places without access to the transportation needed to get to work. He re-interated his advocacy for a rail link between North and South Stations, and his concern about inadequate operational approaches to budgeting prospective transportation improvements across the Commonwealth. Boston Globe columnist Renee Loth underlined how links between urban design and service delivery could address economic inequalities. City Mission Society Director and anti-homelessness activist Rev. June Cooper, and Transportation for Massachusetts Transportation Justice Organizer Angela Johnson-Rodriguez (Northeastern‘13) advocated for linking transportation planning and community economic development strategies. Amy Laura Cahn of the Conservation Law Foundation described how legal strategies were being directed toward improving public transportation access and reliability.

Northeastern’s data analysts are developing solutions to inequalities

Northeastern researchers are collecting data about Boston’s infrastructure to better inform city planning. Geoff Boeing, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, is developing software to help residents to construct and analyze complex street networks in their neighborhoods. He intends for the software to enable disenfranchised people to show city and transportation officials exactly what services they need. In this regard, Northeastern undergraduate student Keith Corso described how he had developed an app to enable parents to closely monitor the whereabouts of their children riding school busses in Boston.

Professor of Public Policy Joan Fitzgerald, whose work involves urban sustainability and economic development, spoke of the need for achieving equity in resilience planning. Civil Engineering Professor Peter Furth advocated for looking at alternative modes of transportation for providing access to educational and employment opportunities. Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Ryan Wang’s data-driven analysis of racial and economic inequalities in Boston dovetailed with Public Policy Associate Professor Dan O’Brien’s presentation on data collection and analysis. Their research presented varying forms of quantitative information to policy-makers in order to assess trends and potential approaches to closing economic and racial gaps. O’Brien is convening the Boston Area Research Initiative’s annual conference on April 26, 2019, focused on data usage in multi-sectoral urban planning: The Smart, Connected Commonwealth: Data-Driven Research and Policy across the Region.  

Urban Policy-makers are using data to improve public services

Sara Myerson, Director of Planning for the Boston Planning and Development Agency, the City’s primary planning agency, and Chris Osgood, Boston Mayor Walsh’s Chief of Streets, Transportation & Sanitation, described their innovative uses of data analysis to improve the delivery of services to Boston’s residents and workers. Dashboards and rigorously-applied metrics closely monitor sustainability, resilience, repairs and maintenance, planning impacts, and related capital needs, neighborhood by neighborhood. Various City agencies now contract with University researchers to apply data management techniques toward assessing the effectiveness and outcomes of policies and practices applied toward improving public services.

“Northeastern does great work in transportation, housing, urban planning, health, public education, criminal justice, engineering, resilience, and sustainability,” said Distinguished Professor of Practice and Dukakis Center Director Ted Landsmark. “The Dukakis Center is a convener of discussions engaging cross-disciplinary stake-holders who are resolving urban and regional challenges. Presenters at this transportation equity Forum included Northeastern faculty, transportation experts, Boston and regional planners, community advocates, funders, a current student and an alumna, Governor Dukakis, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. These diverse advocates came together to share approaches to making our transportation systems more equitable in providing access to educational and employment opportunities. Feedback from the Forum encourages us to sustain our collaborative work, particularly in areas of social justice and public engagement with policy-making.”

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