MBTA Working to Fix ‘Deep Inequity' in Boston's Bus System

Michelle Cook never knows when she'll make it from her house in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood to her job in Somerville, which is only 10 miles away. That's because she relies on an MTBA bus for her commute.

On a good day, it takes Cook about an hour to get to her job. On a bad day, it takes her from an hour and 40 minutes to about two hours. How often are those bad days?

"More often than not," she lamented.

It's a seven minute walk from her home to the Blue Hill Avenue stop where Cook catches the 28 bus to Ruggles Station. From there, she hops onto the Orange Line.

Her commute varies day to day. Some days are more stressful than others with overcrowded buses and traffic. The day the NBC10 Investigators rode with her, the bus was packed.

"It gets old," she said. "You're stepping on people's feet, you're bumping, you're jostling people. They're hitting you with their bags. You're already on level 10 before you step foot into school, or work or anywhere."

Going Nowhere: Boston by Way of Bus

Cook is one of nearly 400,000 people who take the bus each day. That's three times as many people who ride the commuter rail. But some advocates say the state has ignored the bus system for decades.

"I understand there are times when buses are going to be crowded," said Cook. "It's gonna happen. It should not happen every single day."

Stacy Thompson heads the Livable Streets Alliance.

"You can most clearly see the deep inequity in our society on the bus," said Thompson.

The accessibility advocate brought the NBC10 Investigators to Blue Hill Avenue and Morton Street, a hub connecting Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan to the rest of the city.

"You can't get to the hospital, you can't get to school, you can't get to work if you don't have access to the bus," Thompson said.

That access can be tough. Ninety-two percent of bus stops don’t have any shelter. People with disabilities complain many bus stops are hard to navigate and still other stops are poorly marked or have washed out signage.

"If you don't know where you're going, you have no idea what bus this is," Thompson said.

And for communities of color. It gets worse.

A study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council found that black bus riders spend, on average, 64 hours a year longer on the bus than white bus riders. That's a week-and-a-half of work wasted.

"Our community always gets the short end of the stick," Cook said.

Advocates agree. Thompson says the routes that serve mostly poor and black neighborhoods are less reliable and the buses come less frequently.

"They have missed job interviews, they haven't been able to pick up their kids from daycare — there is a real economic cost," Thompson said.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said he's bothered by that disparity.

"It bothers me and it challenges me," he said. "It challenges me to not tell people what we're going to do, but to show people that we are committed to providing a much better experience for our bus riders. I feel their pain. They want it fixed and they want it fixed quickly. I want it fixed quickly."

Last year he helped launch the T's Better Bus Project aiming to improve the ailing system. And that’s a challenge. While the on-time performance goal for the commuter rail is 92%, for the bus, it’s just 75%. Last month, the T missed that target. The reliability average for the last 30 days was 67%.

"Well, I think we are really challenged. With the commuter rail, we own the rails, no one is in our right of way,” said Poftak. “Whereas with buses we don’t control the streets, the stops, the stoplights and we are stuck in the same traffic, much of the time, that everybody else is."

Collaboration is key. Boston just hired its first ever transit team — desperate to unclog the city’s growing bumper-to-bumper traffic. Working with the T, the team has installed software at certain stoplights that will turn or stay green when a bus approaches to move them through faster. In a number of neighborhoods, they're piloting dedicated bus lanes. When they tried it in Roslindale, morning commute times shrank by as much as 25%.

So why hasn’t the city piloted a bus only lane down problematic Blue Hill Avenue?

"There’s a lot of different things that we know the residents and businesses along Blue Hill are going to want and we want to take the chance to hit the ground listening—really make sure that we are understanding what those needs are and that we’re designing something and putting in something that really works for those interests,” said Chris Osgood, the city’s Chief of Streets Transportation and Sanitation.

Blue Hill riders like Michelle Cook, hope they won't be waiting too much longer.

"I've heard over and over again that this is a world class city. If it's a world class city, we need to think of everyone that's in this world class city. From Mattapan, Dorchester, all the way to Roxbury, I want to see better systems for us. We demand it. We deserve it," she said. 

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