Opinion

opinion | Robin Washington

Public transit helps perpetuate inequality

South Station during rush hour.
David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2006
South Station during rush hour.

I grew up as the child of civil rights activists in Chicago in the 1960s. I also lived directly across the street from the El.

So it isn’t surprising that early on, I formed a theory about racial inequities in public transportation — specifically, that the Chicago Transit Authority seemed to build or extend train routes so that they always ended in white neighborhoods.

Half a century later, I found out it wasn’t my imagination.

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“No. There’s been a lot of historical work on these questions,” said Virginia Parks, a University of Chicago professor who wrote a study on racial inequities in public transportation.

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“It’s always difficult to find the smoking gun,” continued Parks, who is now headed to Occidental College in Los Angeles. “We don’t know if there was somebody in the boardroom who made that decision. But we definitely see a very clear and profound pattern of racial disparities in public transit levels of service, and where those lines go.”

That history is long and not always so nuanced: In part, it’s the legacy of Jim Crow, and why Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting on a bus, as well as countless others before her who suffered indignities and even death for similar “crimes,” some at the hands of conductors or bus drivers granted police powers to enforce segregation.

Today, the inequities are far less blatant — usually. In March, the head of Baton Rouge’s transit system blurted out he’d “love to have” more white drivers in order to appease those who may not be riding the buses “because they don’t like the color of an operator’s skin.”

The CEO, who is white, later apologized, got his contract renewed, and received a 19 percent pay raise.

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But he’s an exception. Transit agencies are now run by a kaleidoscope of people, many of whom are in Boston for the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials convention that’s been going on since Friday. Among them are the two African-Americans who have served as general manager of the MBTA: Robert Prince and Beverly Scott.

“The hope is,” Scott said by cell phone during a break on Sunday, “if somebody is sitting behind that table and they grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and they understand that these [services] did not wind up coming to my community, they’ll make different kinds of decisions.”

Add to that hope the challenge of undoing policies that perpetuate disparities. A huge issue is how to get inner-city people to jobs in the suburbs on systems that were designed to move people in the other direction. Commuter rail schedules in Boston and Chicago have long illustrated this inbound-in-the-morning, outbound-after-work bias.

To my surprise, someone in Chicago came up with a relatively simple solution: At one El stop, an express bus takes passengers directly to a suburban Avon cosmetics manufacturing plant. There are a couple of similar routes, though one to a Ford plant was discontinued after layoffs hit.

The T’s promise of a “one-seat ride from Dudley Square to Logan Airport” as a replacement for the old Washington Street Orange Line was another way to connect the urban poor to where the jobs are — even before the Innovation District was envisioned.

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Unfortunately, the way the Silver Line turned out, it’s a two-seat ride, though the transfer is free. But maybe T officials can learn something from successes elsewhere, like the Avon bus idea.

“You might be able to find the person at this meeting who’s here from Chicago that actually was part of [that decision],” said Scott.

I’ve missed the gathering so far, but plan to stop by for the last day today.

Maybe I’ll meet whoever that was — and learn some other solutions too.

Robin Washington writes about transportation. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com or via Twitter @robinbirk.

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