What would Rosa Parks see if she boarded a bus in Boston today?
Parks now symbolically rides every MBTA bus. Thanks to a law signed last month, a decal or LED sign on every bus will permanently commemorate the woman whose bravery and sacrifice became a flashpoint in the civil rights movement. Most of the decals were installed last week.
It’s a nice honor for a great American. And it’s not nearly enough.
Because if Parks were riding Boston’s buses today, she’d see inequity that’s disturbingly similar to the segregation her 1955 protest was perfectly calibrated to confront.
There are no signs enforcing segregated seating on buses anymore; bus drivers can’t order a black woman to make way for a white man. Instead, a system of structural barriers and institutional neglect ensures that de facto segregation, by race and by income, does a lot of the same dirty work.
If Rosa Parks boarded a bus in Boston today, she wouldn’t see black and white sections; she’d see a dysfunctional system that is disproportionately failing the low-income people — largely people of color and immigrants — whose livelihoods depend on it.
Black riders spend 64 hours a year longer on MBTA buses than their white counterparts, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a public agency charged with managing growth around Greater Boston.
Even though white and minority riders use the bus system in roughly equal numbers, differences in reliability and frequency of service on routes that serve mostly black and mostly white riders effectively steal more than a week and a half of work — 3 percent of a person’s annual productivity, skimmed right off the top.
Meanwhile, many who can afford to avoid the bus have simply opted out. Nearly half of bus riders surveyed between 2015 and 2017 by the Metropolitan Planning Organization reported household income below $58,000 a year. Another 17 percent declined to answer the question.
These are people for whom a long delay on the T’s least reliable service means risking a job, or paying for a taxi or Uber that they can barely afford.
“It’s almost like you’re asking for a civil rights lawsuit. It’s like you’re begging for it,” said Maria Belen Power, associate executive director of the Chelsea-based environmental justice group GreenRoots. If you want to see how racism has moved from signs and slurs to systems and structures, a slow ride across the Tobin Bridge on a 111 bus packed with minority riders is a pretty good place to start.
“These studies are replicated around the nation. It’s one of the greatest transportation injustices,” said Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.
Agyeman said Boston ought to do something much more dramatic in Parks’s name: Enact a congestion charge on private vehicles traveling to or from Boston, with the revenue going to improve transit, and bus service in particular.
“A sticker is placation, right? A sticker is the minimum you could possibly do without losing face,” Agyeman said. “We in Boston have never been about minimums.”
But even getting state approval of the stickers wasn’t exactly easy.
Natalie Ornell, a Braintree woman who spearheaded the idea to honor Parks on buses here after noticing a similar program in Miami, spent months pushing to make it a reality.
Ornell’s efforts to honor a hero have understandably been received as a feel-good story.
But the truth is a little more complicated.
“Raising awareness of T inequities is one of the many reasons why I thought this would be important for Massachusetts,” Ornell said by e-mail. “I hoped this would be a conversation starter for people on all bus routes and I hoped it could create more engagement on these issues as people ride the bus and see her name, which is now permanent on the buses.”
Parks should not be a simple reminder of how far we’ve come, but a living reminder of how far we are from equity. Just 8 percent of the T’s roughly 8,000 bus stops have shelters, according to a recent MBTA report. Only 19 of the T’s 176 bus routes offer frequent, all-day service. And 63 percent of area residents are not served by any of those 19 routes, which mostly run along major corridors and feed big job centers like Longwood or Kendall Square.
“I think there are a lot of ways to build a more equitable system — state investment in public transit that doesn’t unfairly burden poor people, that’s one key way,” said Lee Matsueda, political director for the advocacy group Alternatives for Community & Environment. “If they believe in Rosa’s legacy, they’ve got to be a part of solutions like that, and stickers aren’t enough.”
But stickers are what we’re stuck with, as long as lawmakers and the governor decline to properly fund public transit.
“At the end of the day, the MBTA does not have enough revenue to run either the service we have or the service we want,” Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA advisory board, said last year.
When Rosa Parks died in 2005, the front seats of city buses in Montgomery and Detroit were reserved with black ribbons. It was an elegant tribute to a towering figure in the history of the civil rights movement.
Her memory deserves every such honor. Her legacy deserves a lot more.