This post is the first of two parts. Part One frames our current situation in existing inequities. In Part Two we will focus on solutions that are designed to address these equity gaps, while making our streets more livable and apply in the new context of COVID.
It's Hard. We Get It.
For the first time many people are experiencing fear when they step out of their front doors. And with the Stay at Home order being extended, that fear is likely to continue, maybe indefinitely. The fear might come the second you step onto a narrow sidewalk and have to choose between closely passing a neighbor or veering onto a busy street. It might come when you are walking with your children past a playground that, for now, must sit quiet and unused. It might come when, after months of training for the Boston Marathon, you have to put your training aside and manage with online workouts in a cramped living room.
Having your mobility restricted can be jarring. It can be overwhelming and it can be emotional. But it’s important to remember this: if you are experiencing mobility restrictions for the first time, you are lucky. And this restriction, for you, is ultimately temporary.
Limited, but Required Mobility
What happens when you have limited mobility options, but you are deemed an essential worker? Your story is different. You might leave your home in the early morning and stumble on a sidewalk that has been crumbling for years. You pass a vacant lot where your kids used to meet up with their friends to play soccer and you wait in the rain at a bus stop that has never had a shelter.
For you, the pandemic hasn’t changed your routine all that much, except now you enter the back door of the bus and pay a little more attention to the coughs and sniffles coming from the person in front of you.
You wear a mask at work, but the two women who just wrapped up their daily recreational run don’t because the mask is uncomfortable. They breathe heavily in your direction as they pay for a few items and complain about lengthy Zoom calls.
They may have infected you. You don’t know and it doesn’t matter; you will still have to go to work tomorrow. For now, you’re just grateful that the rain has let up as you walk to your bus stop and prepare for the long ride home.
For many people in Metro Boston and across the globe, mobility restrictions are nothing new, and this pandemic is only exacerbating their everyday challenges. These challenges may include being unable to afford transit fares, having low incomes, needing mobility aids or relying on touch and other’s aid to navigate the city, being concerned about their own safety because of their race or immigration status, traveling long distances to access work or school, or utilizing an overcrowded or underserviced bus line. Organizations like The Untokening and other champions of justice and transportation equity have been naming and working against these challenges since long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fighting for Long-term Transformation
In normal times, inequities like these are unacceptable. In a pandemic, they are absolutely devastating. It is critical that we prioritize street interventions that acknowledge and explicitly address these known inequities. We know that not all streets are created equal, and are keenly aware of the size and scope of the problem. A few sobering data points:
- A 2018 survey of Boston’s sidewalks showed that 65% of the sidewalks in Roxbury and Dorchester are either in fair or poor condition; by contrast, 68% of the sidewalks downtown and in the Back Bay are in good condition. - Boston Globe
- Black bus riders on average spend 64 more hours on the bus than their white counterparts annually. - MAPC, The State of Equity in Metro Boston
- Systemwide, only 8% of MBTA bus stops have shelters. - LivableStreets, Getting on Board
- Serious crashes happen at a higher rate in Boston’s communities of color. - City of Boston
- East Boston residents have the least amount of tree canopy in the City of Boston (0.6%) - Trust for Public Land
As we mentioned earlier, if this is the first time your mobility has been restricted, you are lucky. Ultimately, your restrictions are temporary. However, for our marginalized communities, their mobility has always been restricted by inequities that never should have been permanent to begin with.
If we don’t name and address this divide now, we will continue to affirm a status quo where some people have the freedom to move around easily and without fear, while many others do not. Otherwise, we could very well add to the problem. It’s unacceptable for us to simply “return to normal.” We know this may be uncomfortable for you, and we get it - the pandemic released the ground beneath us. However, “normal” was never comfortable for so many people, and "normal" isn’t good enough.
Rather than seek solutions that only address the symptoms of a larger problem, let us instead use this time to confront the root cause of these issues: inequities deep within our transportation system and society. Instead of returning to “normal”, we need to work together to collectively reflect inward, center marginalized communities and those most impacted by this pandemic, and collaborate with partners, agencies, policy makers, to sojourn into a new future where we solve problems that have long been burdening some more severely than others.
As you stay home and practice physical distancing, stay tuned for the second installment of this blog where we delve into solutions and recommendations for moving forward.
In Part Two we will explore solutions and recommendations more in depth.