Across the U.S., COVID-19 is hitting communities of color the hardest. Here in greater Boston it’s no different. There are high rates of infection in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park—the heart of Black Boston. In fact, Black people account for more than 40% of COVID-19 cases in Boston, but only 25% of the city’s population. Other areas with large immigrant, Latino, and POC communities have also become hot spots, including the neighborhood of East Boston and nearby communities. Chelsea, a Latino-majority city, is the Massachusetts epicenter with an infection rate six times that of the state overall. The pandemic has magnified existing inequalities—already a matter of life and death—putting our communities under an even greater strain. One of the places that strain shows up starkly these days is on public transportation.

While use of the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority system—locally known as the “T”—has plummeted in the face of layoffs and white-collar workers working from home, many people in our communities have not been able to shelter in place. Our neighborhoods are home to thousands of workers whose jobs can’t be done from home, who have suddenly been recognized as “essential,” but who face continued low wages and greater workplace risks than ever. These are health care, restaurant, maintenance, and other workers who still commute every day. Others who are not commuting—either because they have lost their jobs or are able to work from home—are still riding the bus or train to seek out food, banking, health care, and other essential needs. People are scared, but they still need to get where they need to go.  

Deep, preexisting inequalities have shaped the impact of the pandemic, including transit use. Low-wage jobs, low rates of car ownership, and the “digital divide” all mean that people use transit rather than computers or cars to get what they need. Food deserts mean that if one grocery store closes due to a COVID-19 infection (as happened recently in Dorchester), it can be a long journey to the next closest supermarket. Our communities also face high levels of air pollution from traffic and other sources, which contributes to a high incidence of asthma and other health problems that make COVID-19 even more deadly.

A racial divide is evident in the very shape of Boston’s transit map: a large wedge of the city is served largely by buses, with no subway routes. That wedge is home to mostly people of color. Tellingly, while bus ridership has dropped to about 20% of normal levels, subway ridership is down much farther—into single-digit percentages of usual ridership. Key bus routes serving Dorchester, Mattapan, and Chelsea have some of the smallest declines in ridership, hovering around 30% of typical ridership. Already underserved by transit, people have few other choices in this pandemic but to keep getting on the bus.

Of course, transit workers themselves—many of whom live and work in our communities—have also been deeply impacted by the pandemic. As of May 11, 158 MBTA workers had been infected with COVID-19 and one had died. Despite the risk, bus drivers, janitors, mechanics, and other transit employees are showing up and keeping the system running.  

Where do we go from here?

Boston’s transit activists have long called for safety, equity, affordability, and access on the T. From Alternatives for Community and Environment to the Green Justice Coalition to the Fairmount Indigo Transit Coalition to GreenRoots, we’ve joined with each other and with transit unions to demand a better system.  

From the beginning of the pandemic, riders and transit workers have called for a safer T. As ridership dropped, the T scaled back service. We spoke up when fewer buses on the road meant crowding for riders and drivers. The T has responded to safety concerns by adjusting service levels, upping cleaning frequency, and starting rear door boarding, which helps protect drivers and ensures the bus is free … for now.  

But there is more work to be done. We must remain vigilant on crowding and cleaning and demand the T follow the leadership of workers and riders in instituting robust safety measures. We have to think bigger as well. Inequalities in transit access and air pollution exposure mean we must make improvements to public transit—not scale it back. In fact, accessible, equitable, and affordable transit can be the backbone of our recovery from the pandemic’s economic devastation.  

How? First, we must ensure affordability. MBTA subway fares have more than doubled since 2001, and many people struggle to pay the price of a ride. That is especially true right now when 825,000 people have filed for unemployment in Massachusetts since mid-March. Rear door boarding—instituted to reduce exposures—has already provided relief on costs for bus commuters. Subway service should also be made free for the duration of the pandemic, which would support essential workers and remove potentially dangerous contact with fare vending machines and turnstiles. After that, the MBTA should operationalize a long-standing demand of local transit activists: a discounted fare for people with incomes below a certain threshold.

Second, we need better transit and other car-free infrastructure in communities of color. Similar to other states and cities, transit systems in Massachusetts do not provide the same level of service to all people. This is a racial divide, with people of color spending more time and money to get where they need to go. We need new investment that prioritizes service to those historically left out of the full benefits of public transportation: people of color and working class communities. And we need accessible and affordable paratransit services for people with disabilities.

Third, we need robust funding from progressive revenue sources. Public transit is a public good that benefits everyone—even people who don’t use it—by reducing traffic and pollution and allowing people to get to work and school. Relying on fares to fund the system (like the MBTA does) is similar to a regressive tax in that it costs more as a share of income to people who have the least. The MBTA funding is doubly regressive because along with fares, it relies on sales tax revenue. A better option is to tax wealthy corporations and individuals to fund the system. Especially as we emerge from the pandemic, this will require robust federal funding. At the state level, the Green Justice Coalition and Raise Up Massachusetts have a range of recommendations for progressive transit funding, which remains relevant as we weather this pandemic.  

Finally, we need to say this loudly: Under no circumstances should public transit be privatized. Public ownership, operation, and management of transit form the baseline for good transit systems by making sure the public interest—not the profit motive—drives decision-making. We need the good jobs and democratic input that public systems can provide even as we fight for more.

Although our public system is not perfect, the fact that it is public means we canwork together to make it better. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we must.

Collique Williams is a longtime Boston-area community organizer, who comes to Community Labor United from the youth organizing sector. Williams began his change-work as a youth organizer at the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project in 2001 and most recently at The City School. It was there that he first began working on transportation with the successful Youth Pass campaign, making the connection between accessible transportation for youth and a broader fight for more equitable communities for working-class families.

Pamela Bush Miles is a nationally recognized climate and environmental justice activist and organizer with over 20 years of experience building organizations, programs, and movements that achieve climate and transit equity wins for low-income communities and communities of color. Initially inspired by her children’s battles for air and for life against debilitating asthma, Bush Miles has worked tirelessly to eliminate pollutants in the low-income communities where she lived and worked.

Olivia Nichols is a community organizer working to build power with community members throughout Chelsea around transit justice and environmental justice. As an organizer with GreenRoots, Nichols believes the voices of transit riders and workers are key towards ultimately realizing the vision of free public transit for all.