Latest MBTA Bus Redesign Forum Looks at Equity

By Adam Swift

The MBTA’s Bus Network Redesign meets almost all standards for equity under the federal Civil Rights Act according to T officials.

Last week, the MBTA held an online forum on equity implications of its proposed Bus Network Redesign project, including an analysis of how it squares with Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act.

The MBTA released an initial draft of system-wide changes in May, and during the summer, incorporated public input into a revised draft of the plan. The T ended up making changes to 85 of the 133 proposed route changes from the May draft, while still increasing service by 25 percent across the network.

“There are distinctions between equity and Title VI,” said Justin Antos, the MBTA’s senior director of bus transformation. “We are officially here to talk about the Title VI findings of the bus network redesign, which is a legal requirement. More broadly, we want to speak about how this project pursued the spirit of equity from the start.”

Over the past two years, as part of the redesign initiative, Antos said the MBTA has been listening to riders about what makes good bus service. From those efforts, Antos said four main themes arose – the need to get someplace when riders want to get there, frequency and reliability of service, service being easy to understand, and the need to serve the people who need bus service the most.

The equity analysis and work focuses on that last point of serving the people who need it most, Antos said.

Using anonymous cellphone data and surveys, Antos said the MBTA was able to determine how people actually travel and went into understanding how low-income people and people of color travel in all parts of the bus network.

“This redesign is based on the best information we’ve ever had on how low-income residents and people of color travel,” said Antos. “It allows us to prioritize trips made by these groups twice as much … and it also ensures that the new service proposed represents everyone whether they had time to participate in outreach or not, or if they were using the T or not.”

As a result, Antos said the redesigned bus network brings high frequency service, defined as a bus leaving a stop every 15 minutes, to 95,000 more minority residents across the Boston region and to another 29,000 low-income households.

“We started out this project leading with equity and to fill gaps in transit service in our bus network for people who need it the most,” said Antos. “We used good data on our equity populations, we weighed our decisions toward these populations, and these results you see bring more and better service to these groups.”

Melissa Dullea, the MBTA’s senior director of service planning and equity monitoring, said the T performs an annual report looking at service availability and quality standards, including span frequency, reliability, comfort, and network quality.

“Each standard has an equity check, where we check the performance of the overall network against our standards and then the performance for low-income riders and riders of color to check for differences,” said Dullea.

Steven Povich, the T’s fare policy and analytics director, said the Title VI equity analysis looks at equity in accordance with the Civil Rights Act and with guidance from the federal government.

“We are really asking two questions with these analyses,” said Povich. “On the service side, we ask how does the change in the amount of service provided to the protected population compare to the change for all other riders.”

The analysis also looks at how the change in the average fare paid by protected populations compares to all riders.

“It’s a relatively technical exercise and we work with the Central Transportation Planning Staff on this analysis,” said Povich. The analysis looks at 12 ratios for service between the protected populations and the general ridership.

Povich said 11 of the 12 ratios show there is not a potential disparate impact or disparate burden on minority or low-income riders. The single ratio that did not meet the minimum metric is a relatively weak measure that will likely be changed for future analysis, Povich said.

During the question and answer portion of the forum, there were some questions raised about changes to specific bus routes, as well as some more systemic concerns about the public not being involved in the redesign at the beginning of the process.

When it came to route concerns, MBTA officials said they would pass on the issues that were raised, but steered the conversation back to the main topic of the forum.

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