Aboard a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus. Flickr/Brendan Landis

The complicated transit controversy asks whether changes disproportionately affect poor and minority riders.

When the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s governing board voted to suspend the Boston area’s late night transit service in late February—still technically a pilot program even after two years—Boston seemed far from surprised. Local newspapers had been speculating about the demise of late-night service, which ran for an extra 90 minutes on Fridays and Saturdays, since the summer. (The Boston Globe published a post-mortem in December, more than two months before the decision became final.)

And yet, just days later, the Federal Transit Administration approached the agency with an issue that, for all its preparation, the MBTA had avoided. In a letter to MBTA counsel John Englander, the FTA Office of Civil Rights’ associate administrator Linda Ford wrote the Boston agency had failed to prove that its cuts wouldn’t disproportionately affect low-income and minority residents. The MBTA had simply skipped filling out an “equity analysis,” she said, which is required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

“Poor survey data, management changes, operational concerns, and budgetary constraints do not obviate the requirement to conduct the analysis,” Ford wrote in her letter, according to the Boston Globe. “While cost may be an issue for the board, it does not relieve MBTA of the requirement to comply with [regulations].”

In the words of the Washington Post, transportation may just be the civil rights issue of our time. In 2014, the Harvard researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren released a sweeping study of over five million American children whose families had moved between 1996 and 2012, and found that within a given county, a commute time predicted upward mobility later in life better than most other factors, including crime rates and the share of two-parent households. In other words, low-income families with longer commute times are less likely to have upwardly mobile kids. Not being able to get to better jobs or schools, or wasting valuable time getting to better jobs and schools, is enough to hold back entire generations.

So it makes sense, then, that transportation is subject to the same U.S. laws that protect people from discrimination on the basis of “race, color, and national origin,” and that the feds can threaten to take away funding if transportation agencies do discriminate against riders. The “equity analysis” is the formalization of that process. In cutting late-night transit, specifically, Boston runs the risk of not only stymieing the schedules of late-night partiers, but also relatively low-wage service workers, whose shifts might require them to leave work late Friday or Saturday night or show up very early on weekend mornings. And that’s where MBTA could run into problems.

What’s an equity analysis?

MBTA actually fills them out all the time, most recently (and controversially) to account for a proposed fare hike. According to FTA guidelines, these analyses must use local data to either prove that the service changes do not have a disparate impact on low-income and minority communities, or that they do, and that the transit agency has a plan to mitigate the effects.

The equity analysis process has its shortcomings. Alexander Karner, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech College of Architecture, has reviewed a number of equity analyses and found a few problems. First, planning agencies often decide what services they want to cut or add before performing the equity analysis, so the requirements of the area’s most needy residents are only considered afterwards. “It’s a bit of a box-checking exercise,” Karner says.

The FTA also gives transit agencies a fair amount of latitude in choosing what sorts of numbers to use in their analyses: onboard survey data or census data. These are not at all the same things, as Karner points out in a more recent paper. He offers an example: an express bus service that terminates at a park-and-ride in a lower-income neighborhood may actually be patronized by higher-income workers from the suburbs—so throwing money at that express service at the cost of others wouldn’t mitigate transit cuts for the poor. Instead, Karner advocates the use of ridership data, which much more accurately pinpoints who would be affected by service cuts, but is expensive to collect. (He says he’s working on ways to bring down the cost.)

Still, equity analyses have had real-world consequences for transit agencies, beyond the dust-up in Boston. In 2010, a BART project that serves as a connector to the Oakland airport lost $70 million in federal funding because the agency did not carry out an equity analysis in time.

Meanwhile, back in Boston

The MBTA finally submitted its own equity analysis on Wednesday. (It’s fortuitous timing—late-night service ends March 18.) The results look murky. According to census data, 47 percent of late-night transit users are minorities, and 39 percent are low income—it appears the cuts won’t affect poor and minority riders more than anyone else. But when MBTA uses ridership data, as Karner insists they should, the numbers do look different: 54 percent of late-night bus riders and 47 percent rapid transit riders are minorities, while 64 percent of bus riders and 59 percent of rapid transit riders are low-income.

Transit agencies must come up with mitigation plans when the share of minority or low-income riders affected is significantly higher than the share of riders affected overall. According to the MBTA’s ridership data analysis, it reaches that threshold for low-income bus riders, and low-income and minority rapid transit users. Put simply: There is a disparate impact. So MBTA will have to scramble to find ways to make up for it, by providing more early-morning weekday service on some bus routes, for example, or improving transit frequency on the weekends.

There are plenty of reasons Boston can’t support late-night transit—not now, anyway. The cuts are expected to save $9 million, the MBTA Assistant General Manager Charles Planck said, just one of many (small) steps that would move toward closing the transit agency’s $242 million budget gap. Still, it is vital to remember that the people who benefit the most from off-peak, world-class transit systems are often those who have the quietest voices in political conversations. “I’m probably going to have to take cabs or change my schedule at work,” a young Bostonian—a late-night grocery shift worker—told The New York Times this week. She said cab fare would cut into her $11 hourly wage.

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