Guest Column: A Valley Divided by Public Transportation

Comments (7)
Wednesday, July 31, 2013

As a cultural anthropologist working on environmental, health and socioeconomic equity issues in Springfield, I have observed for too long that the racially- and class-stratified “tofu curtain” has divided the Pioneer Valley into an affluent, mostly white north and a marginalized but diversified south. Nowhere is this truer than for the people of Springfield and Holyoke. A significant structural factor has been the lack of affordable, accessible and sufficient regional public transit. This gap in our regional infrastructure has profoundly negative environmental consequences, contributes to global warming, negatively impacts public health, reinforces racial apartheid and creates enormous economic hardship for the poorest among us.

Eighty-seven percent of the black and 81 percent of the Latino populations in the Valley live in these two towns. This fact has led the University of Michigan to conclude that our region is one of the most racially segregated in the nation. Lack of public mass transportation to all places is a leading factor in sustaining racial apartheid and economic inequity in the Valley.

Springfield and Holyoke residents are the poorest in the region. Child poverty rates are 42 percent in Springfield and, in Holyoke, 48.7 percent, nearly 4 times the statewide rate of 12.8 percent—a problem made worse by the fact that much of the regional economic activity occurs outside the cities, in places unreachable except by car. If efficient bus route service is extended to all sectors of the region, the people of these towns can participate on a more equal footing in our economy.

This is also true of education. While the University of Massachusetts has made some efforts to address the lack of access for these two cities, local economic interests have consistently stonewalled efforts to connect them to the flagship campus of the Commonwealth. Lack of direct and affordable transportation has meant that many in these towns do not consider UMass when choosing a college. That makes public transportation an educational equity issue.

For those who travel from these cities to the wealthy communities of Northampton or Amherst, the cost is extraordinarily high. While I, as a Northampton resident, can take a bus that comes every 20 minutes and costs a little over a dollarto get to UMass, folk from Springfield must take a circuitous, time-consuming (over two hours) route or shell out $16 to $19 dollars for a much quicker round trip on a private bus line. People from Holyoke must spend $8 to $10 dollars for the same trip. This makes commuting north unfairly burdensome for the poor.

There is also an environmental issue here, because PVTA sends the new “green” buses to Northampton/Amherst and doesn’t put them in Springfield. Fifty-three percent of pollution emissions in Springfield come from vehicles. Both cities have very high asthma rates (20 percent in Springfield, 24 percent in Holyoke), a problem made worse by car pollution. By adding new bus routes—and making them comprehensive and consistent—we can reduce critical air pollution problems and positively impact public health in these cities.

By making intercity transportation affordable, frequent and reliable, we can address serious socioeconomic inequity and public health issues, and reduce the racial polarization of the region.•

Comments (7)
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Great column thanks. Don't forget that buses from Holyoke to Northampton, for example, run only until 7 or 8 PM and not at all on Sundays. In contrast, the bus from Northampton to Amherst and South Hadley runs until quite late. Try getting a retail job or trying to take a night class after work and then getting back to Holyoke. It's impossible without paying an exorbitant amount for a taxi. Further, many of the taxi companies, including Green Cab, will go to or from Holyoke.

At Holyoke Community College the buses are so packed and in such short supply that you can't even get on them some nights. There has nearly been a riot several nights when the last bus was so packed that Holyoke and Springfield students rightfully panicked at the possibility that they might not get home.

Even though the bus that runs to the Holyoke Mall runs fairly late, it drops you at the downtown transportation center in Holyoke. Then, since many of the other buses are running, you'd potentially have to walk miles to get home. So, you can have a crappy retail job, if they'll let you stop working before 6PM, or if you don't mind freezing as you walk home in the dark of winter at 10PM after your minimum wage job at the Gap.

There are myriad other issues with the bus system, but as you suggest, the racial and economic implications are the most disturbing.

Posted by JeffM on 7.31.13 at 14:45

More apologist bull kakka. No amount of public transportation up to the quality of even Disney World can overcome the self defeating culture of Springfield/Holyoke. It's not the buses fault that Spring/Holy have a 55/47% high school graduation rate. It's not the bus's fault that Holy/Spring have a teen birthrate at 491/315% higher than the state average. They are so bad they are curve movers. It's not the bus's fault for the asthma, it's the pre & post natal smoking.

I think it's time for the residents to take a little ownership of their own plight.

Posted by Cry Me a River on 8.1.13 at 15:11

Seems likie Cry Me a River is confusing cause and effect-- or at least denying correlation. But so be it-- denial seems to be the name of the game among many these days.

Nobody's BLAMING lack of buses for high pregnancy rates. But lack of public transportation certainly takes its place in perpetuating a cycle that denies the opportunity for self-improvement by having the chance to participate in a larger economic sphere.

Love of money, of course, still remains at the bottom of our woes.

Posted by michaelann bewsee on 8.4.13 at 10:01

I am a native of Amherst and recently purchased a home in Holyoke, a city where there are great people who are clearly underserved in many aspects. I think that we can all agree that smoking is not the single cause of asthma rates being higher in our city. There are numerous factors—to blame it on a single one is ill-informed. We must acknowledge that an enormous number of inequalities remain between Springfield and Holyoke when compared to Amherst and Northampton. Inequality in access to and quality of transportation services should not be one of them.

I have been to a few meetings with PVTA “officials” to address this issue of lack of access, still nothing has changed. I say shame on those in charge to let this continue to be an issue as well as on those who try to deny the significance of this problem.

Posted by Valleynative01040 on 8.7.13 at 8:10

I agree with the sentiment of this article, but things have changed. Before 1999 there was no PVTA service from Holyoke to Northampton. The only way to go north was via Peter Pan. That was truly discriminatory.

The most effective thing to do at this point is to pester legislators in Boston, and locally, to funnel more of the gas tax towards Western Mass to help pay for increased bus service. MBTA takes a majority of the gas tax now. If they could afford it, I'm sure PVTA would put routes wherever there is a strong enough demand (that's how the route from Holyoke was established in '99).

The reason Amherst/Northampton has better service (only during the school year mind you) is because a portion of the costs are shared by Five Colleges Inc.

As a frequent rider I have also seen, in Hampden County at least, that there is a negative stigma associated with riding the bus (much like negative perceptions of Holyoke) that prevents "professionals" or "choice riders" as PVTA calls them, from riding. A large % of the population who ride, do so because of economic necessity. Increasing the ridership in Hampden County among these so-called "choice riders" would help. People need to get out of their cars and make the bus work, even if it's only a couple days a week and it means getting home 30 minutes later than normal.

Posted by Jsmith on 8.7.13 at 12:15

If we had truly comprehensive public transit -- with far more frequent bus service, new routes, conveniently located bus stops, well maintained shelters, and maybe even a light rail line running back and forth along the river -- then I have no doubt that more "professionals/choice riders" would leave their cars at home and get on the bus instead.

It shouldn't be hard work for a potential rider to plan his or her daily commute and cope with too many hassles, and that's the system we have now. Getting to work on public transit should be easier than driving your car, just like it is in NYC, which has plenty of "choice riders" on the buses and subway and where there is no such stigma about using public transit.

Public transit is just not considered an important concern up here in western Mass by our public officials for whatever reasons. And that's a real shame becasue we're missing out on a potentially energetic economic impacts, less crowded roadways and a better environment -- for everyone.

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