Guest Column: A Valley Divided

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.•

Author: Thomas Taaffe, PhD

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