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Making history on the bus – again

This is a year of historic commemorations and historic breakthroughs. We celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day. Twenty days later, Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration coincided with the reinauguration of the nation’s first Black president. And on February 4 we’ll mark the 100th anniversary of Rosa Parks’s birthday.

Ms. Parks, as every schoolchild knows, refused to obey laws that made public transportation unequal. The 381-day boycott she launched in Montgomery, Alabama, became a movement for equality in every sphere of American life. As President Obama said in his second inaugural address, we’re not there yet.

It’s time to make history again. And the place to start is where Ms. Parks started: on the bus.

Public transit is access – to work, family, school, and self-improvement. Yet we in the Commonwealth still do not have equal access. On the MBTA, it takes black families four times as long as whites to complete our daily trips. In other parts of the state it takes five times longer to commute by public transit than by car.

Chronic underfunding leaves all of us, black and white, waiting at the bus stop when a decrepit vehicle finally breaks down and refuses to go any farther. Young, old, and disabled people of all races can’t even get on the bus when fares are raised beyond our reach. Like Ms. Parks, we need a transportation system that serves all of us.

First-class public transit keeps all of us connected, whether we ride, bike, walk or drive. It cuts congestion by taking cars off the road, improves air quality and health by lowering vehicle emissions, and propels our economy by attracting new businesses and jobs.

Good public transit starts with funding. We need money to fix the trains and trolleys we have, build new ones in Massachusetts, and replace the hundred-year-old wiring that makes some of those trains run. But funding the system isn’t enough. We need to fix it – adjust the routes and increase frequency so all of us can get to our jobs and appointments on time. And we need to make it fair – fares need to be affordable for all riders, especially youth, seniors, and RIDE users.

Governor Patrick can’t do that for us. Nor can Beverly Scott, the first black woman to head the MBTA. No one person can.

Yes, Ms. Parks was alone when she sat in that bus seat and sparked that bus boycott. But the women of Montgomery walked it to victory. They got there on their own two feet. We don’t know all their names but we know they were steady, patient, and persistent. They inspired others. The boycott became a movement. Hundreds, thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands of nameless people started to dismantle the walls of oppression that kept them from their Promised Land. And they have passed that task on to us.

“I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people,” Rosa Parks said.

Ms. Parks understood that first-class transit is key to achieving equality. It is our route to opportunity. Let’s honor her legacy by continuing her work. Let’s make transit history this year.

Kalila Barnett, the Director of Alternatives for Community and Environment, and Ann Marshall, the President of Massachusetts Senior Action Council, are leaders of the Public Transit-Public Good campaign.