by Alula Hunsen
I’ve lived in a couple of different areas across Greater Boston: Cambridge, Fenway-Kenmore, Somerville, Dorchester, and now Allston. The unifying thought I’ve had in each location is this: why does the MBTA suck so much?
Whether an avid traverser of the B branch of the green line — besieged by weekend work for years — or living near the Kendall Square T stop — waiting 15 minutes for a train in off-peak hours — the trials and tribulations we riders experience do not bode well for the image of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.
Moreover, it doesn’t feel like the service is getting any better. This summer’s many small catastrophes (from the Orange Line catching fire over the Mystic River to the Green Line’s cables exploding at Park Street) inspired much-deserved ire and public safety concerns. The federal government stepped in to investigate, turning up alarming data: 94% of injuries [between 2017 and 2021] suffered on Light Rail lines in the country have occurred on the MBTA.
The T is running reduced service on Red, Orange, and Blue Lines, and will introduce new reductions to the Green Line as well. The questionable decision-making and oddly-placed transit priorities in recent years are just the last in a series of broken promises, transit shrinkage, and deprioritization of urban transportation.
To be clear, we may never get the public transit system we deserve. The United States, compared to other countries, is generally transit-poor and car-rich, and Boston already punches well above its weight class. Despite being the 24th largest city by population size, the MBTA is the fourth-largest heavy rail and third-largest light rail system, as well as the ninth-largest bus system (based on yearly ridership). Nevertheless, the MBTA has a unique history of failing Boston, and of proposing solutions, and never following through.
The Orange Line’s relocation from the Washington Street Elevated Line to the Southwest Corridor, about a mile west, fomented the largest as-yet undelivered transit promise, leaving much of Roxbury and the South End without rapid transit or rail service. The MBTA promised a new branch of the Green Line to service stops on East Berkeley, Mass Ave, and Columbus Ave, and to finally reconnect Nubian Square (the largest bus hub on the MBTA, servicing 18 bus routes) to train service. But none of these promises came true.
The Silver Line, meant to be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and marketed as a replacement for the Elevated Line (EL) does not meet internationally recognized standards to be considered a BRT line. Boston’s transit is radial, with lines largely traversing outwards from downtown into neighborhoods (making it hard to travel crosstown or between neighborhoods), and an Urban Ring Project was meant to introduce more crosstown options directly connecting South Boston, Roxbury, Chelsea, Cambridge, Somerville, Dorchester, and many other areas on the periphery of MBTA coverage.
There were supposed to be three phases: introducing new bus lines, making some of these lines into proper BRT routes, and then building an entirely new rail option from Assembly Square through East Cambridge, Kendall Square, the Fens, Mission Hill, and finally Nubian square. This entire project was suspended; no phases were implemented, no new crosstown busses exist, and the recently proposed Bus Network Redesign completely disregards the Urban Ring Project.
The Blue Line-Red Line connector is another unfulfilled transit project that would finally give East Boston a direct connection to the MBTA’s mainline and would allow residents of Dorchester, South Boston, and Cambridge easier access to the airport. No work has begun to connect the Bowdoin and Charles/MGH stations, which are a paltry 1500 feet from one another.
Beyond these failures, the MBTA has reduced transit coverage, most notably on the Green Line. Ever wondered why the Green Line branches are labeled B, C, D, and E? The A-line, to Watertown via Allston and Brighton, was discontinued and substituted with the 57 bus (a process known as ‘bustitution’). The former direct service into downtown now requires a transfer through Kenmore, a result of the gradual removal of streetcar service in mixed traffic, in favor of busses (which aren’t prioritized in traffic). On old T maps, you can see the E line referenced as the Arborway line; its terminus used to be at the Arborway stop in Jamaica Plain, adjacent to the Forest Hills terminus of the Orange Line. It connected the Green and Orange Lines at their ends and offered greater coverage through JP. Part of this service was discontinued as well, after miscommunications and a failed promise to reinstitute service following routine repair work; the current terminus cuts the E line off in Mission Hill at Heath Street.
In addition to these concerning developments across the T’s history, there are also what I’d like to call various cupidities and stupidities: why doesn’t the T run later than 2:30 AM, or earlier than 5:30 AM? Why doesn’t the T replace train service during repairs with bus service, which is significantly more accessible to all riders, as opposed to rented shuttle buses that often have narrow aisles, small seats, and limited capabilities to transport disabled riders? Why isn’t the T better funded via tax revenue, allowing it to be free at the point of service?
I don’t mean to unnecessarily bag on the MBTA. Despite its vagaries, I love taking the train, and I can’t afford a car anyway. However, it can be made to run better. Mayor Michelle Wu’s fare-free initiative on the 23, 28, and 29 buses has been wonderful, and trips across the city benefit greatly from this pilot impacting Boston’s minority and working-class neighborhoods. Expanding this pilot further to allow riders of these busses to also transfer free-of-charge, and opening up the program to more bus routes and train lines would allow residents to travel freely.
Moreover, the MBTA falling into federal receivership, or working with the Federal Transport Administration generally, could produce a much safer system for all of us. But what we really need is a transit agency that will keep its promises and deliver quality service we can depend on, among other things. For now, becoming a member of the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee, pushing the agency to address rider concerns, and fighting for greater civilian control of the MBTA to hold them accountable is necessary to reverse course.
There’s been some amazing advocacy and organizing surrounding the T; Boston Public Schools students and other young Bostonians under the Youth Affordabili(T) Coalition put pressure on the MBTA and pushed the price of a monthly student pass down 65%. Eventually, the T introduced the Youth Passas a result of the YAC’s proposals and constant engagement to cover many more young people (including non-traditional students, and anyone who qualifies for partnered social safety net programs and is between the ages of 12 and 25). Fenway-Kenmore locals have been pressing the MBTA to bring back the 55 bus route, critical for seniors in the area to access medical care and get around the city; when the MBTA proposed cutting service frequency and breadth in response to the pandemic, regular riders protested this attempt at urban shrinkage, cutting costs by leaving parts of the city without essential public services, and helped keep Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain connected.
We deserve better transit, and we can get it if we fight.
Alula Hunsen is an MIT alum, currently working as a freelance writer and research assistant. He writes about culture, trends, history, policy, justice, or anything that might irk his ire. Follow his work on Substack.
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