WGBH News Focus: The MBTA

How to Create a World-Class Transit System

By Phillip Martin

April 23, 2012

BOSTON — “The doors will open on the left side. The signs will point to the Red Line on the upper level.” A regular announcement over the subway loudspeaker guided commuters through the crowded underground at rush hour. I was on the Orange Line trying to get to Arlington and commuters were talking about their ride home. One woman said, “It’s better than driving.” Another commuter volunteered, “I ride the Blue to the Orange on to work and then back.” And another said, “It’s fairly efficient. It gets me home quickly.”

But this Orange Line is not the one you’re thinking about. This one is in Washington, D.C., where I recently paid a visit.


“The Washington Metro is one of my favorites,” said John Sterman of MIT. “It is even now, after 30 years, remarkably clean, well maintained. There is essentially no graffiti. There’s a strong norm among the riders — all over the city — that you don’t leave trash on the train. You don’t leave your old newspaper. You don’t litter with your food container, your coffee cup. It’s a pleasure to ride the Washington Metro.”

The problems at home

And that is just one way that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority contrasts with public transit in other U.S. cities, said Sterman, a professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of MIT's System Dynamics Group. He is also part of MIT’s Transportation Initiative, tasked with figuring out better ways of getting Americans from point A to B without spending money we don’t have on gas.

“We need a lot more transit and fewer cars," he said. "More and better commuter lines with more frequent service; more up-to-date rolling stock for subways, for streetcars; a denser transit network; more bike lanes. During rush hour it’s just as fast and sometimes faster on the bike than it is in a car. I actually bike to Alewife, lock it up and take the T.”

That’s common practice in world-class cities like Paris and Amsterdam. Urban planners believe that a so-called world-class city must have at least two things to deserve that title: class and a good subway system. But Bostonians can take comfort in knowing that that their subway ranks high up—at least in the U.S.— on some lists of indicators. For example, according to the American Public Transportation Association, the T is fourth in terms of ridership behind Chicago, D.C. and New York.

Grading the T

So on a scale from A to C, how do Boston commuters grade their own transit system? On the Red Line one day, three passengers gave it three different grades: an A-, a B- and a C.

The MBTA got an average grade from MIT’s Cynthia Barnhart, who heads the new transportation initiative. Barnhart is the associate dean for academic affairs for the MIT School of Engineering and professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems. But her grade came from experience.

Given the amount of time it takes to get from MIT to Logan Airport, “I would have to give that a B-,” she said. And if there were one standard to strive for, she recommended Singapore, where the university is running a big project. "We're looking at future mobility and we’re using Singapore as our playground, our experimental playground,” Barnhart said.

A model in the East

Singapore is a half a world away and far from a perfect comparison to Boston. Both have plenty of cars clogging roads. But Singapore is different. It is investing time and lots of money in modern, technologically advanced public transit. As part of that initiative, the city-state has been working with MIT to better integrate subway and bus routes in ways that connect disparate Chinese, Malay and Tamil neighborhoods.

One spring day, I was 9,400 miles from Park Street — in Singapore heading into a subway with my guide, Tanny Lee. We were going to Chinatown, which Lee said was only two stops away. The train moved smoothly and quietly along the track at almost twice the speed as Boston’s Red Line. We covered the two miles within minutes.  

Charlie on the … bus?

Back on a city street in Boston, I saw the MBTA’s system of connectivity working well, on the surface; subways, trolleys, commuter rail and buses are integrated. They connect. But Sterman said our city’s bus system is problematic. “The problem is we don’t have dedicated bus lanes in Boston and the buses are stuck in traffic like everybody else,” he said. So it takes a long time to get where you need to go.

The question is: What else can Boston do to become a world-class transit city? Geographer Andrew Lynch thought we needed to expand.

“I had gone to high school in Arlington and I heard all the stories about them extending the Red Line and possibly extending it into Arlington, and ultimately shot down by the people of Arlington, but that sort of got my mind going and I wanted to know what that would look like on a map,” he said.

A few years ago Lynch, a member of the Boston-based Association for Public Transportation, grabbed an original MBTA map from 1945 and started mapping out new lines to connect the suburbs not easily accessible without a car. He not only looked at what the Red Line would look like into Arlington and beyond, but he mapped out other lines too.

“In the '70s when the Orange Line was being reconstructed north of Haymarket Square, the plan was to continue that all the way to Reading,” said Lynch. “In my plan, I take it to Reading, but I also insert a couple of stations into Medford and I also add a spur to Medford Center. A lot of this was just building off of existing rights of way.”

On Lynch’s website, the Blue Line extends way beyond Wonderland. “There’s been a plan to extend the Blue Line out to Lynn for 50 to 60 years," he said. "I continue that, but I also added a branch through Chelsea and into Everett” — communities that have never had decent rail service into the city.

A need for speed

A world-class transit system also requires faster trains; something Sterman said the U.S. has tried to address with Amtrak's faster Acela.

“Of course there’s been attempts over the years to fund development of high-speed rail in the United States," he said. "I think we should get it going truly in the Northeast Corridor first. The Acela is a big improvement, but of course it has to go much slower than it can because of the condition of the track. We need to fix that problem first.”

How much is the success of high speed tied to Boston’s struggling transit? In two worldwide surveys most of the best subway systems also linked to high-speed trains.

“A high-speed rail link between Boston and Worcester would take an awful lot of traffic off the Mass. Pike,” said Sterman. “And you can imagine that it would then be a big driver of economic development along that corridor. And the Worcester Airport, as Logan reaches capacity, could then be a viable option for a lot of people rather than driving to T.F. Green or up to Manchester.”

Andrew Lynch said he brought his idea for mapping out an elongated MBTA to T officials, but he’s a realist. It will never see the light of day. But then there’s the reality that when talking about ways to make the T world-class, "right now it’s so saddled with debt any serious consideration of massive expansion on this level is something that can’t really be taken seriously,” he said.

A crumbling system and crushing debt

And this is the discouraging picture facing Boston’s future. Richard A. Dimino is the president and CEO of the Boston-based nonprofit organization A Better City. He said you cannot be a world-class city if you shortchange public transportation.

The state is facing a $20 billion gap in transportation and a $3 billion gap in transit, he said. "That means that things are starting to break down. The transit system is going to become unreliable. We estimated that if people decide to get on the highways [it costs] about $65 million. Transportation is no free ride. And all of us, both in the business community and the community at large, residents of this state, need to work with our legislators to define the kind of transportation system that we want. And then find a way to pay for it.”

And if we don’t find a way to pay for it — what happens? Boston will be at a disadvantage to grow, compete and attract people, talent and businesses. Marilyn Swartz-Lloyd is president and chief executive officer of MASCO, a group representing medical and academic institutions in Boston’s Longwood area.

“The glass right now is really half empty," she said — but thought it was crucial to maintain hope.

"You need to look out for what you want in 20 years. You want some more routes that are underground. You may want some people-movers that are aboveground. I think it’s really important that in spite of the difficulty that we’re in, you’ve got to keep in mind what the ultimate transportation plan should be, and what’s the very best, because even if you only get 25 percent of it, you never stop thinking ahead and planning ahead and dreaming a little bit,” she said.

And those dreams are key to creating a robust transit system that brings growth to a metropolitan area, connects its suburbs and marginalized areas and creates more economic opportunities. For many, an expanded, faster and better-integrated transit system is the essence of a true cosmopolitan center: a world-class city.


About WGBH News Focus: The MBTA

Love it, like it or lump it, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority touches nearly everyone's lives in eastern Mass. And it's in financial crisis, with newly announced fare hikes not enough to cover next year's projected $100 million budget deficit. WGBH News features special focus coverage of the tracks and troubles of our public transit system.

About the Author
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at liftedveils.org.

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Everyone who's ever rode on the T has an opinion about what problem they'd change first. If you were in charge, where would you start? Let us know.

The Fare and Service Plan

On July 1, the T will introduce fare increases and service cuts to cover a $159 million budget gap for the next fiscal year. Read the plan on mbta.com.


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