America has Boston to thank for implementing the first subway system in the country in 1897, when the Tremont Street subway opened. A lot of things have changed since then, but the MBTA is not as state-of-the-art as it was 116 years ago. Here are a few things the MBTA can do to become the best city in the world for public transit.
1. Countdown timers at bus stops
A bus shelter complete with countdown timers on Chicago’s CTA
In Chicago’s CTA, and presumably in many other cities, the bus stops have countdown timers indicating when the next bus will arrive. These were placed on the bus shelter, which were at the majority of downtown bus stops on the CTA, and which Boston does not have nearly enough of.
Countdown timers are great on the subway, but they’re actually more crucial for buses, where people are almost always waiting outside, compared to the subway, where most stations are at least partially sheltered. Buses also run less frequently — will I be waiting for 5 minutes, or 30, 45, or even 60 minutes? We all know the schedule posted on the bus stop post are often inaccurate or missing entirely. Smartphone technology can also help us out, but many people, including poorer and/or older passengers, are less likely to have it, and they’re the people who are more likely to be dependent on a bus.
2. Subway art
Every MBTA station has a weird, quirky art theme going on. For example, on the MBTA’s Red Line at Porter Square, there are a lot of bronzed gloves. I’m really not sure what the deal is with these, but they add some character I suppose.
Now let me take you to Stockholm, Sweden, where they take subway art to a whole new
An example of a subway station in Stockholm, Sweden. Sure beats bronze gloves, doesn’t it?
level. The first cool thing is that the ceilings look like they were left alone — they look like the ceiling in a cave. Then, there’s the artwork. Every station is different, and the artwork covers the floors, ceilings, and walls. It’s quite breathtaking. I’m sure various art institutions in Boston, Massachusetts, New England, and beyond would love to “sponsor” a station, free of charge, and materials could be donated by the public; all the T needs is the initiative.
3. A more intuitive streetcar system
The MBTA’s Green Line. Everyone loves to hate it, but it’s actually the most heavily used light rail system in the country, as anyone would attest to if they’re trying to get home on it at 6 p.m. on the night of a Red Sox game. It has a great reach; the four prongs of the Green Line allow you to reach Downtown Boston from Jamaica Plain, Brighton, Newton, Allston, Brookline, or Chestnut Hill. The opposite end gets you to Somerville’s Lechmere Station and, in the future, will get you all the way to Ball Square in Somerville. Without the Green Line, the MBTA would be a shell of itself.
But it’s so imperfect. It’s a chore to ride. I refused to live in a place where my commute would be on the Green Line. There are ways to make it better; some may not be cheap or easy, but it’s worth the investment.
A. Cut down the number of stops
Let’s face it — there are too many stops on the Green Line, particularly along the B branch. The Boston University campus has somewhere between three and nine stops on its “campus”, depending on where you define its boundaries (Google Maps defines it as very close to Kenmore up to the Packard’s Corner area). The stretch between Boston University West and Packard’s Corner is 0.6 miles long, but includes five stations (inclusive). For comparison, the stretch between Symphony and Brigham Circle along the E branch is the same 0.6 miles long, but only has three stations (inclusive). I assume that the stops are there because the trolley has to stop for cross-street traffic anyways, but this isn’t always the case. Putting a station at every third cross-street guarantees that the train will need to stop every time, even if the traffic light is green.
So here’s my solution. Identify stations that aren’t necessary along the entire above-ground portion of the Green Line, focusing on the B branch (let’s say, just for fun, the BU East, BU West, and Pleasant Street stations). Eliminate them entirely, but leave the infrastructure in place that would allow passengers to exit the train (pavers, fenced-off boundaries, maybe some signage indicating that there is no entry at that platform, etc.). Prohibit passengers from entering the train from these former stations; however, allow passengers to exit if the train is stopped at a red light anyway. This would reduce maintenance costs and delay while maintaining an acceptable service level for those stations.
B. GPS Tracking
The Green Line is the only branch that does not have tracking information. This seems difficult to believe, since most cell phones have GPS location technology in them at this point. GPS tracking would allow the implementation of countdown timers to happen at Green Line stations. It’d also allow third parties to develop apps that did the same. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, it’d allow the MBTA to determine where delays happen and determine strategies to reduce those delays.
The B, C, and D branches of the Green Line come very close together around Cleveland Circle. Why not connect them?
The Green Line is set up like a subway line; that is, one, or in this case, five, long, straight lines along roadways that would get you to a given destination, namely, between downtown Boston and the inner western suburbs. However, despite their relative proximity, it seems like these neighborhoods are completely isolated from one another. A system such as Boston’s would be more useful if it acted as a constant loop. Aside from the E branch, this could be implemented relatively easily, as the B, C, and D branches all fall within 0.3 miles of one The Chestnut Hill Avenue (B branch), Cleveland Circle (C branch) and Reservoir (D branch) stations all fall within 0.3 miles of one another.another — a 5-minute walk for most people. A trip between the Warren Street (B branch) and Brookline Hills (D branch) stations would require you wait for an outbound train, walk the 5 minutes between Chestnut Hill Ave and Reservoir and wait for an inbound train, for a total trip time of about a half hour (not to mention the additional fare). What’s worse, people unfamiliar with the area may go all the way into Kenmore to transfer to a D train, a trip that would take over 45 minutes and probably leave any visitor with a sour taste in their mouths.
With stations in such close proximity to one another, it would be feasible to add a short segment along Chestnut Hill Ave that would connect the at-grade B and C branches of the Green Line. It would also be possible, albeit more tricky, to connect to the below-grade D branch at Reservoir. During periods where it would make sense (weekends, Friday evenings), some trains could be designated for a B-C, B-D, or C-D loop, rather than a straight out-and-back route. Combined with some sort of GPS tracking of Green Line trains, this could be quite effective in connecting the B, C, and D branches of the Green Line. Those who live on the B branch would suddenly be able to envision the possibility of working for a company along the D branch without needing to schedule around a bus or go all the way in to downtown Boston.
This option is purely pie-in-the-sky; I doubt the cost of the project would justify its benefits.
4. More perpendicular links between branches
Boston has a hub-based system, which is probably appropriate based on its nickname. It made the most system in its early years, before the Red Line spread to Somerville and the Green Line went all the way out to Newton. But now, even with considerable knowledge and comfort with the bus system, it’s really hard to get there from here. That is, the fastest way to get from Somerville to Newton is to take the Red Line all the way into Park street, then take the Green Line all the way out to Newton. There is no easy route between the Red Line and the D branch; the route 66 bus provides a connection between Harvard and Brookline Village, but even that takes a long time. And it’s not just Somerville to Newton; connections between the ends of the subway/Green Line branches are often extremely difficult and time-consuming.
In a perfect world, there would be one, or perhaps two, additional subway lines that connected the ends of every existing line. If you look at the MBTA system map, you can see that Braintree, Mattapan, Forest Hills, and Riverside form an almost-perfect straight line. You could draw another straight line between Riverside, Boston College, Alewife, and Oak Grove. Imagine if a trip from Harvard Square to Boston College was just a few stops away? You could also include some commuter rail stops so that someone coming in from Newburyport wouldn’t have to go all the way into North Station just to go to Davis Square.
Of course, this will never, ever, ever happen in a million years. There are “plans” to do something similar to this with bus lines called the Urban Ring, but it’s looking like it’ll never actually happen in any of our lifetimes.
In Russia, there are stray dogs that actually commute via subway. They know the system
How much better would your day be if you could sit next to HIM on the train in the morning?
better than most people do. And the people are accustomed to them.
This needs to happen here. They’re probably a lot nicer and less smelly than a lot of human commuters. Somebody make this happen!