In Defense of the MBTA

You don’t know how good you have it.
July 2020
Michael
C.
Technology and Policy Program

Trash littered across the floor. Stifling, oppressive heat in a poorly lit space. Loud screeching. The smell of burning… I don’t even know.

No, I’m not at a damp college party. I’m in a T station.

Man, I love the T.

And I mean it. Let me explain why.

One, my research revolves around combating climate change (the carbon footprint from a public transit ride is somewhere between a third to half of that from a car). Two, I grew up in a city with one of the best public transit systems in the world. And three, I have an unusual fondness for buses and trains. For these reasons, I try almost religiously to take public transit whenever I can. Fortunately, this is quite convenient in Boston, which boasts, by my anecdotal tally, the second most functional public transit system in the U.S. and Canada (the first being New York’s, obviously), despite all the bad rep it gets from my friends and peers.

The following exchange has taken place countless times between me and my friends:

“Oh, I’ll just Uber there.”
“But you can take the T!”

While I understand why someone would want to Uber or Lyft instead of taking the T, the negativity with which people refer to the T has always vexed me. Here is a functional public transit system that’s running whether you take it or not, that gets you where you need to get fairly quickly at a fraction of the cost, yet you’re passing up on it? You planet-hater.

To be fair, the T is a far cry from other rapid transit systems outside of this corner of the world. Take just about any major city in Europe or East Asia, and its public transit system puts the T to shame.

The 11 lines of the iconic London Underground are designed so that they intersect at as high a density as possible in central London, forming a veritable web.  

Hong Kong’s MTR system ranks perennially as one of the finest in the world. In addition, around 600 bus routes with clean, modern buses crisscross the city, with over 90% of daily trips in the city made on public transit.

Tokyo… well, this map says it all.

And then there’s the T. Our four lines (eight, if you count all the branches) leave vast swathes of the city uncovered and force the rider to take wildly circuitous routes. Red Line trains often come at odd intervals, with the next trains coming in 1, then 3, then 14 minutes. One might wait for the 1 bus for more than half an hour, only to see three come rolling along over the next five minutes. Long stretches of the T close down on weekends for repairs, leaving the rider out to dry on shuttle buses (at least this service is free). Perhaps worst of all, trains stand by at the outdoor Charles/MGH station in the dead of winter with all doors open for minutes at a time.

And these are just my own grievances.

But despite all this criticism of Boston’s public transit system, I hold fast to one simple truism—at least it exists.

My family lives in Houston, which boasts a tiny light rail system of three lines (though growing) that runs in the downtown area and not much further outward, as well as a sparse network of bus routes that run once every half hour. When I open my transit app at home, the nearest route is a 10-minute drive on the freeway away. I literally feel trapped when I’m home on break and both my parents are at work.

And that’s the fourth-largest city in the country. Indeed, outside a small handful of cities, many located on the eastern seaboard, functional, reliable public transit hardly exists. (Somehow, my family and I did manage to survive Los Angeles carless for almost eleven months. It required sacrifices—trust me.)

So we don’t have it that bad here, do we?

When I evaluate whether a city is suitable for me to live in, public transit is one of my top priorities. And research indicates that it is an ever-higher priority for millennials. I prize being able to get around easily, cheaply, and autonomously as first a college student and now a grad student. Having lived in places where it’s all but impossible to get anywhere without a car, I board the Silver Line with gratitude when I land at Logan Airport. The heart of Boston is a short 10-minute ride away from MIT, on either the Red Line or the 1 bus. Harvard, a world away, is only two stops on the Red Line and a few more on the slower 1 bus. The Museum of Fine Arts, Symphony Hall, Prudential—all these, and more, easily accessible by the bus or the train. MIT offers a subsidized transit pass for $45 a month. Coupled with BlueBikes (MIT subsidizes an annual membership so that it costs only $35 for a full year), it can be amazingly convenient to navigate this city.

Speaking from experience, I say that knowing how to navigate a city by public transit is a luxury, a means of self-reliance, a liberating way to live.

And so, I urge you, the reader, to substitute one Uber or Lyft ride for an MBTA ride this month.

And to the City of Cambridge, if you’re reading this, please do designate a reserved bus lane on Mass. Ave.