Lack of Reliability in Boston’s Public Transit System

By, Teresa L. ’19

Winsor is an urban school; we all enjoy our close proximity to various restaurants and cafés, cultural institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner, and other iconic locales, including Fenway Park, which was particularly convenient with the recent Red Sox victory parade. Yet parts of the city still remain out of reach or require a car because of the Massachusett Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) failure to provide efficient and reliable public transportation.

The MBTA is a department within Massachusetts’ state government — although it is managed by French-Canadian company Keolis — and was established in 1964. From 1943 until 1964, it was known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, and before 1943, public transit in Boston was privately owned and operated. The Tremont Street Subway, now home to the Green Line from the Boylston Street to Park Street stations, was constructed in 1897 and is the oldest subway tunnel in North America. Yet, despite our innovative history, Boston transportation is now lagging behind the world and the rest of the country.

Trains arrive late without warning or stop on the tracks because of unspecified “signal issues.” Green Line carriages break down en route and release clouds of smoke. Commuter Rail trips are canceled because of scheduling issues that leave trains without engineers. The station platforms are grimy and dark; the subway seats are filthy. “The MBTA is so dirty,” said Emma Specht ’19. “The fabric [on the subway seats] is definitely unable to be washed and never washed.” “The Orange Line catches on fire,” added Kayla Lee ’19.

The service is also inadequate in its scope. “I like it, but I wish there was [a station] closer to my house because I have to take the bus to the train or I have to get driven to the train,” said Caroline Bonnevie ’19. Fares can also be an issue, especially for teenagers and students who do not receive the free passes available to those who live and go to school in Boston. “The Commuter Rail is really expensive,” said Lee, who takes the Commuter Rail into Boston each morning. “It’s very unaffordable for students… the [student passes purchased through Winsor] only bring us to Zone 2 and my house is past Zone 2, so I would have to pay even more… So I have to get dropped off at [another] stop when there’s a Commuter Rail station five minutes from my house that I can’t go to.”

Over this past summer, I worked as an intern in the office of Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, and one of my main projects was collecting information on how teenagers in Boston felt about the MBTA. Along with other interns and the graduate student who devised the project, I led focus groups and gave out surveys at various youth job sites and community organizations across the city. The results were overwhelmingly negative; the teenagers with whom we spoke were frustrated with the MBTA’s lack of transparency about delays and route information, explained how expensive fares in the summer when school-year passes expired limited them, and recounted occasionally troubling stories of their interactions with MBTA personnel. At the end of each focus group session, we asked the teenagers what their ideal mode of transportation would be. Almost no one chose public transportation.

These issues are particularly detrimental to low-income communities and for communities of color in the city, as those are the neighborhoods of the city that are most underserved by the MBTA. Low-income residents rely heavily on public transportation, as owning their own car or using ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft are prohibitively expensive; if that transportation is unreliable or inadequate, their ability to participate in the city is restricted.

Does it have to be this way? Looking at transportation systems in other cities, both in the United States and around the world, the answer is clearly no. In 2017, a transportation agency in Japan actually apologized for one of their trains leaving twenty seconds late; in Boston, such timing can be cause for celebration. So what’s wrong with the MBTA?

The main issue is funding. According to an internal report from 2009, the agency was “born broke” — the MBTA currently has $5.0 billion in outstanding debt. In 2000, state legislators passed a measure known as “Forward Funding,” which established a one-cent sale tax in Massachusetts to fund the agency. However, “Forward Funding” also transferred $3.3 billion of state debt to the MBTA, half of which stems from the famous “Big Dig” tunnel project, and the tax simply does not provide enough money. The percentage of money that comes from the state or local level for the MBTA is about two-thirds less than the local/state percentage of the budget of New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Unfortunately, Massachusetts’ governors and state legislators have not prioritized the MBTA. Recently re-elected Governor Charlie Baker is content to blame Boston’s transit problems on “protocol issues” and to explain his plans for the agency’s future as “making it work” — without any explanation as to how he plans to do so. “That stuff will eventually happen,” said Baker in a debate with Jay Gonzalez this fall.

But “that stuff” — the development of a reliable, convenient public transportation service — needs to happen now. Cars are killing Boston and the world; more than a fourth of Boston’s carbon emissions in 2016 came from transportation, and the city’s total emissions have actually been increasing in recent years. Cities that are walkable and have great public transportation are greener, healthier, more vibrant, and happier. We cannot continue to rely on our private cars for all of our trips; it’s incredibly selfish to drive just because we can. I understand the attraction; I have taken the train to school every day since I started at Winsor, and for the first few years, I begged my parents to drive me whenever possible. However, it’s clear that we cannot continue with our current lifestyle if we do not want our planet to suffer the consequences. Something has to give if we want to save the environment. Transportation is something that can give for many of us, and advocating for a better MBTA is a good place to start.