The MBTA, or “T” to reduce an acronym even further, manages every mode of public transportation in Boston: subways, commuter trains, and, staying true to their name, the ferries. The T map, like most transit maps, is a austerely graceful web of practicality:
The abstract fork sprawling from right to left is the Green Line, Boston’s oldest—and when you step into one of the underground stations (many parts of the Green Line are at street level) that’s pretty apparent. That isn’t really an issue though, outside of handicap accessibility which the MBTA has been working on for years. Transit logistics on the MBTA, however, don’t seem to have moved past the 19th century though.
- The Honor System
It’s nearly impossible for the aboveground T stops to partition off the entrances to platforms; safety, access, traffic, and train mobility issues are all immediately apparent. During peak hours drivers will allow riders to hop on the car without paying, out of necessity and frustration rather than lack of integrity as some posit. Lost fares are relatively marginal, as the fares only recover about 32% of their operating costs (the linked PDF is a great breakdown of MBTA transit facts, and is available for all transit systems on the National Transit Database website) so the problem isn’t so much with money as it is with efficiency.
Passengers need to be able to board the train faster, a simple concept that cascades far down the logistical landscape offering faster service, reduced wait times, and improved public perception. The Honor System would allow passengers to board quickly and without incident—given they purchase a monthly pass which would have to have its pricing structure altered significantly. It’s worked in large and small-scale transit systems in Europe and stateside and with the Green Line’s idiosyncrasies why not attempt something as quirky as honor.
- Eliminating Stops/Extending Trains
These are two of the obvious solutions that approach the issue from disparate zones; economic and engineering respectively. There have been days when walking, at a brisk pace of course, that I can beat the T from one stop to another. A confluence of logistical issues are behind it, but put bluntly the Green Line has too many stops. There are as many as five stops that could be eliminated on the B Line alone (the B is one of the Green Line’s four forks) and their disappearance would be noticed by a minority of riders. While the money saved from ditching the above ground stations is marginal in the eight-digit budget, rider benefits go beyond monetization.
The extension of trains is something that seems obvious to me, but there is an understandable combination of logistical issues; not enough trains, track pressures, extra drivers, etc. The 3-train car approach works and reduces peak hour load significantly; I’ve never had to wait for the next train at 5 PM on a Friday when a 3-car rolls around. A 3-car train is (barely) visible below:
- Smart Lighting Systems
Green Line trains, on their worst days, operate more like slow-moving buses than their subterranean counterparts, and what do buses depend on more than anything else? Traffic lights. Santa Monica, among other cities, installed a traffic light priority system for its buses where green lights are extended and red lights are shortened via a special transponder on the bus. It’s a sort of proxy bus rapid transit system; buses are able to switch roles and function more like a subway and less like a giant car. The Green Line would be able to make sue of the same kind of things with the same brand of results.
That’s three to consider, and there are more on the way. The Green Line, when it works, is efficient, fast, and cheap; the MBTA would be wise to bring it up to modern standards.