Why Boston's Transit System Is the Best... but Still the Worst

This one may come as a surprise: the good ol' Boston MBTA was recently rated one of the best public transit systems in the country. Yep, we’re as shocked as you... but it did get us thinking: is the T really that good? Also, is it really that bad? Or is it just our bottomless need to direct the blame somewhere that has ruined the T’s good name for Boston residents? Well, we did a deeper dive, and had to concede that the T might actually be the best, while still being the absolute worst. Here, the point-counterpoint. 

Ours is the oldest transit system in the country

... or, as the MBTA itself puts it on its website: “While Boston is the birthplace of American liberty, it is also the birthplace of American mass transportation.” The history of our lamented system is actually pretty great. It starts in the 1630s, with the creation of a ragtag ferry system between Boston, Charlestown, and Chelsea. “America’s First Subway” came along in 1897, in part as a response to the Great Blizzard of 1888, when workers died attempting to walk home after above-ground streetcars were waylaid. Our humble little system thus set the standard for every US system that came after it. 

... which would explain all the infrastructure issues

DC has nothing on us. One last-minute 24-hour closure? Try aging signal systems and months of shuttle busing thanks to track repairs. In fact, just a couple of months ago, we had ridiculous Red Line delays owing to some planned Longfellow Bridge repairs that somehow still seemed to throw the MBTA into a tizzy. Some of the Mattapan trolley cars, now more than 80 years old, are also in perpetual need of repair, with parts actually sourced from -- *face palm* -- trolley museums. And, of course, there was last winter, when cars broke down, tracks became impassable, and commutes doubled or tripled in length. Historical, yes, but also historically underfunded.

People riding the T
Flickr/Daniel Parks

But it's still cheaper than New York

How many of us go to New York for a weekend, suffer deep feelings of inadequacy, and then shrug away the pain? Well, at least we pay less to get on the subway. Right now it’s $2.75 versus $2.25 for the subway. We’ll take it. 

... but rates go up, like, every year

9.3% this year. A 5% hike the year before. The latest fare hike goes into a repair fund, yes, but aren’t we still owed money for the winter of 2015? Never mind the recent reveal that dozens of MBTA workers make six figures. 

It actually serves large swaths of Boston

One reason the MBTA rated so highly in the aforementioned survey is the sheer number of people who use it: 390 million rides per year, with 34% of commuters primarily relying on the T, the fifth-highest percentage in the US. And as much as we bitch and moan, the system does stretch into many Greater Boston neighborhoods. 

Mattapan line

... except the parts of Boston proper that could greatly benefit

Hyde Park, Roxbury, and much of Dorchester have no easy access to underground transit, relying instead on much longer bus commutes. And the aforementioned Mattapan trolley is in constant danger of getting 86’ed. Sure, the Silver Line made a dent in this inequity, but the Silver Line is also a glorified bus line, which means it’s still beholden to the perils of Boston traffic. 

It brakes for animals

Who can forget about Kenmore the cat? Good ol’ Ken was a stray kitten who decided to make the Kenmore station his home back in ‘09. MBTA staff kept a constant vigilance, trying to catch him whenever they could, and finally nabbing that fur bundle months after his first appearance. Eventually, the little striped cutie was adopted by a trolley operator. Sure beats that dumb pizza rat, New York.

... but not always humans

Ah, the great Runaway Train story of 2015. Because nobody got hurt and no trains were damaged, we can laugh now, but a driverless Red Line train with 50 passengers aboard passed through four stations without stopping, and could have rammed a stopped car at the Wollaston station. The circumstances are still murky (was it a driver's honest mistake owing partly to outdated cab equipment, or was it something more sinister?), but nothing about it makes us look good.

Four Forty-Five to Boston
Flickr/Dave Lawler

Hey, late-night service!

2013 was our year! Late-night weekend service meant we could party like adults and still have a safe and cost effective way to get home. We were finally a big city.

Well, that was fun. Granted, the service was costing the city $14 million a year, but how did a mere 2-1 MBTA board vote relegate us back to second-tier status? Even more embarrassing, the FTA knocked the board for failing to follow civil rights guidelines. And to top it off, the New York Times wrote a condescending little story about our sorry state of affairs. This one hurt.

We have an actual folk song about our transit system

“Charlie on the MTA.” If you went to camp, you sang the sucker. And if you grew up in the Boston area, you got all tingly about a song that mentioned Kendall Square, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Chelsea. It’s also just a damn catchy tune (and just missed making our list of Most Boston Songs Ever Recorded).

... that’s all about rate hikes

This isn’t an innocent ditty written and performed by The Kingston Trio; the tune was actually a campaign song written in 1949 for mayoral candidate Walter O’Brien, who opposed the fare hike that forced riders to pay an extra nickel to get off at above-ground stations. (That’s why Charlie’s wife had to keep chucking sandwiches through the window.) O’Brien finished dead last in the race despite the popularity of the tune (written by supporter Jackie Steiner), and then the story gets even more ridiculously Boston. After folk singer Will Holt recorded it in 1957, radio stations stopped playing it because they learned that O’Brien, a progressive, had been blacklisted for supposed commie activities.

Sign up here for our daily Boston email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun the Hub has to offer.

Meaghan Agnew first rode the T alone when she was eight years old. It's really not that bad. Track her commute times at @meaghandeth.