Robert Whitcomb: Boston transit trials and triumphs

MBTA trolley bus.

MBTA trolley bus.


From, Robert Whitcomb's Boston Diary, in The Boston Guardian, where a version of this piece first ran.

A  little historical perspective is needed as we whine about MBTA  delays and cancellations (especially during and after winter storms) and gridlocked street traffic.

The fact is that Boston  has much better mass transit now than it had, say, three decades ago. Most importantly, there’s a lot more of it available. And for all their occasional breakdowns, the MBTA subway cars, trolleys, buses and commuter trains are generally in better condition than they were when I lived in Boston fulltime, almost 50 years ago.  (These days I ride MBTA subways and commuter rail once or twice a month.)

And consider the South Station bus-train complex at the center of the MBTA empire: for decades a depressing, dirty domain for derelicts. Now it’s a spectacular intermodal center, served by more subway, commuter rail and bus lines than a generation  ago,  as well as by  Amtrak’s semi-high-speed Acela. I love that the MBTA’s still newish Silver Line will take you  directly to Logan Airport from the complex.


I can well remember when young having to wait for a bus  across the street from South Station --   a creepy area dominated by the dubious Essex Hotel and frequented by panhandling bums, sexual predators and sexual businesspeople, among my other pals.  (“Hey, cutie, have a light?’’) I had to take a bus because for a long time there were no trains to the South Shore, where I had relatives, the old New Haven Railroad having long since collapsed. Finally, the MBTA extended  rail commuter lines down there.

And the burying of the Central Artery and related Big Dig work has  often smoothed traffic and made downtown Boston more attractive and  thus more prosperous.

The rebuilding/expansion of the Back Bay MBTA-Amtrak station will further improve life for transiteers. The station now is dank, dark and cave-like – an unsettling entry for travelers entering the gorgeous Copley Square neighborhood.

Now,  if they could finally directly connect  South and North Stations so  that you could take an Amtrak or commuter train to north of Boston from south of it without having to  get off at South Station and go to North Station by MBTA, cab or Lyft or Ube -- the current ridiculous situation. And more ferries, please, including on the Charles River.

Of  course, Boston street traffic is  often horrendous.  That’s in part because  the city has a dense public-transit system, which makes it more prosperous, which brings in more businesses and individuals, which clogs the streets and spawns the need for more mass transit, etc.  At the same time, far, far too many people persist in driving their cars everywhere in this compact city.  

Uber and Lyft have also worsened traffic, by putting many more vehicles on the road to serve cell-phone dependents who might otherwise have taken the subway, trolleys or buses. Boston needs to get many more people into transport  that takes up much less room on the streets than all these cars with one passenger. That means we need more and better buses, not that I will ride in one.

Robert Whitcomb is president of The Boston Guardian, editor of New England Diary and a columnist.