What’s Wrong with the Silver Line?

It’s been awhile! I had to go to Washington last weekend, got back Tuesday just in time for my class, and have been playing catchup (grading papers, preparing classes) ever since. I started this post on the way to Washington because I was irate about the experience of getting to the airport on public transit. There are lots of world and national issues I should be writing about, but I want to finish this one first. If you don’t live in Boston, the following may be of limited interest, though it does relate to some general themes about urban life.

Public transit to the airport is clearly a good thing for any city. It decreases traffic, decreases the need for huge parking lots, and saves money for the traveller who can use it. Boston’s airport has always been transit-accessible, but this used to involve changing to the Blue Line (which for us Red Line users meant two changes), then taking a free shuttle bus from the Airport subway station to your terminal. So when they built an additional tunnel under Boston Harbor, the planners decided to add some Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Silver Line. The concept is beautiful – buses have a dedicated tunnel from South Station (the city’s main rail terminal, and a stop on the Red Line) for the first three stops, then make a short loop on city streets to get into the highway tunnel. The BRT articulated bus stops at every terminal, so you don’t have to make an additional change.

A second branch of the Silver Line runs from downtown Boston to Roxbury. This one is not so great – it runs on city streets, only partly in dedicated busways – and those busways are just painted lanes on the road, frequently blocked by unloading trucks, double-parked cars, or other thoughtless motorists.

But the airport service is, as I said, a beautiful concept. The implementation is another story. Here’s a list.

1. The transit authority (MBTA) has a bunch of articulated buses made for the airport service – they have build in luggage racks, an obvious necessity.  Since the racks take up space, they have other buses for the non-airport branches of the line, which go to various destinations in South Boston. However, about 30% of the time they use buses with no luggage racks for airport service. (This happened to me last Friday, inspiring this post!)  So people have no choice but to pile up their bags in the center aisle of the bus, effectively blocking passage down that aisle to anyone else. (I have also been on non-airport Silver Line buses that had luggage racks – so it seems that whoever assigns buses and drivers to routes is simply not paying attention.)

2. Boston’s light rail system, the Green Line, has pre-validation machines at most stops. e stops. These let people pay in advance, then get on the trolley using any door. The Silver Line has none of these. So unless you get on at one of the three underground stations – and, in particular, if you get on at the airport – you have to queue up at the front door with all your luggage, then make your way – past other people with luggage – to the rear of the bus to sit down and, if you are lucky, find open space in a luggage rack (see point 1).

3. Police make no attempt to keep the bus stops free of parked cars, and bus drivers make little attempt to pull completely into the bus stop; so, while the buses are designed with no internal steps, so that luggage could be rolled aboard – it can’t be, because the bus doesn’t pull up to the sidewalk. (In any case, the floor of the bus is slightly higher than most sidewalks, so you have to do a little lifting – a problem that could easily be fixed by raising the platforms in the stations).

Those are just the problems with the airport service. The Roxbury service is much worse. The biggest failing: isthat the MBTA reneged on its commitment to dig a new tunnel to bring the Roxbury buses underground at South Station, so that Roxbury users would have a no-changes ride to the airport. But that would have cost a billion or so, so let’s leave it aside. The other huge problem is that the service is simply not BRT. I’ve been on BRT – for example, in Ottawa – and it has two essential features: dedicated busways, and prepaid stations (you know, like a subway station, where you pay your fare as you enter the station, then board the bus or train through any door when it comes in). The Roxbury Silver Line has neither: its “busway” is a painted stretch of the street, its stations are just gussied-up bus stops. When the MBTA moved the Orange Line from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain, they had promised a replacement service. The community asked for light rail; they said no, but BRT is just as good. What the community got was neither; it’s just a regular bus line with a fancy paint job.

The airport service could be improved at very little cost; they mostly need to pay attention, plus installing some of those validation machines they already have on the Green Line. The Roxbury service would take more – they really should put in light rail – but it would be worth it. The city of the future will be basically car-free, and we have to start moving that way now.