The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority– or MBTA– has gotten a lot of negative attention recently, and anyone who rides regularly can tell you why: an increase in delays due to derailments and other mechanical issues, an inability to accommodate the sheer volume of commuters during rush hour, and increasing fare prices.
You wouldn’t think it while sitting on the Red Line at 8 a.m., but Wallet Hub ranked the MBTA as the second-best public transit system in the United States. Adam McCann, a financial writer for Wallet Hub, evaluated transit systems across the country based on “accessibility and convenience, safety and reliability, and public transit resources.” Boston scored a 2 for accessibility and convenience, a 10 for public transit resources, and a 34 for safety and reliability (where 1=best possible score, 100=worst). Interestingly, many transit systems that ranked worse than the MBTA overall actually received a higher safety rating. For example, Omaha ranked 28th overall, but received a perfect safety score of 1.
“I take the Red Line in the mornings from Braintree station, and it could range from an hour to an hour and a half depending on delays,” says Destiny Hassell, a freshman social work major with a minor in psychology. “Taking the train from Braintree station is absolutely the worst,” she continued. “I have to wake up more than an hour early to get to school on time just because I know there will be delays…. I made my entire schedule around commuting because professors are often not understanding… I wish there was an easier way to get to school.”
Madeline Flagg, who is also in her first year at Lesley, agrees. Last semester she took the 7 a.m. train from was “about a ten-minute ride into Porter Square, unless the train was not on time, which was four out of five days every week…I would be sprinting from Porter Square to my Brattle Campus class at 8 a.m.”
As students on an urban campus, we hear these anecdotes constantly. For those of us who rely on public transportation to get to class, the stakes feel very high. On December 9th, 2019 a safety review panel released a report of their findings regarding MBTA safety practices. According to MBTA News, the panel was comprised of “three nationally recognized experts in transit safety: former US transportation secretary Ray LaHood; former Federal Transit Administration acting administrator Carolyn Flowers; and former NYC Transit president Carmen Bianco.” They convened in June of 2019.
The panel found that “Critical [Preventative Maintenance and Inspections] are not taking place as required… there is little… [or] no data to support what maintenance and inspections are required, or what has been accomplished. In other instances, procedures are well documented and available, but are not enforced by local supervision.”
This isn’t surprising to those of us who ride the T regularly. Delays due to mechanical issues happen so frequently, they have become the norm. Students and professionals alike rely on the MBTA to get them to class or work on time, and many frequently feel like they are being let down. But why should this be allowed to happen?
“Although the plan stipulates that safety is a priority, the reality is that on a tactical level, the priorities and resources of the agency have been dedicated to capital acceleration,” the report states. This news came as no surprise to Nirmala, a sophomore social work major, who describes the MBTA as “embarrassingly expensive.” Erin Clark of the Boston Globe recently wrote that “The MBTA raised fares by an average of 5.8 percent in July, its first increase in three years.” It currently costs $2.40 to ride the subway, $1.70 to ride the bus, and between $2.40 and $13.25 to ride the commuter rail. All of these prices are one-way.
Ben Adams, a sophomore social work major, takes the 66 bus to class. He says it’s “never on time,” and gets “completely full of people so it doesn’t run properly.” He estimates that between the hours of “8:00-10:00 a.m. and 5:00-7:00 p.m.” rush-hour congestion is at its worst.
On the other hand, Keisha Pierre, a freshman social work major, takes a more balanced view. She points out that “the MBTA is fast and reliable when it wants to be, [but] can be very unpredictable.”
If you ride during low-volume hours, the T or bus is not always such an unpleasant experience. Mostly, you’ll get where you’re going in a reasonable amount of time. Unless you have a difficult transfer. Unless there is a mechanical failure, a derailment, a death on the tracks. These occurrences are not rare, but they are impossible for passengers to predict.
“A lot of public transit [in other cities] is a lot worse,” says Madeline, a junior design major who did not want her last name used. She went on to point out that Boston has the oldest subway system in the country. “We have the infrastructure that a lot of cities have to catch up with… [by expanding] under buildings and towns… most of that stuff is already there for us.” This head start likely contributes to Boston’s high “accessibility and convenience” rating from Wallet Hub. “As rent gets higher, people are expanding outwards.” She predicts that, if the MBTA doesn’t become safer and more efficient, “those people are going to be driving. I think that from a gas perspective, we need to be encouraging people to not be driving.”
The part of the final safety report that I find most disturbing describes a “culture of blame and retaliation… impeding the T’s ability to achieve a greater level of risk management.” The panel went on to say “employees… do not trust their leadership and therefore, do not share what is happening in the field. They fear heavy-handed discipline…The workforce doesn’t feel supported and are clearly frustrated with management’s lack of responsiveness to their needs. We heard of countless situations where employees ask for needed safety equipment or support without any action occurring.”
The report states that “The Panel adopted the [Federal Transit Administration’s] Safety Management System (SMS) as a framework for conducting its work. All mass transit properties throughout the U.S. must have a certified SMS in place by July 20, 2020.” With this deadline rapidly approaching, it is unclear if or how the MBTA will work out these underlying problems, which seem to run as deep as Boston’s historic subway tunnels. Meanwhile, commuting students will have to put up with service that is erratic when they are just trying to get to class on time.