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10 Boston transportation changes that should give commuters hope

Roomier trains, expanded bus service, e-bikes—it’s not all delays and shuttles

Boston Globe via Getty Images

Getting around the Boston region remains a herculean task. Its traffic is some of the world’s most congested; its mass transit is aged and often unreliable; and its bike infrastructure is still in its infancy.

But several milestones and projects should give commuters more than some hope for a less stressful future. These are initiatives taking shape or recently launched, mind you, rather than apparently blue-sky ideas such as, say, an aerial gondola over the Seaport.

New T signals and signs

Boston Globe via Getty Images

In early October 2018, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority signed a $218 million contract to install new signals along the Red and Orange Lines—along the former by 2021 and the latter by 2022.

Officials say the replacements could reduce signal failures—including those that invariably snarl train traffic and cause sometimes epic delays—by up to 70 percent.

Meanwhile, the MBTA has started using countdown clocks in stations to tell commuters when a Red, Blue, or Orange line train has stopped rather than simply slapping a number of minutes before an arrival on the clocks—and then never budging from that number even as the obviously stalled or otherwise delayed train fails to arrive.

Green Line growth

The MBTA is also in the process of rolling out 24 new Green Line cars.

The additional trolleys are in anticipation of the Green Line extension through Somerville into Medford (which itself is cause for hope). But they also allow for the MBTA to cycle out existing cars for much-needed repairs.

And these cars are some of the T’s most modern and roomiest. They have the same number of seats as existing trolleys—44—but room for 10 percent more passengers because of additional standing room.

What’s more, they ride lower to the ground, making schleps on and off them easier than with current Green Line cars; and they are wheelchair-accessible.

New T cars

Boston Globe via Getty Images

The two dozen new Green Line cars for the Somerville-Medford extension aren’t the only new T cars on the horizon. The Orange Line is slated to get 152 new cars, beginning in 2018, and the Red Line 252 cars, beginning in 2019.

The cars will be roomier than current setups, with fold-up seats and wider aisles. Also, like the looming Green Line cars, they will have digital screens. Above is a shot of one of the new Orange Line numbers.

Expanded hours for buses


Starting in September, the MBTA is adding 282 bus trips per week in an effort to boost transportation options for riders who work late, in particular lower-wage workers trying to get back and forth from Logan Airport.

The additions build on an extension of late-night/early-morning service that started in the spring of 2018.

The additions involve merging some routes, including Silver Line branches that service Logan and Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Such mergers also extend the lengths of particular routes from downtown Boston to as far away as Lynn as well as through Somerville, Medford, and Malden.

The MBTA also plans to get the word out more about existing routes such as from Roxbury to Logan in the wee small hours. Depending on how heavily these additional and extended routes are used, the agency might add more late-night/early-morning service after the fall.

New routes for buses, too

Speaking of buses! The MBTA is looking at revamping its bus routes, with new ones possible to service traditionally underserved areas and ones where the population of commuters has grown.

The agency does not plan to touch 15 key routes among the 175 that the MBTA operates now. Otherwise, though, everything else seems up for debate. That means those new routes are possible, and current routes could be tossed in the dustbin of transportation history—or at least adjusted.

The MBTA hopes to roll out a new plan for its bus network by the middle of 2020. The deliberations inherent in a big change like this will likely prove contentious. Who wants to lose his or her route to work? In the meantime, the agency is seeking feedback from riders, advocates, and municipalities.

Silver Line streaks

The Silver Line rolled into Chelsea in April as planned, further opening up Boston’s northern neighbor as a hub of transit-oriented development.

The five-mile route runs from South Station through East Boston to a stop just west of Everett Avenue, and facilitates connections to the Red and Blue lines. It has four stops total in Chelsea.

The rollout has also spurred calls for extending the Silver Line into Everett. Stay tuned.

Higher fines for bike and bus improvements

Parking meter Boston Globe/Contributor/Getty Images

Boston in early July 2018 hiked the fines for 11 of its most common parking violations.

The move was designed to raise revenue to pay for bike and bus improvements. Those improvements will include new dedicated bus lanes as well as dedicated spots for ride-hailing services such as Uber to drop off and pick up.

The city also plans to spend the expected $5 million windfall from the higher fines on signal improvements and repaving roads.

Boston’s new downtown zoning plan

Speaking of actions from Boston officialdom, the Boston Planning & Development Agency in June 2018 launched an approximately two-year initiative to devise a new master zoning plan for downtown that will emphasize public space, affordable housing, and transportation.

The effort—for which some preservationists, business owners, and affordable housing activists have advocated for years—is an acknowledgement that a lot has changed in downtown Boston since the last comprehensive plan for the area 30 years ago.

It’s increasingly mixed-use, rather than mostly office and retail. Residential development in particular has spiked downtown in recent years. And the city wants a master zoning plan going forward that reflects this increasingly 24-7 nature.

Tap and go for the T


The MBTA plans to switch to an all-electronic fare-collection system by 2020.

The move will mean big changes for riders, including no more paying with cash on-board trolleys or buses. Instead, riders will likely just tap a credit card or a smart-phone app to a new kind of fare reader.

Why the changes? To speed up commutes, the MBTA says. Or at least that’s the main reason. An all-electronic fare-collection system, similar to what London has now, will also help the agency analyze ridership data better and then improve service based on it.

It will, too, allow the MBTA to perhaps sync with other transit systems—including Hubway—to eventually build a unified payment system.

Bikes and scooters everywhere you look

Several rider-less e-bikes in a row. Shutterstock

The Boston region is awash in bike-shares as of mid-2018, whether of the conventional sort or the newer dockless ones—and whether of the traditional pedal-powered or the sorts with some electric-battery assistance. (As for e-scooters, those will likely have to wait for a change in state law before they become prevalent hereabouts.)

The bike-share boom is due both to an expansion of the Blue Bikes conventional bike-share in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville; and to the introduction of dockless bikes such as LimeBike and Spin.

Now, all of these additions have not come without friction, especially when a dockless bike ends up in an area that doesn’t allow nor want it. But the bikes do arrive at a time of greater interest in, and infrastructure for, car-less transit.