Slower Than Walking: Downtown Gridlock Bogs Down the T’s Subway Replacement Shuttles

On the first full day of an emergency shutdown of the central portions of the Orange and Green lines, thousands of subway passengers endured long lines for shuttle buses and excruciatingly slow trips.

People boarding the shuttle bus outside North Station headed to Government Center.
People boarding the shuttle bus outside North Station headed to Government Center.

Blocked bus lanes, long lines, and crowded buses stuck in traffic characterized the first day of shuttle service between North Station and Back Bay after the MBTA closed numerous downtown Orange and Green Line stations due to safety concerns under the Government Center Garage.

Late last night, the MBTA announced the service changes after it discovered that “the garage’s support columns that pass through MBTA tunnels near Haymarket station are severely deteriorated, creating an unsafe environment in the tunnel area for Green Line and Orange Line trains to operate through.” 

MBTA Closes Downtown Segments of Orange, Green Lines

This morning, I made the trip from the Orange Line to the Green Line, transferring at Copley, then taking the shuttle bus from Government Center up to Lechmere. 

I wanted to see what we all would be experiencing for what is currently an unknown time frame while engineers inspect the area and crews make the necessary repairs. 

For the first stretch I rode the Orange Line from Green Street to Back Bay, the last stop on the south side of the line under the current service changes. The Orange Line has several slow zones between stations due to poor track maintenance, but I was at least encouraged we only experienced one slow zone along the way between Stony Brook and Jackson Square. In the Federal Transit Agency’s recent safety inspection of the MBTA, track maintenance was one of the critical items the agency is asking the MBTA to address. 

Over the intercom the train conductor warned passengers about the current service changes: “Once again, we apologize, but Back Bay will be the last stop on this train.”  

At Back Bay, we all got off and made our way up the stairs where two MBTA staff dressed in bright yellow vests stood near the fare boxes helping folks who needed directions to the Green Line, three blocks away.

As I crossed St. James Avenue I noticed the paint from Copley Connect was still on Dartmouth Street from the pilot program that closed the area off to cars between the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church earlier this month. At one point I spotted someone walking into traffic to cross the street. I wished the street closure was still in effect to make things a little easier for folks who will now have to make their way from Back Bay station to Copley for at least the next few days.

Person stepping into traffic to cross Dartmouth Street toward the Boston Public Library.
Person stepping into traffic to cross Dartmouth Street toward the Boston Public Library.

 

The fare gates at Copley were all open on the morning of June 24th, meaning the ride was free for passengers. This didn’t do much for me since I have a monthly pass, but I appreciated it nonetheless.
The fare gates at Copley were all open on the morning of June 24th, meaning the ride was free for passengers. This didn’t do much for me since I have a monthly pass, but I appreciated it nonetheless.

On the train toward Government Center, I spoke with a woman who said she doesn’t usually take the Green Line, and needed to get downtown. I recommended she get off at Park Street and walk from there. She said she was on her way to work and this was adding time to her commute. As she was leaving she looked confused and hesitated before stepping onto the platform and asked in Spanish, “Which door do I use?”

Coming into Government Center, the conductor announced, “Government Center is the last stop for this train, shuttle buses on street level to continue service.”

I made my way outside to Cambridge Street, where there were different shuttles for North Station and Lechmere. I finally found the Lechmere shuttle, a large yellow bus at the end of the block. 

Buses parked outside Government Center; the first three were out of service.
Buses parked outside Government Center; the first three were out of service.

 

Crowds wait to board a shuttle bus from a crowded, narrow sidewalk near Government Center.
Crowds wait to board a shuttle bus from a crowded, narrow sidewalk near Government Center.

After an uneventful and relatively uncrowded ride to Lechmere, I immediately got on the next shuttle back down to Government Center where I met Maria, a woman who looked to be about my age. 

She shared she didn’t know about the changes and this was her first time on a shuttle. She was headed to East Boston Medical Center. Maria was also a Spanish speaker, and I wondered if the MBTA has plans on having multilingual staff at stations.

View from the front window of the bus shuttle from Lechmere to Government Center. Without dedicated bus lanes or even cones to create temporary lanes along the shuttle routes, our bus kept getting stuck in traffic.
View from the front window of the bus shuttle from Lechmere to Government Center. Without dedicated bus lanes or even cones to create temporary lanes along the shuttle routes, our bus kept getting stuck in traffic.

 

Our shuttle bus pulling into Government Center, where an idling car was parked in our spot; I wondered if drivers had any idea of today’s events.
Our shuttle bus pulls up to the curb at Government Center, where an idling car was parked in our spot; I wondered if drivers had any idea of today’s events.

From Government Center, I walked toward North Station to see how things were going over there. Along the way, I saw a large truck and a car parked on the bus lane while someone at another truck pulled out a ramp to start unloading things. The sight was particularly disheartening today. I tagged Boston 311 on my Twitter post, and kept walking.

Just a few steps later I came to the Government Center Garage - the reason for the partial Orange Line and Green Line closures and why so many people are now spending more time stuck in traffic riding shuttle buses without dedicated lanes.
Illegally parked cars block the bus lane on Congress Street in downtown Boston near the Government Center Garage, where the discovery of deteriorating columns have shut down the central portions of the Green and Orange subway lines.

 

View of the Government Center Garage
View of the Government Center Garage near the now-closed Haymarket subway station.

Around 10:45 am I found myself at Cross Street witnessing one of the most dystopian things I’ve seen in Boston – fire trucks, ambulances and police cars coming through the area as groups of people tried to cross several lanes of traffic in an area filled with cars with the partially-dismantled Government Center Garage in the background. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was likely in response to a fire at the building currently under construction at 1 Congress Street in Government Center.

Ambulance riding down Cross Street with the Government Center garage in the background.
Ambulance riding down Cross Street with the Government Center garage in the background.

At this point I had seen enough for one morning. I was ready to take the shuttle from North Station back to Government Center. 

This was the line that awaited me:

People standing in line outside North Station waiting for the shuttle bus to Government Center.
People standing in line outside North Station waiting for the shuttle bus to Government Center.

Again, we were stuck in mixed traffic, this time in a jam-packed bus that was inching along. As the minutes ticked by, we had only managed to move a few feet down Causeway Street.

Crowded shuttle bus stuck in mixed traffic on its way from North Station to Government Center.
Crowded shuttle bus stuck in mixed traffic on its way from North Station to Government Center.
Screenshots showing the distance our shuttle bus covered in the span of four minutes - just a few feet. The arrow points to the Western Union for reference.
Screenshots showing the distance our shuttle bus covered in the span of four minutes – just a few feet. The arrow points to the Western Union for reference.

Around 10 minutes in, people began to get restless, wondering if they should have just walked. As we made our way down Staniford Street I couldn’t help but feel upset at the cars parked along the street. This parking lane could be converted, at least temporarily, to a dedicated bus lane so buses full of people could avoid heavy traffic. Instead it’s being used to store empty cars at a time when subway service is piecemeal and dedicated lanes are desperately needed.

18 minutes later, we finally made it to Government Center, which means we made the 3200-foot trip at an average speed of about 2 miles per hour (the same trip would take about eleven minutes on foot, according to Google Maps).

On Friday morning, StreetsblogMASS asked the City of Boston’s Transportation Department (BTD) whether the city had any plans to implement emergency bus lanes to facilitate the MBTA’s shuttle buses, or otherwise take other measures to relieve crowding for transit riders.

For the time being, the answer appears to be no.

The City is currently looking at all options to ease the burden on MBTA riders,” wrote a BTD spokesperson. “As the timeline for restoration of service is solidified, the City will keep commuters updated on any changes.”

Later in the day, we followed up one more time with the City of Boston to ask why the city was still prioritizing on-street parking for a handful of private vehicles on these streets while thousands of T riders were being forced to endure long lines at shuttle bus stops and delays on the buses themselves.

This time, we got a more detailed response.

“The City has been working in close partnership with the MBTA to support their shuttle bus fleet by implementing parking restrictions, adjusting signal timing, and providing police details at key intersections,” wrote a Boston Transportation Department official in an email message. “The MBTA has not requested temporary dedicated bus lanes at this time.”

The official also noted that the mid-day skyscraper fire at 1 Congress Street also caused an unusual amount of traffic congestion in the area where shuttles were operating today.

Christian MilNeil contributed reporting to this article.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Extensiones de bordillo/banqueta con vegetación en ambos lados del cruce peatonal localizados en la intersección de Somerville Avenue y Merriam Street a lo largo del camino de bici en la Ciudad de Somerville. Extensiones de bordillo/banquetas hacen la calle más angosta y ayudan a reducir la distancia que la gente tiene que cruzar.

Nuevas Normas de Diseño Para Calles Mas Seguras y Verdes

|
El mes pasado, funcionarios municipales y estatales se juntaron para anunciar las primeros normas de infraestructura verde en Boston, con el fin de aumentar la resiliencia de la ciudad contra el cambio climático por medio de pequeñas instalaciones en las calles. Read the article in English.  En una junta de prensa en Central Square Park […]
A photo illustration of a proposed new shared-use path. A wide, paved path runs through the middle of the image and is lined on both sides by trees and shade. To the left is a wooden guardrail and a two-lane roadway.

DCR Proposes New Trail Connection from Hyde Park to Blue Hills

|
Monday evening, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) presented conceptual design plans to connect the Neponset River Greenway to the Blue Hills via new and upgraded multi-use paths.  Spanning 8.2 miles, the Neponset River Greenway begins in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester and runs along the Neponset River through the neighborhoods of Hyde Park, […]
a paved bike and pedestrian path surrounded by trees next to a parking lot.

Bedford Voters Reject Minuteman Extension at Town Meeting

|
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the proposal to extend the Minuteman Trail through the Town of Bedford failed to pass after residents failed to meet the two-thirds majority needed during Monday evening’s Special Town Meeting.   Inside the packed gym at Bedford High School, residents of the town gathered to vote on several articles, […]