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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.