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T Stands for Terrible: Boston’s Transit Woes Reflect a National Problem

By Briana Howard Pagán
By Roberto C. Quesada, Contributing Opinion Writer
Roberto C. Quesada ’27, a Crimson Arts editor, lives in Hollis Hall.

Trains on fire, subways derailing, and average speeds of three miles per hour. If someone submitted this to Saturday Night Live, they’d be told it’s unrealistic — but it’s the reality of transit in Boston.

The crisis seems illogical. Boston is one of the wealthiest metro areas in the United States — it should be able to build train tracks, which were invented over two centuries ago, the right distance apart. Yet, other wealthy U.S. cities suffer from similar issues.

This national crisis in mass transit is not only embarrassing, but it is also separating communities, hurting the economy, and harming the environment.

Before our subway stations were flooding, the U.S. was a leader in mass transit. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, steam trains connected vast distances. Electric streetcars were also popular, facilitating intra-city trips.

This progress hit the brakes when Henry Ford brought the car to the masses. With personal vehicles, mass transit fell out of favor, and new highways cut across low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, literally segregating communities. Generally, only wealthy areas — like Cambridge, Mass. — had the political will to successfully protest these projects.

Car-centered designs dominated the U.S., with large sprawling suburbs being built from Long Island to Orange County. People took on long commutes, spending hours in traffic.

Today, following decades of neglect and a lack of funding, transit systems across the U.S. have been left in grim condition.

In cities like Boston and New York, trains are often delayed, and accidents like derailments happen too frequently. Stations are dirty and in disrepair, trains are slow, and transit networks fail to cover large parts of some cities. While Back Bay is only 2.6 miles from Harvard, one 40 minute, five-mile trip on the T through downtown Boston is required to traverse the distance by train.

Our transit systems also lack basic safety technology found in other developed countries. Platform screen doors would prevent people from falling into the tracks and advanced signaling systems could help increase speeds and reduce wait times for trains. The U.S. lags behind in implementing these critical technologies.

The issues that plague our transit systems make them unreliable for daily use, and cause people to rely on other modes of transportation, like cars. When done well, public transit could do the opposite.

Consider the journey between Boston and New York City, which currently takes four hours on a train. A high-speed rail line, using existing technology, could slash travel times by over half.

This not only has the potential to take cars and trains off of the road, reducing emissions, but it would also bring our cities closer. In Spain, construction of the Madrid-Barcelona high-speed rail line significantly reduced flights and made travel between city centers significantly more convenient.

This is the key to good public transit: services that are frequent, punctual, and fast. Because of the costs associated with public transit, achieving this will require challenging a deeply rooted U.S. norm: individualism. This isn’t just about shifting from valuing profit margins to valuing innovation and connectivity; it’s about recognizing that progress in public transit will only come when we view it as a collective achievement that enhances community well-being and environmental sustainability.

While it’s true that some mass transit systems like the New York City Subway often operate at a financial loss, their value extends far beyond immediate profitability. These systems enable movement and economic cohesion, and seamlessly connect us to one another.

The example set by other countries like France, Japan and Spain shows what a societal appreciation for the mere presence of public transit can look like. This change in mindset is what could get our government – at a local and federal level – to begin properly funding public transit systems. This would not only provide better service on existing routes, but also allow for the construction of new routes entirely.

Thankfully, many of these changes are already being implemented. The MBTA is actively eliminating slow zones as the government of Mass. recognizes the importance of public transit, and a new high-speed rail project connecting Greater Los Angeles to Las Vegas has the potential to prove that high speed rail can work in the U.S.

While many people in the U.S. like to claim that we are “the best,” the U.S. still manages to fail at tasks as simple as laying train tracks the right distance apart. Bringing our nation forward has to start from within — and mass transit, if done right, has the chance to improve our lives and revolutionize how we live.

Roberto C. Quesada ’27, a Crimson Arts editor, lives in Hollis Hall.

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