A crowded Green Line train at Park Street Station
(Note: Recently, my computer crashed and I had trouble finishing my posts on Spacing Toronto of the road trip I took to New England. There are a few more installments to complete my series.)
During my visit to Boston on Victoria Day weekend, I made a point of riding the famed Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or “T”. I was particularly interested in Boston’s transit system as it has both North America’s oldest subway (actually, a streetcar tunnel through the downtown core) and new bus rapid transit lines.
Like many eastern US cities (such as New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore and the State of New Jersey), all the transit modes over a very large area are operated by a single transit authority. The MBTA operates everything from commuter rail to ferries to subways to paratransit and does a relatively good job at coordinating fares between all modes. The MBTA was also one of the largest adopters of smart card RFID technology, a concept that is slowly coming to Toronto. The smartcard has been named “CharlieCard” – a rather clever name based upon a political campaign tune, later a popular folk song, about a man named Charlie trapped in the subway due to a 1948 implementation of an exit-fare on the Boston rapid transit system.
The introduction of a self-service fare system using smartcards in Boston (and elsewhere, such as Chicago and Washington) has changed the role of fare collectors, which has resulted in a great improvement. Fare collectors have become customer service agents, answering questions, helping customers who have trouble with the machines and also serving an important security purpose that cameras just don’t do. Two years ago in Chicago I saw a station agent come out from her booth to yell at a customer smoking on the open-air platform in the Loop. I am sure such a change would be welcomed by many critics of TTC customer service here.
Click on map to see larger version
Boston has four rail transit lines, all identified by colour: Red, Orange, Blue and Green, each with their own peculiarities. The Blue Line still uses overhead wire for most of its route, the Orange Line was diverted many times during the course of its existence, but still serves the same terminals. Even the nomenclature is interesting as each of the lines’ colours for the four lines were determined by the nature of their routes: The Red Line passes by Harvard University, whose school colour is Crimson; The Blue Line passes under the Harbor, the Orange Line once ran down Orange Avenue (now Washington Avenue), and the Green Line serves the “Green Necklace” of parks on the west end.
Boston is also one of the last transit systems to operate PCC streetcars in regular service; San Francisco and Kenosha, Wisconsin are the other two in North America. However, due to transit construction that weekend, I never had the opportunity to ride the Mattapan “High Speed Line”, a continuation of the Ashmont branch of the Red Line.
The Green Line is a sub-system of four light rail branches: apart from a section of the E-Heath branch, all tracks are separated from regular traffic either by tunnel, elevated section, private right of way, or median reservation. On the outer branches, the concept works well, providing relatively frequent, relatively quick transit to urban neighbourhoods and educational and cultural institutions spread out in the west end. But in the central core, the LRVs (which are much bigger than the small trolleys of 1897 for which the tunnels were designed) have a terrible tendency to bunch and leave large service gaps, even on weekends (I found that crowds to and from Fenway Park exasperated the situation). The D-Riverside branch is different from the other street-running branches as it is entirely in its own right-of-way and seemed to be the more reliable of all the routes.
It should be said that the Green Line not a direct comparison with Transit City at all. But the 1897 Tremont Street Subway concept of is the same idea of what is planned for Eglinton and the southern parts of the Jane and Don Mills routes. In the underground segments, passengers pay a fare at the fare gate like at a subway. On the surface, passengers pay the driver at the front of either car of the train. The surface sections of the Green Line allow one to see some of the diverse neighbourhoods of the city (just as one of my favourite ways of seeing Toronto is on the streetcar.)
One of the other transit curiosities was the Silver Line, a bus “rapid transit” system with two components – the Washington Street Silver Line, a simple Viva-type service with branded buses, fancy shelters and limited stops along the old Orange Line corridor; and the Waterfront component, a much more expensive project tied in with the Big Dig that connects South Station with the harbour, the new convention center and the airport. Buses run on overhead electric power in the bus only tunnel and diesel power outside. I tried out the service to get to Logan Airport (nearby across the harbour) and found that it was an ordeal. Even for “BRT”, buses were bunched and overcrowded, and the speeds in the tunnel unimpressive. There was a long layover at Silver Line Way station, where the trolley poles were dropped and the diesel engine started up. The old way to the airport, via the Blue Line and shuttle bus (there is no direct rail connection), felt like a more efficient route.
Apart from New York, when ever I’ve traveled in North America, I’ve come to appreciate Toronto’s small and underfunded subway. Sure, our subway might be less ancient, rickety and offer great views like Chicago’s L, or have interesting designs, like Montreal, but the knowledge that large, spacious subway trains will never run less than every 5 minutes apart is comforting compared to long waits for needlessly packed trains in places in comparable urban centres such as Chicago, Boston or Washington. Toronto may have less subway, but we run what we have very well.