A Fantasy Map for the T

I learned the term “crayonista” recently, and while I do agree that it can get pie-in-the-sky counterproductive, it can also be a useful tool to spark the imagination and win popular support and funding (Burnham’s “make no little plans” comes to mind here).

That said, the Boston Globe just ran a piece on a crayonista MBTA map put together by a Redditor. (The mind shudders and recoils at those particular words strung together. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.) A friend asked for my thoughts, which I offered, and I’ve decided to reproduce them here.

In no particular order:

  • While the new Green Line branches do open up currently underserved areas, from what I understand the Central Subway is pretty much at capacity. And that still allows for an astonishing 42 trains per hour! There’s room to run more of the trains through the other end into Somerville (only E trains run to Lechmere; D trains terminate at North Station and B and C trains turn at Government Center), but not to expand to the south/east without cannibalizing existing service on the B/C/D/E branches. But the new F line to Dudley here would service some pretty important locations, which brings me to:
  • A proposal I’ve seen and agreed with is that either the C or B branches of the Green Line should be converted to heavy rail. Unlike the Blue Line (a converted streetcar tunnel), the Green Line is standard heavy gauge, so theoretically this wouldn’t require much more than rolling stock. How this would affect existing capability through the Central Subway, though – and/or require additional tunneling through downtown – I don’t know. This has historically been ruled out due to the interaction of heavy rail with at-grade crossings, but the additional capacity might justify it. Though so too would be just upgrading the power subsystems to enable 100% 3-car Green Line trains (or even 4-car). More Green Line through-service between Kenmore, Copley, and Somerville could probably help ease the load and provide a better service. But the ridership levels on the B and C branches justify the additional capacity of heavy rail.
  • Extending the Blue Line to Charles/MGH is a given (although what form that takes remains to be seen), and I’d agree that it should extend from there. On the other hand, the Esplanade probably doesn’t get enough steady traffic to justify a heavy rail stop (ironically, something more like Green Line-esque light rail would be more appropriate). Routing and station locations for the Blue Line extension are up for debate, but it’s definitely a good idea in the abstract. Also missing is the northern Blue Line extension to Lynn.
  • The Urban Ring, as is mentioned in the article, is definitely something being planned for. On the other hand, the planned version is pretty shitty – it’s watered-down BRT (is there any other kind of BRT?). But instead of this perfect circle, it should probably have a tail leading off somewhere (there is a whole host of operational challenges with running an unbroken circle). I think those stops are, on the whole, reasonably well-sited, though I’d wonder how the Logan stop on the Ring and the Airport Blue Line stop would interact. Connecting Allston and the seaport to the rest of the T is a must and long overdue, though this doesn’t take the newly-planned “Indigo Line” into account.
  • The “5” train to Readville, unless actually a separate service from MBTA Commuter Rail, should clearly indicate that it’s using heavy rail (or DMUs) and operating on a dedicated right-of-way. If it has to share tracks with commuter rail, freight trains, and other traffic, I don’t know how it could achieve the frequency necessary to be a rapid transit line and thus be worth of inclusion on this map.
  • On a more minor note, splitting the Orange Line at Fairmont would allow the MBTA to double the coverage area – but only at the cost of frequency. E.g., if trains normally are running every six minutes, only every other train will be able to service Readville and Roxbury, respectively, leading to potential 12-minute headways (ideally, we’re talking about 3-minute or less combined headways, or 6 minutes per branch. But if good frequency isn’t planned for, branches are a very bad idea). As a WMATA rider, I’m all too familiar with how terrible these bad headways can be. I think in an ideal world I’d pick one of the two; probably West Roxbury, and just run the whole line to there.

I would love to see the vast majority of this come to fruition. As we’ve recently seen with Chicago, presenting a grand vision for the future can spur discussion and investment and get people on board with a project that might otherwise be mired in minutiae of transformer voltage and bogie gauge and other small details.

The important thing for Boston is to think big.


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