On their respective banks of the Charles River, Boston and Harvard universities are separated by just a few hundred yards, but on the MBTA they are miles apart. To get from BU to Harvard Square requires heading downtown on the Green Line, then transferring to the Red Line, virtually reversing direction. Set out from Fields Corner in Dorchester to Brookline Village, less than four miles away, and you again face lengthy trips on two T lines.
As Bostonians know all too well, getting from point A to point B by public transportation often requires traversing two long sides of a triangle. Efficient commuting is not the only casualty. Our system disorients residents and visitors, and divides our community along social and economic lines.
This setup may have made sense when downtown was the only place one wished to go, but today there are multiple “hubs” beyond Park Street and Downtown Crossing. Savvy highway planners connected our radial roads decades ago with Route 128—“America’s Technology Highway”—then followed up with 495 for good measure.
When it comes to public transit, however, we’re still waiting for a circumferential line first envisioned a century ago. Arthur A. Shurtleff, son of a mayor of Boston and a prominent planner and landscape architect, warned about the missing rims for the radiating “spokes of the hub.” He drew a visionary plan for a light rail “Outer Boulevard” that aimed directly from Dorchester’s Fields Corner through Roxbury, the then barely present Longwood Medical Area, Brookline Village, and Allston Landing, and into Harvard Square. A more effective way to achieve social, economic, and transportation connectivity is hard to imagine.
In recent decades, advocates calling for a transit “Urban Ring” have championed versions that include northward arcs to intercept the Orange and Blue lines in Medford and Revere. The MBTA itself has identified an Urban Ring as one of its long-term objectives since the 1970s, but it remains just a plan.
For 100 years, we have been aware of an essential missing link in the city’s transit system. At this moment of new leadership in our city, let’s take a very old, smart, persistent idea and make it a reality.
Alex Krieger is a principal in the Boston office of NBBJ and a professor of urban design at Harvard.