Opinion

opinion | Alex Krieger

Olympics can give Boston its overdue urban transit ring

A conceptual drawing of field hockey at Harvard Stadium.
Boston 2024
A conceptual drawing of field hockey at Harvard Stadium.

Boston’s win of the US bid for the 2024 Olympic Games was no small achievement. Now we need to ask what the Olympics can do for Boston, rather than what Boston needs to do to bring the Games here. What should the city demand as a consequence of hosting the Olympics?

If Olympic venues can be readily transformed into public schools, day-care centers, neighborhood cultural anchors, local parks, job training and education centers, affordable housing, and perhaps even a humane homeless shelter or two, the Games would be more than worth the trouble. Should each such facility rise to the standard of an Olympic-quality architectural landmark, better still.

But so far, what has largely been promised are just improvements to MBTA platforms near proposed Olympic venues, and student housing for some of our universities after the Olympic village is dismantled. Those are good — but hardly Olympian — achievements. Of course, there are also the promises of a prospering economy and the benefits of worldwide attention, but we can debate the durability of those benefits after the games are held.

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So how about aiming higher, as the Olympic movement extolls? What if Olympic venues were scattered in a way that would allow Boston and the Commonwealth to connect them with its century-delayed urban transit ring? Imagine intercepting the “spokes of the hub’’ with a circumferential line that would, among other things, connect Columbia Point to Dudley Square, the Longwood Medical Center (and its jobs and health services) to Brookline Village, Allston to Harvard Square and Somerville, without several T transfers? That would be useful long after the Olympic torch is extinguished.

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Trace such an arc on a map, and it is not so far from the proposed locations of some of the venues: the Olympic Village near Columbia Point, the Olympic Stadium in the vicinity of South Bay and the use of facilities or land owned by Boston University and Harvard. But the scope of the vision needs to be different. It needs to be about more than upgrading transit lines.

Back in 1909, Arthur A. Shurtleff, Boston’s greatest transit ring dreamer, warned about the absent rims for our radiating “spokes of the hub.” He produced a prescient concept by imagining an outer boulevard, with light rail assuming roughly the path from Fields Corner to Harvard Square. It’s hard to imagine a better line for creating social, economic, and transportation connectivity.

While Shurtleff’s musings have been forgotten, transit advocates calling for an urban ring have continued to imagine variations of such a route, including northward arcs to intercept the Orange and Blue Lines in Medford and Revere.

Imagine commuting from Boston University or Brookline Village to Harvard Square without having first to head downtown and transfer from the Green Line to the Red Line. Or imagine setting out from Columbia Point to the Longwood Medical Area without lengthy trips on two T lines. Efficient commuting would hardly be the only benefit. There would also be better social and economic connections throughout the city.

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In the mid-20th century, savvy highway planners figured out the usefulness of circumferential routes, and built Route 128, “America’s technology highway,” and then Interstate 495. But the notion of intersecting the radiating lines of our transit system has been on hold for a century.

Let’s use the promise of the Boston Olympics to capitalize on that idea. We can call it the Olympic Ring. Ask not what Boston can do for the Olympics. Ask what the Olympics can do for Boston.

Alex Krieger is a professor of urban design at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the author of “Mapping Boston.’’