Imagine boarding the subway downtown and riding to Lynn, Reading, Lexington, or Dedham — without ever switching trains. Or taking the Green Line from Boston all the way to Winchester and Woburn.
That was the visionary plan for the region’s public transportation in the 1940s: keep fares low and extend Boston’s rapid transit system out to the suburbs by using high-speed electric trains on existing railroad right-of-ways. But alas, it did not come to pass.
If it had, what is now the MBTA Green Line would have extended out to Woburn to the north and Needham to the southwest, and the Red Line would have stops in Arlington and Lexington. The Orange Line could take you from Roxbury up to Reading or as far south as Dedham, and the Blue Line would have gone all the way up to Lynn.
On April 6, 1947, the Globe published a map of these proposed routes and stops of what would have been the expanded rapid transit system. (It’s worth noting: the solid lines on the map represent routes that were already operating at that time, and existing stations along those routes were left off the map.)
If that map had become a reality, life in the Boston area today would be quite different, according to Jarred Johnson, chief operating officer of the advocacy group Transit Matters.
“I think we’d have a city and a region far less dependent on cars,” Johnson said. “Far fewer folks would be impacted by high gas prices or terrible traffic. We’d likely be having fewer fights over parking in new developments.”
The officials who drew up those bold plans in the 1940s not only wanted to expand rapid transit to the suburbs, they also wanted to keep public transportation affordable. They argued that by bringing rapid transit service to more people, ridership would increase so much that substantial fare increases wouldn’t be necessary.
“A modern system of rapid transit such as we have recommended will go to the root of the problem and provide transportation in the metropolitan area at reasonable rates as well as solve the traffic problem,” they wrote in their 1947 report. “People living in the suburbs of Boston would find that rapid transit would give them faster, cheaper and more comfortable service than they can expect to get from their automobiles or from buses. They will, therefore, patronize the system in increasing numbers, and therein lies the solution of the matter of deficits.”
Looking back on those grand plans today, Josh Ostroff, the interim director of Transportation for Massachusetts, says the 1947 transit expansion plan was a missed opportunity.
“The plan also ran counter to the expansion of highways, funded by federal and state government, and the growth of the suburbs tied to the automobile,” Ostroff said.
Securing the railroad right-of-ways proved to be an obstacle that stymied the expansion plans, he said.
Meanwhile, as the federal government spent billions on building highways and more people bought cars, the railroads and the MTA (the predecessor to the MBTA) lost passengers, and they made up for the loss by cutting service and raising fares.
As ridership declined in the 1950s, “many routes in and out of Boston stopped service altogether — including the Old Colony Line, which is soon to be reborn as South Coast Rail,” Ostroff said.
“It was not until the 1970s — in the wake of the People Before Highways movement spearheaded in Boston in opposition to the Southwest Expressway and Inner Belt projects — did the federal government begin to fund public transportation projects, but even then it has been at a fraction of what we spend on roads.”
Race also played a role in determining what got built, Ostroff said.
“Discriminatory zoning and lending, redlining, racial preference baked into the G.I. Bill, suburban opposition to transit expansion, and highways that divide urban neighborhoods are part of our transportation legacy that we must work to overcome,” Ostroff said.
”We have built countless highways to serve suburbs, while communities of color have borne the brunt of transportation pollution,” he continued. “Yet today, people want access to better, cleaner public transit, safer and more convenient biking and walking, while we endure the congested roads and climate pollution that are the direct result of the choices we have made over the last 70 years.”
And lest we forget, not everyone has welcomed public transportation, especially in their backyard. Just look at what happened when the MBTA tried to extend the Red Line in the 1970s. Many residents of Arlington and Lexington were opposed to the idea, and some of the most outspoken critics formed a group called ALARM (Arlington Red Line Action Movement) and distributed flyers and bumper stickers around town, calling on residents to reject the Red Line extension plan. Their efforts were ultimately successful: the Red Line was never extended past Alewife, and the railroad tracks that once cut through Arlington were paved over and made into a bike path.
“I look at the map, and say, ‘We could go bigger,’ ” she said. “It’s not an unreasonable vision. If I were in charge of the universe, I would take that vision and make it statewide ... think bigger and have one cohesive transit system across the state.”
For advocates of public transportation, the 1947 map represents not just what could have been, but also hope for the future.
“I think the key takeaway here is that a failure to do hard but necessary visionary projects will have you looking back at the missed opportunities,” said Johnson of Transit Matters. “I just hope we’ve learned that lesson.”