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Wu’s stubborn optimism is exactly what this transit crisis needs

The Orange Line shutdown may make the mayor’s big ambitions for the T seem unrealistic. But it also gives her an opportunity to make the case for transforming Boston’s public transit system.

Mayor Michelle Wu on the Green Line at Government Center on Monday.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

When I went to Forest Hills Station to meet Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on the first weekday morning of the Orange Line closure, it looked like we were in for a miserable commute to Government Center. It was cartoonishly gloomy, considering the rest of the summer has not exactly been lacking in sunshine, and rain was in the forecast — one of the last things you want when your way to work involves a bus, traffic, and above-ground transfers.

The mayor arrived looking excited to evaluate the city’s response to the 30-day Orange Line shutdown. She quickly noted that there weren’t enough signs to make clear where people should go, and she started taking photos. “No signs when you get off the bus at Forest Hills explaining how to find the shuttle buses leaving for downtown at the lower busway,” she tweeted.

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But contrary to what I (and maybe she) expected, the platform was not chaotic during the first rush hour of Orange Line riders figuring out alternate routes to work. In fact, it seemed like the TV camera crews covering the transit crisis took up more space than actual commuters. Many MBTA workers were out helping people navigate their new commutes, with some assistance from city staffers and officials — including City Councilor at Large Ruthzee Louijeune, who was also pleasantly surprised by how smoothly it was all going. And the buses replacing the trains were running frequently, preventing any potential for overcrowding. It was not going to be a miserable ride after all.

After answering some questions from reporters, Wu hopped on one of the coach buses replacing the Orange Line trains. It was quite a picture. Here she was — a mayor who campaigned on transforming the T, from making it more efficient to abolishing its fares — riding what looked more like the kind of bus used for school field trips than for urban transit. Only nine months into the job, it seemed her big ambitions for the T were more far-fetched than ever. How could we talk about expanding the system when trains can’t even safely navigate the current one?

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But Wu remains undeterred by the current mess. “When you ride the T on a regular basis, it’s impossible to look away from the needs the system has,” she said. “If you think about all the issues that are worrisome across the region — the cost of housing, the pace of climate change, racial wealth gaps, access to quality education — underlying all of that is whether or not people can get around to where they need to go affordably, conveniently, reliably, and safely.”

She paused as the bus came to a stop to point out that the signs were not multilingual. “This sign is only in English. That’s not cool,” she said, snapping another photo. (She tweeted about that as well.)

Our interview embodied Wu’s approach to public transit policy: She was talking about improving the quality of the daily commute for riders today without compromising her grander vision for the T. And she is still optimistic that the MBTA, of all agencies, will show that government-run public transit in the United States can be far-reaching, efficient, and affordable, just like many of our European and Asian peers. “We’re going to prove that here,” she said.

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The Orange Line shutdown presented her with an opportunity to show what she means by that. “It was certainly not ideal to have two weeks notice,” she said of the MBTA’s announcement of the closure, “but we’re making the best of it and the city has truly done heroic work.”

The reality is Wu can only do so much. The MBTA is a state-run agency that does not answer to the mayor. She can use her bully pulpit to be a strong advocate for the T, but she can’t implement any real or long-lasting change herself.

She’s not, however, entirely powerless. “We are in charge of the streets the buses run on,” she said of City Hall. Indeed, the city has nimbly created pop-up bus and bike lanes, closed off some streets to general traffic, and restricted parking to ensure that shuttles flow freely through town — all initiatives that the mayor hopes are not temporary. “Some of them have been done in permanent paint,” she joked.

It’s ultimately that kind of infrastructural change that’s needed for her long-term vision of Boston becoming an exemplar of good public transit. And Wu’s stubborn optimism is exactly the kind of leadership that’s required to get it done. “Some of what holds us back from implementing the changes that we need is cynicism about whether this will actually work or help. To some extent there’s nothing you can do to disprove that except by doing it and showing it,” Wu said.

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While the Orange Line shutdown will be a daily reminder for residents of just how much America’s public transit infrastructure has deteriorated, it nevertheless gives Wu a chance to show people how much government still can do to improve commutes. After all, if a network of shuttle routes, bus lanes, and bike paths can somehow come together on a moment’s notice, imagine what can be done with more time, more money, and an unwavering commitment to transforming the T.


Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him @abdallah_fayyad.