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‘You can’t cure cancer when you’re sitting in traffic’: The MBTA poses a problem for Mass. competitiveness

Passengers waited for a Red Line train to roll to a stop in the Kendall station.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

If you were riding the Red Line head to toe on May 16, 2022 — from Alewife to Braintree — it would have taken you under 54 minutes, on average.

By Oct. 16, 2023 — 17 months later — that same commute would have taken you close to 80 minutes.

But if 25 extra minutes tacked onto your commute seems stressful, it gets worse. In May 2022, the average wait on the platform was just under six minutes. By October 2023, it had surged to 11.5 minutes.

No one who rides the MBTA these days would be surprised by these numbers. But remember: This is the Red Line, which runs through the heart of Boston’s innovative core. And after the T announced a year of rolling shutdowns on Thursday, things seem certain to get worse before they get better.


For a state itching to herald its technological prowess — think AI reshaping tech, biotech, and medicine — workers’ inability to quickly get to offices, labs, hospitals, and universities has become an issue of competitiveness.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Beth O’Neill Maloney, executive director of the Kendall Square Association. She notes that “one of the hallmarks of Kendall Square” is in-person collaboration, and painfully long commutes discourage that.

“The slowdowns on the T — especially the Red Line, but the Green Line, too ... is a real challenge for anyone who lives, works, studies, or plays in Kendall Square,” she says. “And Kendall Square is really a driver of the life science community right now that’s driving the Massachusetts economy.”

Sascha Hernandez, who has worked in biotech for six years, believes the commute has “never been as bad as it’s been this past summer and fall.”

Biotech workers, she noted, “are not like other white-collar workers. Those of us in lab-facing roles are required to work in person every weekday and often on weekends. I don’t have the luxury of Zooming in to meetings on a Friday.”


Hernandez points out that the Red Line was never great for her, but its deterioration has proved untenable. “I bought my house in Woburn under the assumption that ... buses would connect me to a rapid rapid transit system. I accepted my current position imagining I would be a strap hanger again, not begging my husband for a ride at least once a week because I got stranded.”

Though most white-collar workers spend less time in the office than they did prepandemic, single-occupancy vehicle trips into Kendall Square have jumped nearly 25 percent in the last four years, according to the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority. Meanwhile, public transit use “has plummeted to 27 percent of total commuters,” from 38 percent in 2019.

Maloney has known people whose commute from Alewife to Kendall — just five stops — takes an hour or more. “It’s not OK that you’re living in Cambridge, and it takes you over an hour on the Red Line to get to your lab or office in Kendall Square.”

One reason for that is how many trains run every day. Jarred Johnson, chief operating officer of TransitMatters, notes that the Red Line ran about 200 daily trips in May 2022, but just over 120 trips by October 2023. “It’s not only about how fast trains go. It’s the extra time waiting for a train to come,” he says.


So how does this affect our competitiveness?

“You can’t cure cancer when you’re sitting in traffic,” Maloney says. “If we can’t help people get over the challenges of transportation, especially combined with housing prices... how do we attract and retain folks here?”

Beth O’Neill Maloney, executive director of the Kendall Square Association.Courtesy of Beth O’Neill Maloney

Briah Cooley gets on the Red Line at Quincy Center and rides the T nine stops to her job as a clinical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. She says it generally takes her about 40 minutes, and it’s “super, super slow” between JFK and Broadway. This past summer, when she moved to her current apartment, the Red Line shut down every weekend.

“I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota,” she says. “We have a light rail there, and it was pretty consistent, even with snow and ice. I think that’s the most frustrating thing about coming to Boston and it being known as a tech and innovation hub.”

Other cities, apparently, are aware of how frustrated Boston commuters are. As the Globe’s Jon Chesto recently reported, when a Massachusetts delegation visited North Carolina’s Research Triangle — which vies with Boston for tech, biotech, and finance jobs — our notoriously bad commute came up. “As I was walking off the stage,” recounted Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, “the guy from Raleigh said, ‘I tell them all about your traffic.’”

Johnson says that New York will soon institute congestion pricing, aiming to thin traffic and encourage subway ridership by charging drivers who drive on non-highways in Manhattan below 60th Street. Seattle is also building out its transportation infrastructure.


Both Johnson and Maloney say the Red Line’s slowness particularly hurts those with less money — like doctoral and postdoctoral students, who may be starting families and thinking about where to put down roots. And it impacts hourly workers in retail and hospitality, many of whom serve customers in the tech sector. For both groups, longer commutes can mean lost wages and steeper childcare costs.

Having people come into offices “is critical for the vibrancy of our community,” says Maloney, who adds that when tech workers don’t commute, that has obvious effects on nearby shops and restaurants. “If folks are only in three days, it’s tough to maintain the vibrancy that we’ve built over the last 15 years.”

Alexander Jones, a project manager at a large pharmaceutical company in Kendall Square, rides the T three times a week from Alewife. He purposefully decided to live on the Red Line and feels fortunate that he has the flexibility to go home at off-peak hours.

“Sometimes it’s so packed that there’s no room to get onto the train at rush hour,” he says. Still, he’s optimistic that the T will get faster.

Nearly everyone I spoke with expressed hope that Phillip Eng, who became general manager of the MBTA in April, can turn things around. Joe Pesaturo, director of communications at the T, notes that “Eng has made it clear that providing T riders with reliable and more frequent service is paramount, and the multiple closures along the Red Line next year will allow the MBTA to remove all of the line’s speed restrictions much faster than it would be accomplished by only working on selected nights and weekends.”


In the meantime, though, the commute can sting — and some people are thinking about leaving.

Hernandez, the biotech worker, says coming in from Woburn can take more than 90 minutes. “Every time I have to wait 17 minutes for a train to arrive, or I miss my bus because my train slows to a crawl between Central and Harvard, I start to question whether deciding to work in Cambridge was the right choice.”

Asked whether she’d leave the area, she notes that she’s seen “a decent number of coworkers move down to North Carolina, but their partners had more career flexibility.”

Cooley, the clinical researcher, said that she’d like to move out of Greater Boston “because the T is getting worse.” She noted that every Red Line train she was on last week was delayed, due to “a broken train or broken signals.”

She’s thinking of heading to Washington, D.C., which has a Metro she loves.

A southbound MBTA train inched toward North Quincy on Oct. 25.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.