WHEN ACADEMICS and advocates talk about transit, they talk about the importance of things like access, agglomeration effects, sustainability, and mobility efficiency. It’s often through the lens of these attributes that planners make decisions about where and how to invest in transit and rail systems. They each can be measured, offering something tangible to support or justify the expenditure of effort and public funds.
Transit is essential to a sustainable future, one that is responsive to the needs of our time. Specifically, we can’t decarbonize the transportation sector equitably or effectively without more use of transit and rail. We can’t reimagine the urban public realm or reduce particulate matter emissions or redirect poor land use choices without a highly functioning transit network. I’ve written about these policy issues before, but today I want to do something different. There’s more to transit than data and statistics, and that’s what this article is about.
For many of us, transit offers more than a fast and efficient way to reach our destinations. It offers a unique way to engage in and embrace urban life, not simply as a traveler but as someone participating in a communal enterprise. Each transit trip is a journey and a shared social experience, connecting you not simply with your destination but with the places you journey through and to, to the places and the people you meet, even if briefly, on your trip.
In a recent New York Times Guest Essay, a love poem really, Qian Julie Wang wrote a wide-ranging reflection on the importance of transit in her life. Wang wrote, “I feel more connected with myself and my community on the subway than I do anywhere else . . . The subway defines home for a city of people united — above distance, race, class, and labels — in relentless pursuit of dreams.” What Wang was writing about was the intangible, unmeasurable benefits of public transportation, the contributions it often makes to social cohesion and personal well-being.
In a recent column, David Brooks observed that moral behavior “starts with seeing the full humanity of other people . . . Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.” It’s challenging, maybe impossible, to understand others if you never meet them. Even fleeting moments on a subway or bus can promote the awareness that despite our differences, there are impulses and desires and goals that we share in common.
Can transit sometimes be frustrating? Sure, as life can often be. Can transit sometimes disappoint you? Absolutely, just like life. Transit is not perfect. Nothing is. But transit, beyond its utilitarian purpose, offers many people a connection to time and place, and that connection is intertwined with the romance of an urban life.
For someone like me who grew up with transit, it is also a place of memories. Wang’s essay offers insight into this, as she recounts the memories and experiences of fellow transit riders, of lifelong friendships made, and acts of kindness that speak to the best of human behavior. There are transit memories that I cherish, not because of the transit service itself but because of what that moment meant in my life: the bus ride when my mother took me shopping for the first real suit I ever owned; the subway rides I took to have lunch in Chinatown with my favorite aunt. I remember a New Year’s Eve trip on the Green Line, and the snowy evening when my husband and I took the Red Line to Kendall to see a movie, and the glistening sidewalks that were a magical pathway on the walk back to the station. I remember leaving the hospital one dark January evening, empty and exhausted from an unexpected family medical crisis, standing in the cold and the quiet at the far end of the Charles MGH platform, being unexpectedly comforted by the sight of a sailboat still bedecked with holiday lights docked along the river.
When you’re on a subway car at the end of a long day and it’s hot and all the seats are taken, and you just want to get home, transit can seem more like commuting drudgery than a pleasant respite, but even in those circumstances it never loses its magic. I remember last September, returning home on the Red Line from a long day, bone tired from the day’s work, stepping out of Broadway Station to see a stunning early evening sky, the city sparkling in the distance, and feeling at the same time the buzz of human activity at this place where three bus routes and a subway station converge. It was exhilarating. My entire mood changed as I felt energized and deeply connected to the moment and the place.
Yes, sometimes really awful things happen on transit, but really awful things happen every day in other places, too. No place is exempt. What we can do, working with the MBTA and state and city leaders, is help make things better. Greater Boston is blessed with a large group of dedicated transit and rail advocates who work hard every day to persuade and support leaders and decision makers to improve conditions and strengthen the region’s public transportation offerings.
Transit can be one effective way to reclaim normalcy coming out of the pandemic. It certainly serves an important utilitarian purpose, but it does much more. It exposes us to new people and sometimes new places, and it offers perspectives on the places we inhabit, the places we work, the places we visit. The shared experience of transit that brings us together, even momentarily, is essential to the health of the community. It helps break down barriers and reminds us that we are connected to one another by time and place and the need to travel.
Access, agglomeration, sustainability – these are the prose narratives of why transit is so important to building an economically strong and inclusive city. But great cities are not built on statistics alone. Great cities are great in part because they appeal to our imagination and inspire the poetry in each of us. Transit contributes mightily to that, and once we recognize its special magic there’s no momentary disappointment that can keep us away.
James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board.