Public Transit in Boston (MBTA) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Public Transit in Boston (MBTA)

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All public transportation in Boston is governed by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA). This is generally regarded by locals as a 'bad thing', but it is, in general, the most efficient way to get around the metro area (Boston Metro meaning here Boston proper and the nearby suburbs). The MBTA runs four subway lines, four ferry lines, 12 commuter rail lines, and countless bus lines. It also runs a fairly good MBTA Official Website, which is a good resource if you don't know your way around.

Buses, Trains, Ferries, Subways (and Trolleys)


The MBTA buses run everywhere, pretty frequently, and reasonably on time. They are also rather complicated route-wise (think somewhere along the line of 9000 stops), and much slower than the subway. In general, unless you are comfortable moving around Boston, avoid the bus if you can. The bus costs 75 cents1.

Commuter Trains

The Commuter Rail services the more outlying cities and towns, and actually runs as far south as Providence, RI. It is almost always on time leaving Boston, so make sure you are too, or you may have to wait up to one and a half hours for the next train. Northbound trains leave from North Station; southbound trains leave from South Station. Of course, there is no direct connection between those stations. Again, if you're in the city for a visit, you probably won't be needing these. The fare varies depending on your destination, and is more if you buy your pass on the train rather than in the station.


Ferries run around the Harbour. They are not really useful beyond the sightseeing ones, though there are some commuter ferries. The shorter routes generally cost $1.25.


The subway is your best bet for getting around Boston. There are four basic routes, which are colour-coded (Red, Green, Blue, Orange) and almost every aspect of any given line will incorporate its colour somewhere. Most stations are manned, the maps are pretty clear, they have reasonably priced unlimited visitor passes, and almost everywhere you will want to go is fairly close to a station. Also of note, the subway is the only part of the MBTA system that is called 'the T', even though everything has the circle-T logo on it. If you refer to any other part as 'the T', you will only get strange looks and maybe even misdirected, so keep this in mind. The subway costs one dollar for one token, equalling one ride, with some exceptions.

Trolleys or Streetcars

You might see or hear about these, but don't worry, they are part of the subway. Really. It will make sense when you try it.

T Fares, T Frequency, and Hours of Operation


Fares are paid in tokens, usually one per ride. Generally it is collected at the platform entrance. At the more southerly stations on the Red Line, a token is also required to exit the platform, and two are required to enter. On the D branch of the Green Line, extra fare is required to travel inbound. At aboveground Green Line stops the token is collected as you enter the train.


The T frequencies tend to vary, but the latest is usually available on the MBTA Official Website (see above). You can also find out the time between stations, these are hidden below the maps of each line. In general, the T is more frequent during the morning and evening, but not lunch or rush hours. The Green Line frequencies can be totally out of whack, since the trolleys are subject to Boston traffic. There is a new policy that if your service is delayed more than a half hour your fare is refunded.


The T generally runs from about 5am to about 1am, depending on the day and the line. The time of the last train is generally posted in the station.

Subway Lines

That sounds easy, right? Four lines, colour-coded, no problem. Well, that's not entirely true. The Blue Line and the Orange Line are perfectly straightforward, but the other two are a little more complicated. It's not too bad though, and you get used to it quickly. Here are important points (you may want a copy of the MBTA Subway Map):

Red Line

The Red Line has two branches on its south end, Ashmont (A) and Braintree (B). The destination of the train will be marked on it, and the conductor will announce it as well. Also, there is a 'Mattapan High-Speed Line' tacked onto the end of Ashmont. This is a trolley, which you change into at Ashmont Station. It is not red, but don't be alarmed. In fact, you probably won't ever need to go there. Sometimes there are express trains too, but these will be clearly marked and in general will stop at stops visitors are likely to be going to. An extra fee is needed to exit stations at the very southern ends.

Green Line

This one's a little trickier. There are four branches on the 'bottom' end, Boston College (B), Cleveland Circle (C), Riverside (D), and Arborway or Heath St (E). There are 11 stops on the 'top' end, Kenmore through Lechmere. This makes much more sense on the map, which you might as well have out for the rest of this section.

You can remember these easily if you remember Boston College, Cleveland Circle, RiversiDe, HEath St (and forget about Arborway, which they don't usually mark on the trains anyways). You probably won't need to remember them though, since the trains are all marked and there are maps all over the station. B, C, and D trains split off from the main branch at Kenmore, but E trains split off two stops earlier, at Copley. Just keep an eye on the map and you should be fine.

Also, sometimes the train's letter designation will have a red slash through it. Of course, nowhere in the station or on the train do they tell you what this means. Of course, it is very important that you know what this means. And of course, sometimes it means nothing.

Anyway, the red slash signifies that the train is not going all the way to the end of the line. For example, on the E line, without the slash:

  • One end is Heath St
  • Go a few stops and you'd be at Brigham Circle
  • Quite a few more and you'd be at Park Street
  • The other end is Lechmere

So, going towards Lechmere, your train will generally be labelled 'E (no slash) Lechmere', and will stop at all these stops. If your train is labelled 'E (no slash) Heath Street - Park Street', it will stop at all these stops. If it is labelled 'E (slash) Heath Street - Park Street', it may end at Park Street. This works in the other direction too, but with one difference. If you board a train labelled 'E (slash) Brigham Circle', it will almost certainly end at Brigham Circle. In general, heed the slash. You may risk it going towards Lechmere, but you'll have to wait for the next train if you're wrong. And if you're confused, you can ask the driver.

Now, this line is not actually a 'subway' per se, it's actually some occasionally underground streetcars. But you didn't notice until now, so don't let it bother you. There are only three things you really need to remember about this. First, you can not transfer outbound to inbound at an aboveground stop without paying again (vice versa will work, see next paragraph). The system map will indicate which stops are aboveground. Second, you have to go up steps to get in the trolley, so mind how much luggage you have. Third, you can pay in cash as well as tokens, but you will need exact change. The signs say 'No Dollar Bills', but this is a lie. Dollar bills go in the side of the till.

Finally, on a nicer note, if you board the train at an aboveground stop, and are going away from Lechmere, it is free2. However, on the D line, you might pay up to $2.50 to get back. Always be sure you have the extra fare.

Transferring Lines

Transferring is usually a simple matter on the T. All four lines come together to form a square downtown, so you get to any line in two transfers or less.

If you examine the map it might appear that you can transfer from the Green Line to the Orange Line at North Station. While this is technically true, the platforms are in different buildings, a block apart. You'll have to beg for a transfer slip to avoid paying twice, and you may not get it. Haymarket, one stop inbound, is a much better choice.

Getting To and Fro on the T

Places You're Likely to be Coming from

You won't want your car in Boston, so it is best to arrive via some form of long-distance mass transit such as:

  • Air Travel - You will arrive at Logan International Airport, which, while a reasonably nice airport, is not for the faint of heart. To get to the T, board a shuttle bus bound for the Airport Station, which is on the Blue Line.

  • Rail Travel - Amtrak services Back Bay (Orange Line) and South (Red Line) Stations. Once arrived, follow the signs to the subway platform.

  • Bus Travel - The bus terminal is adjacent to South Station. Follow the signs to get to the subway.

Places to Get to

If you do not have directions to wherever it is you are going, get a map with subway stops marked on it (having popular tourist destinations like Fanueil Hall, the Museum of Science etc, marked as well may be helpful). Hotels and attractions will also tell you what T stop they are nearest to and probably give you walking directions if you call.

The names of the stops are not going to be immediately obvious to a visitor. There are some exceptions, like Massachusetts General Hospital (Red Line) and the Museum of Fine Arts (Green Line), but in general they are named after streets, squares or neighbourhoods (Ruggles, Porter, Back of the Hill), which can be very confusing. Always make sure you know where you are trying to go before setting out.

Asking Directions

If you get lost, it is generally safe to ask directions of people when you are in a station. Here are some guidelines for asking.

  1. Do not ask the token attendant unless there is no line. People trying to buy tokens will kill you.

  2. You can ask pretty much any other MBTA employee who may be floating around. You can also try shop attendants in the station if the shop is not busy.

  3. If you can't ask an employee, you'll have to ask a fellow traveller. In general, do not ask: people wearing anything emblazoned 'Boston' (unless it is sports or college-related), anyone studying the map (you can do that yourself), younger college students, or subway musicians (they're usually busy anyway). Try to ask people who have a Boston accent.

Getting around Stations

Most T stations are fairly well marked and are laid out simply, though there are some exceptions, such as Harvard or South Station. However, if you follow the signs carefully you will be fine. Most, but not all, stations will let you transfer between platforms for free. Remember that inbound means toward Park Street, Government Center, State, or Downtown Crossing (check your map and this will make perfect sense). Of course, if you are in one of those stations you will have to know the name of the station at the end of the line you are travelling towards. Again, check your map.

Special situations: there is no inbound/outbound transfer at Copley, Prudential, Symphony, or Chinatown. There is a pedestrian tunnel from the Lechmere platform at Park Street to Downtown Crossing. You can find it if you persevere, or you can take the Red Line. Bowdoin Station closes at 6:30pm and is closed all weekend.

Finally, Boylston St Station has gone the longest without renovation, and it's creepy in an old-fashioned subway way. They also keep an old train from the Boston Elevated Railroad there, so keep an eye out if you go by.

On the Train

When on the trains, keep in mind that Bostonians are, well, not exactly the most polite people around. You may have to compete if you want a seat. During off-peak hours, you may be able to bring pets or bicycles on the train, but this is up to the operator. T doors are not nearly as unfriendly as most subway doors, and you have a tolerable shot of catching them, but it is still somewhat risky and everyone already on the train will hate you. Also, if you are standing, your arm will hurt less if you don't have a death grip on the rail. Just put your hand on it and grab if you need to.

Socialising on the T

Bostonians do not generally socialise on the trains, even with the people they are travelling with. This is actually nice, because your ride is much quieter. This custom is much more relaxed at night on trains that go to clubbing districts.

How to Amuse Yourself on the T

There are several simple (and oftentimes not very intelligent) ways to amuse yourself on the T or in the station, such as:


Standing upright on a train without grabbing onto anything. It is extremely difficult on the Green and Red Lines. This should not be attempted on crowded trains. It is advisable to keep your knees bent.

Watching for Mice

Very popular on the Park Street Red Line platform. Watch them scurry around avoiding the third rail, cry warnings to the little beasties when trains approach, etc.


Available at the Downtown Crossing Red Line Platform, sometimes other places as well. Yum.

Art and Music

Available in many stations. You actually have to have a permit to play in the subway in Boston.

Moving Section of Green Line Trolley

Since the tracks are so curvy, there is a moving section at the middle of a Green Line car. Put one foot inside it and one foot outside it; be amused for a few minutes while the floor moves in different directions.

Making Fun of the Station Announcements

Always amusing. The Red Line has an automated voice on most trains, as do most stations ('Please watch... your step... and thank you... for riding... the T. Cue loud speaker death noise...). The other lines rely on the train operators to make the announcements, and many have a delightful Boston accent that you can mangle ('Aaaaaaaaaaahlington'). Not a good idea to do too loudly or on crowded trains, though.

1Fares as of 2001.2Sometimes you will get free fares in other situations, especially after midnight or if the train is extremely crowded.

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