Discovering the Other Silver Line

September 1st, 2014

MBTA’s Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is impressive and efficient, but could be easier to use for visitors.

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Boston’s Silver Line BRT at one of its Logan Airport stops. Photo by the author.

I recently flew to Boston for the first time in years and had the opportunity to ride their Silver Line BRT  that provides service between Boston Logan Airport and south Boston.  The service features some dedicated right-of-way, real-time arrival signage and a few actual stations.

The Silver Line has real-time arrival screens at Boston Logan, easing the wait time for customers excited to explore a city or return home.  The buses used are dual-power, meaning they run on electricity via overhead wires at some times and on diesel when there are no wires.  The switching between the two takes a few minutes but it really wasn’t very noticeable.

I was very impressed with the stations.  For example, the World Trade Center station is a significant and impressive structure, and felt more like a traditional rail station that a bus stop by far.  It features a multi-story tower topped with the “T” logo.  The station interior features side platforms, escalators and stairs, real-time arrival screens and public art.  A station like this makes a statement that high quality transit service will be operating here for a long time, despite not having rails in the ground.

One interesting feature of this service is that it is free to board the bus at Logan, which means that visitors do not need to experience the potential hassle of purchasing Charlie Cards or Tickets.   But this leaves customers with no pass or ticket to return to the airport.  I spent some time in downtown Boston looking for a venue to purchase a Charlie Card (like Metro’s SmarTrip® card, to add to my super-nerdy, fare-media collection) and couldn’t find any place that sold them.

Another confusion with the Silver Line is that it dropped me off at the curb in Boston directly in front of an official Silver Line station.  For my return to the airport, I didn’t know that the station existed at first, and nearly waited on the curb for the bus that likely would have only taken me in the opposite direction.

Once I figured out the Silver Line station was an actual, full-service station, I walked in and looked to purchase my fare.  Oddly enough, the ticket vending machines weren’t configured for single-trip tickets, and I had to purchase a Charlie Ticket (similar to Metro’s paper farecards) with a $5 value for a BRT fare of $2.65.  Just in time to leave Boston and not use it ever again.  I would have been glad to purchase a Charlie Card (which enables discounted fares) at the airport pre-loaded with round-trip value.

In general, my experience with the Silver Line was a positive one.  It got me where I wanted to go quickly and efficiently, and I appreciate that Boston chose to invest in BRT, which is less expensive than streetcar or light-rail but has more economic development potential than traditional bus service.

As our region begins to implement BRT projects, we learn from the experience of other transit agencies and hope to provide the best possible customer experience.

What BRT systems have you ridden?  What features of BRT would you like to see in the DC region?

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Categories: Engage > Transit Travelogue Tags: , , ,
  1. AL
    September 1st, 2014 at 11:06 | #1

    I lived in Boston for a few years before moving back to Md. The MBTA Silver Line is decent, but the above ground portions could stand to be improved.

    I don’t know if they changed the routes, but one used to be able to take it from Logan to South Station in Boston, where the bus would drop off inside South Station (within fare control, for free transfer to the Red Line).

    MBTA makes it oddly difficult to obtain a Charlie Card. You can get them from a special office at some stations, like Downtown Crossing. The plus side is (as of a year ago or so) there is no charge for the card itself. If you want a new card with a starting balance of $5, you pay $5.

  2. September 1st, 2014 at 12:08 | #2

    I recently visited Boston and used the T to get around everywhere. I bought a Charlie Ticket with a week pass for $19. Even though I stayed less than a week, it paid for itself many times over. I could have also put a day pass on it. Charlie Cards are meant for residents. You can use them to either get discounted fares or a variety of commuter passes. Interestingly, Charlie Tickets with passes are accepted on the Inner Harbor Ferry, but not Charlie Cards, not that anyone checked.

  3. September 2nd, 2014 at 08:42 | #3

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  4. Ross
    September 4th, 2014 at 11:56 | #4

    I’ve traveled to Boston a number of times over the past few years and will confirm that it is nearly impossible to find a place to buy a Charlie Card. The upside is that Charlie Cards are free when they can be found, but one would think they would be available at a major transportation hub like South Station (at least I’ve never found them there).

    Other than that, I’ve had good experiences with the MBTA Silver Line. One confusing aspect is that there are multiple silver line routes, many of which do not have a dedicated right of way. The lack of real time arrival signage is also disappointing, but all in all its a good service.

  5. DY
    September 4th, 2014 at 17:09 | #5

    I lived in Boston on a number of occasions, and I frequently use the silver line when I return. I actually find the whole line needlessly frustrating, as well as a major missed opportunity. It has gotten better in recent years on my occasional visits, as has the MBTA generally, especially with the real time arrival screens. That said, in no particular order, my problems with the silver line are as follows:

    1. It is needlessly circuitous — taking a good 20-25 minutes to go all of a few miles across the bay. They built a tunnel to go directly to the airport — it shouldn’t take this long! After one summer in which a late bus caused me to miss my plane, I started taking the blue line subway, which is actually faster given that the shuttle bus between the blue line airport station and the terminals actually comes faster and more frequently than you would think.

    2. The silver line stations are definitely nice — almost too nice really — it’s a little odd that they spend that much money on stations that got little use for years (the development is finally starting to come in), but they couldn’t pay the money to have a quicker, more frequent service.

    3. The “Silver Line Way” station is a complete waste, and seems to exist entirely so that the bus can switch from catenary to diesel. The station is at most 100 yards from the underground Silver Line Way station, and its entirely unclear to me why the driver needs to stop the bus at a separate entire bus stop to do the switch. The bus pauses for long enough at the world trade center — they easily could have just done the switch there, or they could do the switch on the hill while waiting for the light to turn. Instead, they drive up the hill, wait for the light, drive through the light and under a building, stop, switch the engines, wait a minute just for the hell of it, and then take a circuitous route to get onto the I90 tunnel, which is often congested at rush hour. They should have spent the extra money and given the bus a direct onramp to the tunnel, and skipped the compromise. I get that they need to save money, but they missed an opportunity here.

    4. I agree about the Charlie Card — I always waste money on those tickets, and never remember to go buy a Card instead of a ticket. I believe they are for sale in CVS stores. (what would be really cool is if WMATA joined with other transit agencies like MBTA and BART and used a single payment technology that worked across systems…I can dream)…

    5. Last, and this is more of a problem with Logan (which is in my top 5 worst airports) — the fact that the silver line goes to each terminal and stops is a huge waste of time. The terminals are not actually that far apart — from the central parking garage, most are a couple hundred yard walk. They should have 1 airport station, and let people walk to each terminal with the assistance of moving walkways. Waiting for each stop, and for tourists at each stop to load up their bags, is a huge waste of everyone’s time, and it could easily have been solved by simply having a more central station (and this would increase frequency also).

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