Boston’s MBTA subway system is one of the oldest and busiest in the nation. With it’s many sprawling arms, the subway can be confusing to navigate to the uninitiated. Subway lines were extended out of necessity and not part of the original city design, which only adds to the confusion. With handy subway guide however, you’ll be navigating the lines like a Bostonite in no time.
Speak Like a Local
Natives to the area call the subway system “The T.” It gets this name, because the symbol for the MBTA is a T in a circle. You may also hear it called “the train” as in “I took the train into Boston.” You’ll mostly hear it called the train in southeastern Massachusetts, because the Red Line (which connects southeastern Massachusetts to Boston) runs above ground. If you ever ask a local for directions, you must understand this vocabulary to not get confused.
Taxis Versus Subway
Unlike New York City, Boston doesn’t typically have a fleet of taxis driving around looking for customers. There are a few taxi stands dotting the city, but subway stations are far more common. The subway will be cheaper and more convenient if you find yourself downtown and needing to get around.
Safety on The T
As with any major city, Boston has its good areas and bad. Fortunately, the bad areas of Boston are small and contained. Even though crime isn’t a big issue on the subway, a traveler should still be aware of which areas to exercise the most caution.
There are some stations that have gained notoriety over the years and, if you ask a local, these are the stations they are most likely to warn you about:
On the Orange Line: Forest Hills Station, Roxbury Crossing Station, Ruggles Station
On the Red Line: Alewife Station, Ashmont Station, Mattapan Station
The MBTA publishes yearly statistics for crime and, according to their list for 2011, these are the 5 most dangerous subway stops sorted by the number of total instances in 2011:
Forest Hills Station, 40 instances, Orange Line
Downtown Crossing Station, 38 instances, Orange/Red Line
Alewife Station, 34 instaces, Red Line
Quincy Center Station, 32 instances, Red Line
Ruggles Station, 30 instances, Orange Line
As you can see, word-of-mouth isn’t too far off from the statistics. Be extra cautious at these stations.
Parking for the Subway
Within the city, the stations have no parking. Outside of the metro area however, many of the stations do have an inexpensive parking lot. The following stations have parking lots:
Blue Line: Beachmont Station, Orient Heights Station, Suffolk Downs Station, Wonderland Station
Green Line: Chestnut Hill Station D, Eliot Station, Lechmere Station, North Station, Riverside Station, Waban Station, Woodland Station
Orange Line: Forest Hills Station, Oak Grove Station, Malden Center Station, North Station, Sullivan Square Station, Wellington Station
Red Line: Alewife Station, Braintree Station, Butler Station, Mattapan Station, Milton Station, North Quincy Station, Quincy Adams Station, Savin Hill Station, South Station, Wollaston Station
Pro Tip: Quincy has a lot of non-MBTA parking lots close to subway stations. This lot near 1 Parkingway is free on weekends:
A Break In!
Always take proper safety precautions when parking. A few years back, my friends and I parked in the Braintree Station parking lot to spend a Saturday afternoon downtown. The parking lot wasn’t busy; but my friend, who was driving his Jeep with a soft top, parked on the top deck. There was nobody else parked on top deck. We took the subway to Boston and spent a few hours in the city.
When we had returned, we noticed that someone had sliced open his back window and went rifling through everything in his Jeep. This happened during the day in a fairly visable location. It probably could have been avoided by parking on the deck that had the most cars. Nothing was stolen, as there was nothing to steal.
It was a scary experience, but it only has happened once for all the years I’ve had to park in the MBTA lots. If you follow the most commonly practiced safety tips, you should be fine.
Don’t Get Ripped Off
As of this writing, it costs $2.50 to ride the subway. It is free to change between all the different subway lines. If you plan on spending some time in Boston and will be taking the T frequently, you should pick up a CharlieCard. The CharlieCard is a hard, plastic, reloadable card that can be tapped against the turnstyle to pay your fare. The fare drops down to only $2 if you use the CharlieCard. It can be reloaded at any of the vending machines inside the station.
Getting a CharlieCard is free. You can pick one up at the customer service booth in the following stations:
Alewife, Arlington, Ashmont, Back Bay, Dudley Square, Forest Hills, Harvard Square, Haymarket, Kenmore, Maverick, North Station, Oak Grove, Park Street, Quincy Center, Ruggles, South Station and Wonderland
In addition, you can also pick one up at The CharlieCard Store just outside of the Downtown Crossing Station. They are also available at several retail locations.
This video explains how to purchase a paper Charlie Ticket ($2.50) and how to reload a CharlieCard:
Throw Away the Schedule
While the MBTA does have an official subway schedule, you won’t find any locals bothering with it. There seems to always be delays or interruption of services.
To determine when to show up at the subway station, I use this equation: count the number of stops until your destination, multiply by 3 and add 10, that’s how long it will take in minutes from the time you get on the platform to the time the subway cart will reach your target station. Since the train seems to not adhere closely to its schedule, the “add 10” will act as a buffer if you end up needing to wait on the platform.
What you should pay attention to on the schedule though is the time of the first and last train. The general hours are 5AM – 12:30AM, if you get caught in the city after the last train you will have to take a taxi.
Boston’s MBTA Mobile Apps
On the official website, you can find quite a few mobile apps. These apps do everything from plan the routes/lines you need to take to get to your destination to telling you how far away the next bus or train is. The MBTA did not develop these apps, they were written by independent third parties.
I have a Blackberry that’s on the verge of death so most of these apps I cannot use; I can’t vouch for these apps either way. Since they are not officially endorsed by the MBTA and I have not heard a single friend mention how amazing XYZ app was, I have to conclude that most of these may not be helpful.
Try them for yourself and feel free to comment below and tell me which one actually works the best. Otherwise use the suggestions in the section above to calculate the transit time.
Green Line Confusion
Going beyond Copley Station on the Green Line can be confusing. There are 4 different branches, each taking a letter: B, C, D and E.
Most people get on the Green Line at Park Street Station. The platform for Park Street Station is labeled, each letter train has its own stopping point on the platform. Take notice of the signage and wait in the appropriate area. If you are getting on the train elsewhere, you will have to pay attention to the letters on the marques of each cart.
If you get on the wrong train and it branches away toward its unique destination, you only have two time-consuming options: head out to the street and walk to last common letter stop (Copley Station or Kenmore Station) or you can head to the other side of the platform and take a train back. Once the different letters branch out to their own paths though, the trains come less frequently so it could be a long wait.
Ignore the Beggars
I haven’t experienced this very often, but from time to time people will spend their day hopping on and off busy trains begging for money. Some will try to sell you candy, some will have a sob story and some will be outright rude.
Don’t give these people money. Don’t make eye contact and if they come to you asking for money, give them a quick head shake “no”. The more attention you give them, the more time they’ll spend lingering, trying to suck you into giving them money. If they get hostile, continue to ignore them or get off the train and take the next one. Engaging them will only make the situation worse.
Boston is Great!
Boston really is a great place to explore. Boston is home to so much history and natural beauty. The many universities and colleges supply Boston with a thriving, energetic, metropolitan culture. If you’ve never been to Boston, you are missing out on one of the most influential cities in America. As the Massachusetts slogan goes: “It’s all here.”
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Photo Sources: mbta.com, Google Maps