BOSTON—One Sunday night two years ago, Marc Ebuña and Ari Ofsevit stayed up past 1 a.m. to watch the city’s transit system grind to a pointless halt.
Sitting in their respective apartments, they were monitoring a website that tracks Boston’s rapid-transit trains in real time. “I live-tweeted the late-night ballet, the last-trains ballet,” Ebuña says. Except what they were seeing was more of a citywide muscle spasm than an elegant dance.
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The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority barely acknowledged this nightly jam, and wasn’t doing anything about it. So Ebuna and Ofsevit, who had plenty of the personal experience waiting on trains during these puzzling delays, enlisted two fellow members of their advocacy group TransitMatters and did their own audit.
On that September night in 2016, Ebuña and Ofsevit could see the last trains on the Red, Orange and Blue lines, and the westbound Green Line streetcars, as they reached downtown transfer stations and stopped. The only trains still moving were two lonely streetcars on the Green Line’s E branch. Nothing could move until these two stragglers reached Park Street. Across Boston, Ebuña and Ofsevit knew, 56 buses, many carrying tired shift workers, were idling outside stations, awaiting the trains’ arrival before they fanned out with their last passengers. For a quarter-hour, the Green E trains had held up the entire system.
Ebuña took screenshots and fired off a tweetstorm that night. Ofsevit blogged about the 1 a.m. bottleneck the next afternoon. Another member scraped daily data off a transit website that tracks MBTA trains. The numbers showed that the last Green E train caused about 75 percent of the delays in the transit system’s nightly shutdowns. James Aloisi, TransitMatters’ token Baby Boomer and a former state secretary of transportation, announced the group’s findings in a magazine op-ed headlined, “Shutdown process costly for the T.”
Three months later, after initially trying to discredit the article, MBTA officials acknowledged that the last Green E train of the night carried, on average, one person. One person! Sensibly, officials announced that the other trains would no longer wait for the laggard streetcars. TransitMatters had saved the MBTA, or the “T,” as it’s known by everyone in Boston, most of the $500,000 it was spending per year on the late shutdowns. They’d also shortened the early-morning journeys of countless fellow passengers. “It took a little bit of internal calculation for them to realize: ‘No, wait a second, these guys are right!’” says Ebuña.
Over the last three years, Ebuña, Ofsevit, and their comrades in transit-nerdiness have emerged as leading voices in the debates over how to improve Boston’s beleaguered transit system, which runs the oldest train and bus fleets among the nation’s major transit agencies and faces a $7 billion backlog of repair and upkeep work. TransitMatters, run mostly by millennials and using everything from encyclopedic knowledge of train schedules to a network of government insiders, has scored several wins with its data-driven proposals to improve the MBTA’s service. This year, TransitMatters’ advocacy convinced the MBTA to launch overnight bus service for the first time in decades. Members of the group also played a major role in convincing the city and state to add a bus lane to the design for a renovated bridge over the Charles River between historic Charlestown and downtown—a change that will speed up some of the T’s most popular, overcrowded and often-gridlocked bus lines.
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With success has come a more receptive response from the transit officials who once pooh-poohed their findings. “They’ve been terrific in asking us to think about things differently,” says Joseph Aiello, chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, a governor-appointed panel that oversees the T for the state department of transportation. “The board and staff listen to them very carefully. We don’t always agree with them, but we frequently adopt their work.”
In Boston, a town stocked with more than a dozen major universities and colleges and full of urbanists and transit enthusiasts—the kind of people who actually get together over beers just to geek out about transportation policy—Ebuña, 31, and Ofsevit, 34, have become spokespeople for the city’s younger generation of transit riders: millennials who’ve rejected suburban life to go car-free or car-light in the city, who track the T’s open-source data via smartphone to gain a speedier edge on their commutes. “I think as millennials, we see the folly of the previous generation’s emigration to the suburbs,” says Ebuña. Instead, they want to revitalize urban life in fast-growing Boston by improving how people get around. They’re not making small-bore changes, like organizing car pools or encouraging bike commuting, or griping about fare increases. They’re challenging an entrenched and cumbersome bureaucracy that should be one of the most innovative sectors of big-city government, but isn’t. And their talent for collaboration with change-skeptics in the corridors of government serves as a model for how motivated outsiders can help drive quality of life improvements in cities around the world.
“I’m a fan. I like what they do,” says former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who rode the T to work at the State House in the 1980s and is still, at age 84, a respected voice in the Bay State’s mass-transit debates. “I like the fact that they’re bold and fresh,” says the former Democratic presidential nominee. “They dig deep, but they’re also creative and imaginative.”
Now, in an election year, TransitMatters has gone big, with an ambitious, high-cost proposal to speed up and electrify the T’s diesel-chugging commuter rail system and a new suggestion for filling in a missing link in the subway system. Their ideas are gaining attention just as Republican Governor Charlie Baker runs for re-election on his fix-it-first strategy for the T, while Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez pledges to spend more on transit repair and expansion. Amid that debate, Ebuña, Ofsevit and TransitMatters are pushing the state to think ahead about how Bostonians will get around in the booming, crowded city’s future.
“If you’re a transit enthusiast, and you know by heart all of the schedules and how the system works, that really helps with your credibility,” says Ebuña. “If you know what you’re talking about, that makes it really difficult for people to ignore you.”
Marc Ebuña steps onto an Orange Line car, but he doesn’t grab a pole or a hanging strap. Short and trim, his glasses squarish, he’s sharply dressed in a red-dotted, navy-blue shirt and brown slacks. Like a surfer on a wave, he braces himself for the train to accelerate and slow. “I listen for sounds,” he says. “I know when the conductor’s applying the brakes.”
Ebuña rides the train nearly every day, from his apartment in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood to his two jobs, one at a downtown coffeehouse, the other as a part-time publicist for Bluebikes, Boston’s public bikeshare system. The son of Filipino immigrants, he grew up in Flushing, Queens, at the end of New York City’s 7 line. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute near Albany in 2009, he moved to Boston and got a job as a systems administrator for a local school district. Living along the Red Line, he started TransitMatters as a blog about his often-aggravating commute, “so my friends could stop having to read my transit rants on Facebook,” he says.
One day in late 2009, Ebuña found flyers warning about the shutdown of part of the Red Line scattered on train seats. Ebuña thought the flyers ugly, confusing and hard to read. “I got frustrated,” he recalls, “so on my 45-minute commute, I designed a mockup.” His signs, modeled after the New York City MTA’s notices, put key info—shutdown dates, the affected train line—in big block letters for easy reading from afar. When the T shut down the Red Line’s northernmost station for repairs in 2010, Ebuña printed his guerrilla signs for $50 at a copy store. “I spent an entire night hopping car to car to car, putting up signs as far south as I could,” he says. Transportation officials took notice: The T redesigned its service advisory posters based on Ebuña’s model.
From there, Ebuña teamed up with other young transit enthusiasts to build TransitMatters into an advocacy group. They held monthly Beer and Transit events, where young T riders gathered in bars to talk with local transportation planners, officials, and advocates such as Dukakis about ways to improve train and bus service in dense, congested Boston.
Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition of 70 advocacy groups, including TransitMatters, says Ebuña has helped to channel Bostonians’ love and hate of the T into citizen participation.
“Being the leader of the MBTA is sort of like being the general manager of the Boston Red Sox: every person in Massachusetts believes they could do a better job than the person currently holding the role,” Dempsey says. “Even folks who don’t ride [the T] daily have an opinion about it and want it to succeed.” But, Dempsey adds, “The average rider doesn’t have a sense of how decisions at the MBTA are made and how to influence them. Marc has helped with both. As a convener, he’s made information about the T accessible.”
When TransitMatters launched a monthly podcast in 2014, one of its first guests was Ofsevit. Tall and thin, with piercing hazel eyes, the three-time Boston Marathon runner gets around mostly by bike and transit, though he owns a car for hiking trips to the country. Like Ebuña, he’s a near-lifelong transit rider. “The first couple of years of my life, I lived on Mount Auburn Street in Watertown,” Ofsevit says. “I would watch the 71 bus go by, out my window, and wave at it.”
A grad student in city planning and transportation at MIT and a former staffer for a private bus line in Cambridge, Ofsevit reigns supreme in the surprisingly large world of Boston train-data geeks. His blog, “The Amateur Planner,” takes deep dives into ideas for improving Boston transit. He’ll use charts and graphs to point out ways to add to a bus route’s schedule, dig up a 1913 map and a 1906 photograph to reveal a T station’s original design, and mark up Google Maps screen shots to game out ways to extend a streetcar line. His sources around Boston include train nerds with even deeper memories—“people who can recite a schedule from 1925 for a streetcar,” he says. They also include moles inside the T, who give him off-the-record info and let him know when he’s onto something.
“He has an element of a mad scientist to him, in the best meaning of that,” says Aiello, the T control board chair. “He is really not constrained by historical process…He looks at every dimension of a problem…His talent level is amazing.”
In early 2015, just as Ofsevit was getting to know Ebuña and TransitMatters, Snowmageddon struck. A series of colossal blizzards dumped more than 80 inches of snow on the city. Nearly every outdoor stretch of the T’s rapid-transit lines shut down. Inside the aging trains, many dating from the 1960s and 1970s, systems froze and failed. It took the agency 56 days to get its entire fleet back on the rails. The storms exposed the T’s inefficient, insular culture, which hadn’t kept up with best practices, such as using anti-icing fluid on tracks’ electrified third rails.
Baker, sworn in as governor just weeks before the first storm, was thrust into the role of fix-it reformer. A former health-system CEO, Baker took aim at the T’s finances, aiming to reduce its $5 billion debt. In summer 2015, the legislature gave Baker the power to appoint a new board to improve the agency’s finances and management.
One casualty of Baker’s new austerity was the T’s late-night train service, a pilot program that kept the rapid-transit lines running until 2:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Launched in 2014 in a bid to make the city more attractive to millennials, late-night service cost $14 million a year. The board cancelled it in March 2016, declaring it a money-loser.
That’s when Ofsevit brainstormed an alternative. “The T actually runs some early morning buses that they don’t publicize,” he says. He’d found them by studying the footnotes in bus schedules, which revealed the little-known fact that some buses began running before 5 a.m. —and that those first runs extended their routes to end in downtown Boston, to substitute for the trains, which don’t start running until 5 a.m. or later. His blog post, “The T’s ‘secret’ early AM service—unmasked,” which showed riders how to get downtown and to Logan Airport by bus between 3:30 and 5:15 a.m., caused traffic on his site to surge.
Ofsevit and two TransitMatters board members went even further. They proposed replacing the missing late-night trains with seven-day, all-night bus service. Boston, they pointed out in an op-ed, was one of only three of the nation’s 15 biggest transit agencies that didn’t run buses 24 hours a day. The canceled trains, they argued, had been “perceived as focusing on the ‘drunk college kid’ demographic on Friday and Saturday nights only.” Actually, they pointed out, there was an important economic benefit to the late-night trains. The T’s own analysis showed that low-income night-shift workers, not partiers, were the people who really relied on those trains. “Our plan,” they wrote, “[is] geared primarily toward getting people to their late-night and early morning jobs.”
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration ultimately endorsed TransitMatters’ proposal, as did four surrounding towns. Boston helped the volunteer group compile census statistics about overnight workers to help make the case; Boston and neighboring Cambridge distributed a survey to gauge interest in overnight ridership. Ofsevit, Ebuña and other TransitMatters members studied the T’s own ridership data about the day’s first trains.
“Our task was to get numbers for our assertions that there are people who need this service,” Ebuña says, “to build that narrative, and then to drill down on what sort of service pattern is required.”
After long negotiations with TransitMatters, the MBTA in April launched a $1.2 million early morning bus service. It added a total of 282 weekly trips on several popular existing bus routes, some starting as early as 3:20 a.m. In September, it added late-night bus service to several routes, with some buses running until 3 a.m. Both are pilot programs; they’ll be made permanent, adjusted, or cancelled based on ridership.
Aiello, the T board chair, says the early-morning buses are popular with riders. “We’re very pleased with the early results,” he says. “They were very rigorous on this. It wouldn’t have happened if not for them.”
In Waltham, an outer suburb of Boston, Ofsevit steps off an MBTA commuter-rail train onto a platform, then turns and looks behind him. His train car has already emptied, but the rear cars haven’t. Instead of stepping quickly onto platforms, riders are stepping slowly and gingerly from the train to footstools, then to the ground. To Ofsevit, this slow exit, repeated at nearly every station, is an example of why Massachusetts’ trains don’t get where they’re going as fast as they could. Finally, the train starts again, slowly chugging west, leaving an odor of diesel fumes in its wake. “I think the engine on that train’s about 40 years old,” he says.
Early this year, TransitMatters’ leaders released their most ambitious proposal yet: a “regional rail” plan to speed up and electrify the MBTA’s sprawling, aging commuter rail system, which covers most of eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. With faster, quick-accelerating electric trains, and high-level platforms for every train car in each station to speed up entry and exit, TransitMatters predicts that its plan could cut the commuter rail’s Boston-to-Providence travel times from as long as 73 minutes down to 45 minutes.
“It’s a no-brainer,” says Dukakis of TransitMatters’ plan. “The single biggest problem Massachusetts faces today is how to keep people moving around, and in the most environmentally responsible way. Regional rail does that for you.
The Massachusetts Senate backed a study of TransitMatters’ idea this spring, but with its price tag of $2 billion to $3 billion, it’s got a long way to go to become reality. Baker, the frugal governor, is skeptical of big-budget transit expansions. “You know what my vision is? Making the thing work,” Baker said about the T in a radio interview in June.
Ofsevit and TransitMatters have also played a key role in getting the state to re-examine a once-shelved proposal to connect the T’s Red and Blue lines, Boston’s only rapid-transit lines that don’t cross. The Red-Blue Connector would link Logan Airport and working-class Revere and East Boston with high-tech Cambridge. Former Governor Deval Patrick’s administration dropped its plans for the Red-Blue Connector after pricing the quarter-mile project at $750 million.
This year, the T began to reexamine the Red-Blue Connector. Aiello says he and other T leaders are intrigued by Ofsevit and TransitMatters’ new arguments that the Blue Line could be extended for less than $400 million if the T used a long-forgotten, 300-foot tunnel at the Blue Line’s end and excavated with a cut-and-cover technique instead of a tunnel borer. This month, a new estimate from the T confirmed Ofsevit’s argument, finding that the tunneling could be done for $200 million to $300 million, with total budget between $260 million and $420 million. “They put enough fact and analysis on the table for us to say, ‘Let’s take another look,’” Aiello says.
For now, TransitMatters is looking to apply lessons from its victories to the next battle—lessons that Ebuña and Ofsevit think could help transit advocates in cities around the country.
They approach transit officials as potential collaborators, not antagonists. “Some people get really defensive about how you don’t understand how they have limited resources and staff,” says Ebuña. “Part of making your arguments is recognizing that you’re there as an ally, and that you both care about the system.” They also forge other alliances. “You build credibility by talking to people outside of the agency who have more credibility,” Ebuña says, “building that case with local leaders, with your city councilor.”
And they keep it local. “If you’re worried about what Trump is doing, and you’re waiting for that $1 trillion infrastructure investment package, you’re in the wrong place,” Ebuña says. “Your local, state, and city government decide how your tax dollars are spent for your transit network.”