Boston: The “Rapid Transit and Key Bus Routes” Map

Boston map slice As several commenters have mentioned lately, Boston’s transit agency recently published a new network overview map, part of an overhaul of the information system.   The new map is similar in function to a subway network map but with some key bus lines added.  Here’s a slice, but you can get the whole thing, in much better resolution, here.

Most large transit agencies with extensive rail transit publish a map of just the rail transit services.  These tend to be the fastest, most frequent, and highest-capacity services in the network, so it makes sense that if you zoom out to a full-system overview, these are what you should see.

But when you look at the map asking a specific question — “So how would I get from A to B?” — a standard rail transit map may not give you the answer, especially if you’re outside the core.  Most mature rail transit networks have a core area where many lines cross, forming a lattice of lines that can be used to get from almost any station to any other.  Think London inside the Circle Line loop, or Lower Manhattan, or most of the city of Paris.  But further out, the rail transit map presents single lines radiating outward from the city.  To travel between two outer stations on different lines, the subway may not be the fastest route, because it will require you to go into the urban core and back.

In a smaller network like Boston’s, there’s only a small area downtown where many subway lines interconnect.  Most of the network is formed by radial lines extending outward from downtown.  So many, many trips between rail stations are not logically routed via the rail network.   If you want to go, for example, from Harvard on the Red Line to Harvard Avenue station on the Green Line, you don’t want the Red Line or the Green Line, you want bus line 66.  And while the 66 isn’t as frequent as a subway (its midday frequency is 16 minutes, which usually means it used to be 15), it’s still going to get you there sooner than taking the subway into downtown Boston and back out.

I don’t know the intentions behind the selection of “key bus routes,” but that’s the best sense I can make of it.  And as such, it makes good sense.  As always, I would prefer to see a Frequent Network map, where the appearance of a line guaranteed high frequency, but such a map would probably be much more crowded in the core of Boston, and less suited to getting a zoomed-out picture of the whole network.

(And yes, the map’s representation of the Silver Line, in the southeast part of this slice, makes me a little seasick.  It seems to be saying that the Silver Line – Green Line connection, at Boylston, works in only one direction.  In fact, the Silver Line [a Bus Rapid Transit service] is really four lines, where the apparent figure-eight is two of them overlapping.  But there’s no way I’d know that from this map.)

28 Responses to Boston: The “Rapid Transit and Key Bus Routes” Map

  1. Rajan R December 6, 2009 at 5:19 am #

    I remember my first day in Singapore – I met my friend in Sengkang station on the northeast end of the North East Line. We needed to get to Expo station on the Changi Airport spur off the East West Line.
    While we could have simply taken a train to town (or in this case, just past the CBD) and double back to the north east, my friend simply took his bus guide and found a bus that leaves from Sengkang to Bedok, three stations away from Expo.
    At the same time, I’d imagine if we had to deal with a map that showed all the possible bus routes from Sengkang to East West Line stations, the map would be far too complex to decipher.
    A far better solution is to have a good bus guide, and better yet, something like TfL’s trip planner in London (Singapore has a little known version of it, buried in TransitLink’s–one of the myriad public transport agencies– website). Rapid transit maps are effective only because rapid transit, even in complex systems like New York City, can still be described together, effectively, in a map.

  2. Aaron M. Renn December 6, 2009 at 6:34 am #

    The thing that bothered me about Boston is that the Silver Line is shown as if it were a rail line when it is in fact a bus. It might be a high frequency bus with limited stops, but it’s still a bus. I’m not saying I wouldn’t ride on that basis, but I thought the map was a bit of false advertising when I was recently there.

  3. anonymouse December 6, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    The MBTA has been trying various things, mostly ineffectively, to get people to use the bus network, like anonuncing bus connections on the train (the train driver/conductor would say “bus connections” at every stop). The problem is that the MBTA’s bus network is rather slow and unreliable. During rush hour, the aforementioned #66 takes as much as 30 minutes from Beacon Street to Harvard. Taking the C and Red Line is about 31 minutes of net travel time (plus some overhead for the transfer), with better headways, and without the risk that the bus just doesn’t show up. And that’s a very real risk with the MBTA, especially on sundays, when the bus runs every 20 minutes, so a missed run can mean a 40 minute wait.

  4. Andrewshopland December 6, 2009 at 10:37 am #

    With the opening of the new Canada line in Vancouver, BC, Translink introduced a new system map showing the region with all the major routes: Skytrain, Seabus, BRT, Busses, and connections to non-Translink services. You can check it out here:

  5. rhywun December 6, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    I agree with Rajan’s “bus guide” comment. When I lived in Germany in the ’80s, every town had a bus guide, usually on sale for a couple bucks everywhere, that showed all routes and timetables, and of course you could carry it around everywhere. Nowadays, sure, you can get that information online–if you’re carrying a smart phone–but the key remains to get that information out to the public in as easy-to-use manner as possible. And such a guide is even better than, say, the current practice in NYC where every bus stop has a complete schedule of all buses that serve it, because you can plan your trip anywhere. San Francisco had such a guide when I lived there in the ’90s, but it was notoriously inaccurate (“every 6-10 minutes until 3PM….”)

  6. J December 6, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    “I don’t know the intentions behind the selection of “key bus routes,””
    It pretty much was to inform riders that the Boston transit system isn’t just rail. I believe they did surveys and most people only knew their closest bus route. If they were going across town, they had no idea what routes would be available. I have had to introduce dozens of friends to the bus system. The fact that one can get from Hynes to Harvard FASTER on a bus than on the subway blows peoples minds. The combination of a mass transit map that only shows rail lines AND the geographic liberties that such maps take means people dont really have an idea of what distance their travel actually takes.
    The buses shown on the map are simply the 15th most popular lines by ridership.
    The 66 does need improved headways (although according to the MBTA it operates every 10 minutes or less during rush hour, and 16 minutes midday is similar to the red line’s 13 minutes), but other lines are better. The 57, for example, runs parallel to a rail line (green line B branch) and is always, I mean ALWAYS faster. (Ok, it is slower if there is heavy snow and theyre not done plowing)
    As for that silver line thing….yeah, it’s badly represented. Basically, the silver line is supposed to be one continuous bus line, from the airport to Dudley (with a branch to Design Center). Last year, they announced that phase 3, the underground connection tunnel between the lines (South Station to Boylston) was put on indefinite hold. To compensate, SL4 was added as a surface route, which made the detour to South Station. Neither the map nor the infrastructure is user friendly.
    Finally, I do think other cities should follow suit. When I lived in DC, I needed to get from Takoma to Twinbrook. My friends, all DC natives were useless, not one of them knew of any bus routes that made the connection.
    I’m pretty good with maps and transit systems, but it took me way too long to research which bus routes were available. I actually had to settle for taking the red line allll the way around, because Sunday frequencies are that bad. I don’t understand why a purple line bus service isn’t available now (simulating the route until it’s built)
    One last thing: The Boston map shows all modes of transport (heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, ferry, bus, trackless trolley (routes 71 and 73 on the map)) in one place. That’s a little bit cool.

  7. J December 6, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    Looks like they added the Massport run shuttles and fixed some minor errors from the September anouncement. I’m glad it’s not a static map in that sense.

  8. Alurin December 7, 2009 at 8:08 am #

    The bus routes that I’m familiar with (1, 39, , 77) are all high frequency. I took the 77 last night, and it every 15 minutes on Sundays!
    It is nice that they represent all modes, including the commuter rail lines. I wish, however, that the map was more geographically correct. It’s not obvious how much faster it is to take the 1 from Central Square to Hynes than to take the red to the green lines. West Medford is a lot closer to Arlington Center than to Oak Grove. And while you can walk from Park to Downtown Crossing in a couple of minutes, Davis and Alewife are very far apart.
    Also, why do they list the names of all of the Silver Line stops on the Washington Street branch (where it’s just a frequent bus with a fictional right of way) but not on the C branch of the Green Line (which is light rail running in a protected right of way in the median)?
    While the listing of the Silver Line as a rail transit route is deceptive in that it’s really a bus (and, pace the recent BRT discussions, not a true BRT beyond the South Station to World Trade Center tunnel), it is informative in that the fares are rail fares rather than bus fares.

  9. JayinPortland December 7, 2009 at 12:12 pm #

    We also have a similar (very user-friendly!) transit system map here in Portland, OR (available for free in pocket-brochure form many places downtown, in grocery stores around the city, and on some buses as well as on station displays at all MAX light rail stops and certain other transit centers) that actually does show all of the bus lines throughout the entire region, as well as MAX light rail, Portland Streetcar and WES commuter rail lines and stops.
    Line service frequency is indicated by the boldness in which the route is displayed, and the area downtown where many lines converge is shown in a highly detailed inset at the bottom corner of the map. The map is also scaled appropriately, so that it’s clearly obvious that, say, taking a frequent service #4 Division TriMet bus from here in inner SE Portland east out to SE 92nd Avenue is a much better option than trying to get all the way up to the train in NE Portland or over in downtown, and then taking MAX light rail out there.
    Philly’s got decent maps, too. Much better than the system where I grew up (North Jersey), in which it seems that NJTransit must apparently benefit from hiding their bus lines to the highest extent possible. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the only way to get around Newark was to head from Penn Station up to Secaucus and take a transfer just to hit Broad Street a few blocks over…

  10. J December 7, 2009 at 12:13 pm #

    Alurin, the silver line on washington street (Sl4 and SL5) charge the bus fare (1.25). SL1 and SL2 charge rail fare (1.70).

  11. anonymouse December 7, 2009 at 12:37 pm #

    While this map is definitely a good idea in promoting the bus system, I have to wonder whether that really makes sense for the MBTA in the first place. After all, rapid transit is a fairly high-margin product, running pretty much at the breakeven point and any added ridership just pushes it that much closer to profitability, and the rapid transit network is nowhere near its full capacity yet. The bus system, meanwhile, gets under 30% cost recovery and added ridership just means you have to run more buses.

  12. EngineerScotty December 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    Do the busses run full? If the busses are running full and still getting under 30% cost recovery, then conversion of routes to rail might be appropriate.
    If the busses aren’t full a lot of the time, getting more people on the bus makes more sense.

  13. Jeffrey Bridgman December 7, 2009 at 2:29 pm #

    Even if these routes aren’t high frequency now, perhaps listing them as key routes will help increase usage and result in higher frequency. It opens people up to the idea that taking the bus can sometimes be a better alternative than riding into the city to transfer. Once people realize that these are good options to use (unless the service reliability is absolutely horrible) it will channel more people onto these bus routes.
    >> “I wish, however, that the map was more geographically correct.” – Alurin
    Someone should give this a try. Even if it’s just hand-drafted to get an idea about how it’d work.

  14. Alon Levy December 7, 2009 at 5:13 pm #

    Anonymouse, rapid transit isn’t high margin at all, except for high-speed rail. The Western world has no profitable rapid transit networks; only a few busy lines break even – I believe the IRT network in New York does, if you allocate costs per track-km. In East Asia more rapid transit systems are profitable, but even then the profit margins aren’t always high. For example, Tokyo Metro runs at a farebox recovery ratio of 112%, which is profitable, but not immensely so.

  15. JayinPortland December 7, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Maybe we also need to ask ourselves how many American highways (or for that matter, even boulevards, avenues, roads, streets…) are “high margin”, as well?
    Just a thought…

  16. anonymouse December 7, 2009 at 6:01 pm #

    By “high margin” I meant “much less unprofitable”, of course. Much more so than the bus system, anyway. Anyhow, the MBTA has long had a policy of eliminating rail lines and replacing them with buses. The “Silver Line” is actually a substitute for the Washington Street El, and the 39 is a “temporary” substitute for the segment of E line to Arborway that was “temporarily suspended” in the 1980s. The buses are fairly well used, but I suspect as rail lines, they would be even more so, plus they wouldn’t have the trouble with snow that the artics seem to have.

  17. rhywun December 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    “NJTransit must apparently benefit from hiding their bus lines to the highest extent possible”
    Yeah, considering they don’t even have have a map for the bus system, I would have to agree! I remember dating someone there and being confused there was no map.

  18. Jef Nickerson December 9, 2009 at 7:27 am #

    I agree with having a more geographic map. This map was made for the rail lines then had the buses jammed into it. Look at the 39 for instance. The map makes it look like it pulls into Copley, then backs out and heads to Back Bay. In reality it is a straight line between the two. Back Bay on the orange line is closer to Copley than the next stop on the green line is. Where the 1 loops around to Boston Medical Center, it is only two blocks from the silver line, not halfway to Andrew as the map may make you think.
    It is also hard to tell where the bus lines end. Do the 116 and 117 end at Wonderland or Revere Beach?
    Also, where are the CT# buses. This may be the 15 most popular, but the CT# buses were designed to begin to build the Urban Ring. They make really good connections, they should be on the map.
    ALso, if Commuter Rail is on this map, the 5## Mass Pike buses should be too. Looking at this map, you’d never know there is express bus service from Newton Corner to Copley.
    It is an excellent idea to make a map like this, but it needs a new map designed from scratch.

  19. rhywun December 9, 2009 at 7:51 pm #

    I really like the idea of a “high-frequency” bus map. Is there any such thing for NYC? I couldn’t find one. Just for fun, I gauged the frequency of all the routes in Brooklyn in a similar manner to the “12-minute” map of LA I saw, but there were too many so I cut it down to 10 minutes and came up with a decent selection of routes.
    What I really wish for is a way to ‘push’ the bus routes that is better than the awful current subway map with its useless ‘bus boxes’. I wouldn’t advise adding bus routes to the subway map; it would just become too busy. But there’s plenty of room on the current bus maps (which are produced per borough) to highlight the ‘major’ routes.

  20. Alon Levy December 10, 2009 at 1:23 am #

    No, there’s nothing like this in New York.
    In Manhattan, even 10 minutes is too broad. To me, frequent service needs to run every 5 minutes peak, 10 minutes off-peak and on weekends until at least 10 or 11 pm, and 24 hours afterward. The problem is that a lot of buses run frequently during the day but only once every 40 minutes at night. Ideally, a frequent network map would have separate symbols for buses that are frequent only during the day, and buses that also run at decent headways at night.

  21. J December 10, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

    Jef Nickerson, the crosstown buses do not run on weekends or weekday nights. The map highlights routes available during all transit hours. Same with the express buses, those are rush hour only on weekdays.
    You can argue that the ferries do not meet the criteria either (limited hours)….but theyre in the ocean, might as well use that extra map space to highlight a service people forget about.

  22. Frank December 11, 2009 at 7:04 am #

    One of the values of this MBTA map is not just crosstown routes (although walking would be faster in many cases) but duplication of rail routes with infrequent or erratic service.
    Unlike SEPTA or the MTA, many MBTA commuter rail lines have almost a rush-hour only schedule. In the Boston towns that are lucky enough to even have bus service (Wellesley has none), the bus is usually the only regular service to rail stations. So there’s real value in noting those lines.
    As for MBTA service in general . . . atrocious! I lived in Fenway for 2 years. My options were: 15 minute walk to the T (+ inevitable wait) or 30 or 60 minute headways on the 55. It was always faster to walk. Oh yeah, and the MBTA has no overnight bus service. So when the bars let out, all the college kids drive home drunk.
    I’ve never lived in a “city” with worse transit options.

  23. Nathanael December 22, 2009 at 8:01 pm #

    And while the 66 isn’t as frequent as a subway (its midday frequency is 16 minutes, which usually means it used to be 15) it’s still going to get you there sooner than taking the subway into downtown Boston and back out.

    Trouble is, Jarrett, you’re just wrong!
    I was in a situation exactly like this, where the “correct” route across Boston was a bus line, supposedly very frequent — the #1 on the map. After waiting for 5 minutes, half of our party dived into the subway. We had to change trains from Green to Red, and we had to take a “bus bridge” across part of the Red Line which was under construction (!!!) but despite this we arrived a solid 20 minutes before the people who waited for the bus!
    So in fact, the bus service is such that you should take the train. Period. Even when it’s a bus. The ‘bus bridges’ are maintained to better standards than the regular bus lines. The bus lines are unpredictable, bunch, get caught in traffic, and have no information available when there are problems.
    So while this sort of map would be great for London, with its down-to-the-second countdown clocks for buses, super-reliable service, bus lanes, and congestion charge, it’s just silly for places like Boston.

  24. Nathanael December 22, 2009 at 8:03 pm #

    “The fact that one can get from Hynes to Harvard FASTER on a bus than on the subway blows peoples minds. ”
    Trouble is, that only happens if you’re lucky, as I just documented. :-/ The relative reliability and predictability of the rapid transit lines is a really serious issue for this sort of thing.

  25. Tabitha.Bos January 2, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    I’m touched by the coincidence that the example you used was precisely my first bus trip ever when I moved to Boston, and something I later explained to a friend who had lived in the Boston suburbs her whole life when she complained what nonsense it was to travel downtown and then back out. And, yes, your example was perfectly correct, it’s faster.

  26. Ari March 2, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    As long as the buses run, they can be faster. And, yes, there is a rather large contingent of transit users in Boston who have no idea that the yellow buses actually may work out for them. A lot of Bostonians, especially newer ones who live on rail lines, refer to “The T” and mean only the rail lines, as if the buses were running in a parallel universe.
    Case in point: my sister was at a bar in Allston and needed to get back to Newton (D Line). She called me to find out how to do so. “Well, get on the 66 to Brookline Village and change there, or take the 57 to Kenmore and change there. It’s cold out, just stand at the bus stop (both buses serve it) and get on whichever bus comes first.”
    Her response: “Yeah, but how do we get there on the T?” I rolled my eyes (it didn’t have the same effect through the phone) and calmly explained that the bus was the T, that her Charlie Card would give her a free transfer, and that she’d never make it if she counted on the rail lines alone. In the end, she made it home.
    One caveat to bus routes: avoid some of them at rush hour like the plague. On this map, I’m thinking especially of the 66 which runs down a gridlocked Harvard Street, is usually packed to the gills, and is almost always slower than walking. The 1 (Mass Av.) is similar, as is the 57 through Brighton; one supposed reason the old A-Watertown Line was torn out was the traffic on narrow streets in Brighton (although the buses sit in the same traffic; this was an excuse for the E Line as well).
    Finally @Alurin, I’m not sure that a better geographic map is possible. Boston has few bus lines downtown (mostly express buses) as most buses are based on streetcar lines and Boston’s streetcars either ran underground downtown (and still do) or ran to a heavy rail terminal like Harvard, Maverick or Dudley (the Harvard bus tunnel was originally a streetcar line). However, with the expansion of the rail lines there are long lines out from the core, especially to Riverside and Braintree. So if you showed the outer lines at the same geographic scale as the inner lines, most everything would be scrunched. Perhaps a geographic map in the center with more compact maps further out (on segments of lines without any connections) would make sense; the MBTA system map sort of does that with a full system map showing all bus routes to their termini (everything inside 128, basically) on one side, and detail of the center of the city on the other.

  27. Al May 5, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    There is a new version of the map now (January 2010), which shows the downtown lines more clearly. The MBTA Key Routes are routes that operate at a similar level to the rapid transit routes. That is, they run every 20 minutes or less from 5 am (6 am on Sundays/holidays) until past midnight every day. The MBTA is also planning to upgrade Route 31 to a Key Route soon.

  28. Aleks November 26, 2010 at 10:52 pm #

    Not sure why I’m responding to such an old post, but… :)
    I’ve taken this exact trip (Harvard Square to Brookline Village) dozens of times. I’ve taken the 66, and I’ve taken the train, and I’ll be damned if one of them is actually faster than the other on a consistent basis.
    Of course, this is just a quibble, since there are lots of other better buses. To get from Symphony Hall to MIT’s campus, the 1/CT1 is infinitely faster than the train. To get from BU’s campus to MIT’s, the CT2 is much faster. The 66 is just a particularly slow/unreliable route. (It doesn’t help that Boston’s street network looks like an ant farm.)
    Also, J, the core part of the Red Line never runs at 13 minute headways. Remember, there are two branches. Even on Sunday, the headways are 16 minutes per branch, or 8 minutes in the core. During midday, the headway is 13 minutes per branch, or 6.5 minutes in the core.