Malia Lazu

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is in need of an overhaul, and not just to meet safety standards. It needs to reestablish its relationship with the state and its citizens. In the past month the MBTA has been plagued with accidents, fires and delays, including a harrowing fire on an Orange Line train that left passengers scrambling out of windows to safety. One woman even jumped into the river to save herself. This is on top of numerous other failures, making it obvious how little a priority public transportation has been.  

It leaves us all asking questions about why public transportation is so hard to deliver in this state. We need answers about why people are being forced to take their lives into their hands, just to ride the train. There are schedule and service issues as well. For example, why can’t I get a train from Boston to the Berkshires? Such questions need to be asked at a time when safe, reliable and high-quality public transportation is the solution to so many of our most pressing problems. 

Boston Clings to Cars 

Public transportation benefits the environment, has been proven to increase safety and is seen as a tool in boosting economies. Asia, Europe and Latin America all have successful models of public transportation moving people and connecting places. Jonathan English writes convincingly in Bloomberg about the case for public transportation by citing numerous successful examples in countries around the globe. And yet, so many cities and suburbs in the U.S. continue to cling to car-centric models without much effort to make things better for more people.  

“All too often, transit planners–and even advocates–find themselves resigned to fatalism about the prospect of transit in American suburbs,” English writes. “They’re convinced that these spread-out and car-centric spaces are fundamentally irreconcilable with public transportation.”  

But to give up is to abandon hope for the benefits, from environmental to social. In many first-class cities, public transportation is used by a great diversity of people from across the class spectrum.   

In Tokyo, the public transit system moves 10 million-plus people a day, including tourists. The London Underground moves close to 6 million out of its 9.9 million residents, and was back to 80 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership this year after COVID lockdowns. In contrast, the MBTA moves only 1.2 million people out of Greater Boston’s nearly 5 million.  

Massachusetts is a rich state. Those of us who live and work here have been blessed with a recession-proof economy, a history of generational wealth and innovative business cultures. Yet at times, our state is also so tone deaf to the future. We can’t ignore the irony of branding ourselves as a shining example of the future, while being unable to run a sustainable train system – never mind expanding that system to connect more gateway cities and surrounding suburbs to one another. This lack of political will should embarrass all of us. 

It Didn’t Have to Be This Way 

When I first moved to Boston in 1995, I was told all about the Big Dig, and how this tunnel would connect communities and create a beautiful walking area above ground. Now, when I am sitting in traffic inside that amazing engineering feat, I sometimes wonder what we could have done with $15 billion and engineering genius focused on more futuristic ways of moving people.   

Last week, I was on the Orange Line when it seemed to have some door trouble while at a stop. Knowing this probably wasn’t catastrophic I tried to calm myself, but when one guy got up and walked out, I decided to follow suit. Walking out of the train two stops away from mine, I stood on the platform, shocked that I did not feel safe on a train in this world-class city. That same week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a 30-day shut down of this very line for some much-needed maintenance – a major disruption to solve an avoidable problem. Responsible management and political will could have prevented the MBTA from becoming an emergency.   

Making a major investment in transportation should not be seen as social service and a waste of tax dollars, but as economy building. We need to modernize this necessity for our future to create a truly equitable world-class city. Taxpayers deserve to see their tax dollars improving society, and we need to feel the same excitement for a modern transportation system as we did for the Big Dig.  

Cars and gasoline are not what the next generation is looking for. This outmoded transportation will play a limited role in attracting and retaining future talent. A world-class, safe and equitable transportation system will truly set us apart in determining where people want to live and work. 

Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.   

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by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min