The Urban Ring is a circular transportation network surrounding Boston. The basic idea is to connect major transit stops, residential areas, commercial areas, and other important destinations by a network of buses, trains, and rapid transit.

This is one of the best ideas out there to improve transit in the Boston area. The problem is that is will be very expensive and, if stated today, wouldn’t be finished until about 2025.

Phase 1

Phase 1 will add new bus Cross-town and Express Commuter bus service to and around Boston. There are currently three Cross-town bus routes, CT 1 from Central Square in Cambridge to the Boston University Medical Center in Roxbury, CT 2 from Sullivan Square to Ruggles via Kendal/MIT, and CT 3 from Longwood Medical Area to Andrew Square via the B.U. Medical Center. Phase 1 routes are being designed to compliment the major bus routes in the area and not act as a supplement to Rapid Transit

Phase 1 would use low floor, articulated buses, the kind that are being used on the Silver Line and on various buss routes like #39 in Jamaica Plain. Stations would be similar to the BRT.

Phase 2

Phase 2 will add more bus routes and some Commuter Rail stations. The primary purpose of Phase 2 is to connect major transit hubs. Phase 2 will use real Bus Rapid Transit and be more like transit stations than bus stops and some routes will use dedicated bus ways. Phase 2 is being designed to compliment Phase 3 which will be a new Rapid Transit line.

Phase 2 lines will connect JFK/Mass, Dudley Square, Ruggles, Longwood Medical Area, Kenmore Square, Cambridge/MIT, Lechmere, Union Square, Sullivan Square, Wellington, Everett, Chelsea, and Logan Airport.

Phase 2 will use low floor, articulated buses like the Silver Line but the stations would be simpler to Silver Line stations.

Phase 3

Phase 3 will be a new Rapid Transit line from Sullivan Square to Lechmere, Kendal, MIT, Kenmore, Longwood, Ruggles, and Dudley Square using light rail or heavy rail like the Orange Line. Heavy rail would be better for a line that would see so much use and it could use the car shops for the Orange Line at Wellington to help cut costs.

What the Urban Ring could be

The T seems to have a sexual fixation with the idea of BRT. Now, I don’t really have anything against BRT, it’s just, if you are gonna spend billions of dollars, try to build something that will last. I think that the Urban Ring should have two subway routes rather than one. One route will come close to the city and the other will be further out, near Harvard.

The first route is basically what the MBTA proposes but will connect to Logan rather stopping at Sullivan. It will go from Logan Airport, connect with the Blue Line at Wood Island, follow the Grand Junction RR in Chelsea and Everett, and cross the Mystic to Sullivan Sq. Then it heads south to Lechmere and Kendall. After Kendall it will follow the Grand Junction a bit further and dive under the Charles River to Kenmore Sq. It will travel under Brookline Ave to the Longwood Medical Area where it will make a sharp turn west to Huntington Ave and Ruggles. Here it will head southwest to Dudley Sq, over to Uphams Corner, the current JFK/UMass stop (which will have its name changed back to Columbia, or Expo Center) and finally out to UMass Boston.

The second line will leave from Medford Center, heading west were it will meet up and run parallel with the Orange Line to Sullivan Sq. Here it will sharply turn east and meet up with the two branches of the Green Line on Washington St and Union Sq in Somerville. It will head southeast to Inman Sq in Cambridge where it will make another sharp turn to the east and head to Harvard Sq. At Harvard it will travel under to Charles over to Allston where Harvard University is building its huge student campus. The line will head south under Franklin St, connect with a new Allston commuter rail stop where the Sports Depot is and continue under Harvard Ave, stopping at Comm. Ave and Coolidge Corner. At Coolidge Corner the line will head west and connect with the first line in the Longwood Medical Area.

The Urban Ring 600kb

Green Line Urban Ring

The Urban Ring is a transit plan put out by the MBTA to connect all the transit lines (subway, bus, and commuter rail) that come into downtown Boston with a ring of transit. The purpose of this is two fold; the first being to take pressure off of the 4 major downtown transfer points (Park, State, Gov’t Center, and DTX), and second to connect large job centers, primarily Kendall Sq and the Longwood Medical Area. The current plan is a three phase process starting with improved crosstown bus service, then moving to Bus Rapid Transit -BRT- (e.g. Silver Line), and finally constructing a subway line either using Orange Line heavy rail or Green Line light rail.

The idea for an urban ring is not new. The first instance of a transit line encircling Boston was put out by Robert Gourlay, a Scottish writer and urbanist. When he first came to the young United States in 1817 he realized that the new nation would be building many new cities and that there had to be a scientific way to do so. He began crafting ideas for cities, making him one of the first urban planners. In his “General Plan, for enlarging and Improving the City of Boston”, Gourlay proposed something completely radical: fill in the Back Bay and line the Charles River with a park and train line. He also proposed connecting the Providence, Boston & Worcester, and Fitchburg train terminals with underground tunnels (we don’t have this either). Nothing came of Gourlay’s plan, though he must have planted a few seeds in the minds of Bostonians.

(I mean to have an image of Gourlay’s plan but I can’t find it online. You can see it in the book “Inventing the Charles River” by Karl Haglund)

The problem most people have with the current plan is that it doesn’t serve enough areas and that it relies mainly on slow moving buses in mixed traffic. I do want to go on record saying that I am all for improved crosstown bus
service but I am not for relying completely on buses. I do believe that any serious transit plan needs to take them into account and to propose ideas that would improve bus traffic (dedicated lanes), but in the end any urban ring proposal needs to center around an actual subway line. Here is my proposal:

To start with, this is not just a proposal for the urban ring but it is a fundamental rethinking of how the Green Line would operate.

Green Line Ring Lines West

What this map shows is a series of rings formed by connecting the ends of the Green Line through Cambridge and Boston. The Green Line as we know it today would function as half of the ring while the other half could go through Harvard and Allston (#1) or Kendall Sq (#2). Since the southern end of the Green Line has multiple branches this gives us more options for where to connect the ring. The first connection would be to Kenmore Sq (#3), either directly under the Charles River or by a new tunnel under Comm. Ave. The next possibility would be under Huntington Ave (#4), connecting Longwood into the ring. The last option would be the most dramatic, connecting the ring to Dudley Sq (#5) where a new tunnel under Washington St would connect the ring into downtown.

What would happen to the trolley service we have now is this:
– B Line would be placed in a tunnel to Brighton where it could terminate or continue to Boston College.
– C Line would cease going to North Station but would instead travel to South Boston via a new tunnel under Essex St (what Silver Line Phase III is planning on building).
– D Line would connect to the Huntington Ave subway and shuttle service would be instituted along the stretch of track connecting Brookline with Kenmore Sq.
– E Line would be truncated or switched to Washington St tunnel.

If two of the connections were built then this would give the T much more room to try different services and to reroute trains if one becomes disabled.

The next phase would be to connect the northeastern suburbs.
Green Line Ring Lines North

Unlike the first phase, these lines would only feed into the new urban ring tunnels, not the Green Line tunnels.
The three options as thus: Construct a new line, both in tunnel and at grade, to connect Lechmere with Everett, Chelsea, and Logan Airport (#1). This proposal is currently in the long term plans for the actual Urban Ring but only as BRT. The next would be to use the under-used Saugus Branch ROW that runs along Everett to Malden and Saugus before terminating in Lynn (#2). Service here could terminate at a Park-&-Ride facility at the interchange at Route 1 or continue to Saugus and Lynn. The last options is a line through Charlestown in a tunnel to Chelsea and on to Revere (#3). This would be the most expensive since express bus service covers this basic route today, but I just threw it in there anyway.

This is no simple plan and will most certainly cost billions of dollars. But if you only think about it in terms of how much it’s going to cost you then you aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. The Green Line today is a relic of Victorian era transportation and it is evident every time you ride it. Installing a brand new artery that doesn’t funnel people in and out of the city twice a day but circulates them throughout the business areas, residential areas, and entertainment areas will completely change the way people think about living in the city.

The problem with the current plan for the Urban Ring is that it still clings to the transportation theories of the mid 20th century where people come in from the suburbs at 8am and then leave at 5pm. While there will always be commuting into the city, the city cannot grow and prosper when this is the only option. We need a new way of thinking about how mass transit can strengthen a city and I think that these proposals are a good first step.

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