OP-ED: MBTA has Terrible Track Record of Providing Service to Watertown Square

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An MBTA Bus drives through Watertown Yard. (Photo by Mark Pickering)

By Mark Pickering

The city is out to revitalize Watertown Square and has set out a series of meetings aimed at getting feedback from the general public. The overall effort will look at making the square more attractive to walkers, merchants and developers looking to address the housing crisis.

The issue of transportation is a key part of the package. Even our urban neighbors note that car traffic has taken over Watertown Square – which could be the worst such intersection in Greater Boston.

A decent mass transit system could do its part in cutting down on traffic. The MBTA has, at best, neglected Watertown Square for decades. The only bus route that works at all well is the No. 71 to Harvard Square.

In fact, the MBTA treats Watertown worse than any other community abutting Boston or any of the city’s neighborhoods. The exception to this rule is Winthrop, which is on a peninsula jutting out into Boston Harbor.

Watertown lacks any of the basics that are a hallmark of a good mass transit network: The city does not have any trolley, subway or commuter rail stop – and no up-to-date T station.

Despite the terrible service that the T provides in Watertown, the city itself is on the move. The city has grown in population in recent years and now has more than 35,000 residents. Multifamily housing has sprung up in places that had formerly been a home to commercial and industrial businesses, such as Raytheon.

A key part of the problem is the MBTA’s run-down Watertown Yard, which used to be a trolley stop. It’s been in a state of decay since the MBTA closed down the “A” branch of the Green Line in 1969, a move that was widely protested.

The only replacement that Watertown Square got was the No. 57 bus, which pokeys along through Brighton and then down Commonwealth Avenue. Traffic has not decreased since then.

When the changeover was first proposed and tested in 1962, the bus flunked the popularity test.

After that, “there was a whole lot of opposition” to shutting down the “A,” branch, said Bradley Clarke, president of the Boston Street Railway Association. The T ignored the Committee for Better Transit, which drew from the affected communities of Watertown, Brighton and Newton.

Watertown Yard is now home to a run-down car barn that once repaired trolleys.

The No. 70 bus plods for about 15 miles through a whole swath of urban communities that the T has neglected. This disaster of a bus route goes through some of the worst intersections in Greater Boston. That includes downtown Waltham, Watertown Square, Arsenal Street in Watertown and Western Ave. in Boston – along with the massive bottleneck at the Charles River bridges, where Soldiers Field Road, the Mass Pike exits and Memorial Drive all merge together.

Our city deserves a new MBTA station with modern services that offers easy connections to other parts of the Greater Boston. A plan for revitalizing Watertown Square should address those issues; the No. 57 and No. 70 should be free until the T provides better service.

The public launch for the city’s Watertown Square Study is set for Tuesday, Oct. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at 64 Pleasant St. There will be a reception from 5 to 6 p.m.

Mark Pickering is a freelance writer and veteran of the local news scene, having worked on the business desk and the opinion pages of the Boston Herald. He lives in Watertown.

17 thoughts on “OP-ED: MBTA has Terrible Track Record of Providing Service to Watertown Square

  1. Well said, I completely agree that we need better public transit in Watertown and thanks for the historical context. I’ve always wondered what happened to the A-line

    Part of the tragedy of the 70 route (and others) is that busses get stuck behind private vehicle traffic. It’s crazy to me that we allow that to happen. A car needs about 24 feet of road space. Multiply that by 10 foot lanes and roughly 1.6 people per car, that’s 150 square feet needed PER PERSON to travel by car. Each of those cars need to individually accelerate and may stop to make left turns or get distracted by their phone at a stop light. And those people taking up all that space are also polluting the air, causing a lot of noise, and posing a hazard to people not in a car. Anywhere dominated by cars is not a place that people want to be (*cough* Watertown Square)

    The sad thing is that I don’t think most people particularly WANT to drive, they just want to get to their destination fast and conveniently and sadly the way our streets and transit systems are designed still make cars the best way to travel for many trips. Many people are so ingrained in this status quo that they can’t even imagine life without a car and some even think it’s not possible.

  2. Not only Watertown the whole route of MBTA is sickening from the Buses to all the Rails,the Commuters have to adjust to their system while it’s supposed to be the other way around,we have to find our own ways to get into work on time,with their speed restrictions on their Trains they knew they will be late on some stations then leave early on the first Station, but they don’t think of that they still leave the same time they leaving when they do not have the speed restrictions yet,3 months I am late on my work schedule till I found my way how to get to work early no thanks to the station closures and very slow trains and MBTA not providing shuttle buses anymore telling commuters to just walk.

  3. I live near Watertown square and don’t own a car. There are actually a couple convenient busses that in theory take less than 45 minutes:
    – 70 bus to get to Arsenal Yards and Central Square in Cambridge (connects to red line), or Moody Street in Waltham
    – 71 bus to get to East Watertown and Harvard Square (connects to red line) in Cambridge
    – 57 bus to get to Alston/Brighton in Boston, Boston University, Kenmore square (connects to green line)
    – 504 express bus to get to downtown Boston on weekdays

    I use all of these to get around, however all of these are extremely unreliable. The busses almost always run late. They have low frequency on the weekends.

    The worst is when they randomly cancel. Once we were getting groceries on Moody street, the 70 bus we planned to take cancelled, and the next bus was not for another 1 hour and 30 minutes somehow?! We ended up having to Uber back

    One time I tried to take a 504 bus to South Station Boston, but somehow it was running 45 minutes late to arrive, and was expected to be delayed by an additional 45 minutes after picking me up. This means I would have missed my train by 1 hour 30 minutes. I ended up taking a Blue Bike.

    The 71 bus also normally picks up from Harvard square station, but for some reason on Sundays it skips Harvard square and starts from the next stop. I missed two busses before I figured this out. Why do they do that? What does that accomplish?

    I’d be perfectly happy with the MTBA service to Watertown square if these busses actually worked as advertised.

    • I commute to Mass General from Watertown. I live closer to Waltham, so the 70 bus is the only viable option. I take the 70 to Central Square, then the Red Line to MGH. Often this commute takes 1.5 hours EACH WAY. Three hours to commute to work and back each day! The bus is usually crowded with lots of people standing. Same with the subway. These crowded conditions make people stressed, tense, and angry — I’ve witnessed all kinds of arguments and even fights. Fortunately, my employer allows me to work remotely two days a week. There are many working from home because their bus/subways are so unreliable. It doesn’t seem to matter where we live. I would like to see more frequent buses, bus stops with shelters and trash cans, and better lighting. We all pay for this abysmal service – with hard-earned money, time, and physical discomfort. I also very much appreciate and thank the poor drivers on both the bus and the train, who have to deal with angry (and often rude) customers on a daily basis.

      • I had to bring my son to Mass General recently (I also live close to the Waltham border), and it was only 45 minutes to get us there by e-bike (and parking was a breeze!). The nice bike lanes in Cambridge + the e-assist make it a very manageable and consistent trip

  4. This looks like a Halloween story! We need solutions. Lost spaces are very hard to bring back. Removing the T line was a absolute horrible decision regardless of what some say. Lack of planning and future vision. Who allowed these things to happen?

    Bring the T line back! As the MBTA did with Medford and Somerville…and fix the bus schedules and reliability

  5. Hannah Gibson points out numerous other ways that the MBTA lets us down (besides inefficient routes).
    1. The fact that the schedules change (just slightly) 4 times a year is impossible to follow.
    2. Buses don’t always show up.
    3. The 504, which I used to commute to the Chinatown area, stops early in the evening; if I worked late (past 7 pm), I had to walk to Copley to pick it up. If I missed that, it was Orange Line to Red, to Central or Harvard Squares, to pickup the 70 or 71 bus. By the way, there were two 70 buses then, could never figure out what the difference was.
    4. I’ll add one more: it’s expensive. We had subsidized parking at the hospital where I worked, not much, but it turned out to be just a few dollars more than taking the Express bus. After the winter of 2015, I just started driving.

    No one seems to be able to fix the T, to the point where I think we need to start over. Charlie Baker let us down, and everyone before him. We’ll see if Maura Healey is up for the job.

  6. The issue is traffic. You can run buses more frequently and you can add routes and they’re still going to end up sitting in the same traffic.

    The only possible solution is dedicated bus lanes with strict enforcement, but there just isn’t the will to do that.

  7. We also need significant improvement on the 504 reliability, frequency, and extended service to evening hours. There’s no effective way to get to downtown Boston on a Sunday, and no way to get home in the evening after 7:30 pm. Additionally, the 504 sits in the same traffic that all of the car commuters generate. There’s a current petition with all of the frustrations spelled out better:

  8. One issue that planning for Watertown Square must address is that all of the busses should have stops in adjacent locations. If one gets off the 70 bus from Waltham in Watertown Square, one walks the equivalent of 5 blocks to board the 57. Ease of transfer must be one of the goals of the Watertown Square planning team.

    The service on our bus lines has been deteriorating for years and hit bottom post pandemic. It is not possible to have transit oriented development without frequent, reliable, and efficient public transit. If we are to transform Watertown Square, then a complete transit overhaul is imperative.

    Central to this is the underuse of the property containing the old trolley barn. For years, the MBTA has steadfastly refused to do anything remotely useful with this site despite entreaties from transit advocates and elected officials. Presumably they are banking it and waiting to sell to a developer. That would be a great loss and a colossal missed opportunity for for our City.

    The City of Watertown must force the T’s hand and demand a transit oriented use worthy of the 21st century. That the T has not come up with this on their own speaks volumes about their stale corporate culture.

  9. Another way to get to and from Harvard Sq is to take the Watertown Connector’s Pleasant St shuttle bus. The stop in Watertown Sq is right in the bus-way where the 71 and 52 pick up and drop off passengers. The schedule, route, and how to pay the $1 fee (smartphone app or 10 ride punch ticket purchased from Watertown Town Hall) can be found at https://www.watertowntma.org/watconnector-pleasant-street

    MBTA bus service along Pleasant St is bad. The only bus is the 558 which is useless for anyone who needs to go to Watertown Sq or Cambridge. If you live near the end of Pleasant St by the Waltham line, it’s a 20 minute walk to Main St to catch the 70 bus which is slow and often crowded, if the driver even bothers to stop to pick you up (it happens). I’m so glad the Pleasant St shuttle exists. It’s just a few minutes to Watertown Sq and half an hour to Harvard Sq.

    • The writer has a point. If the T can’t manage to give us the service we need, the City can take matters into our own hands. That was the intent behind the TMA.

      It’s great to hear that folks like the service. Let’s hope that the ridership numbers justify increased service so that more people will be tempted to give it a try.

      And at a buck a ride, it’s a bargain.

  10. I want to thank Mark Pickering for such a thorough and timely evaluation of our transit “service”. Before we consider “loftier matters,” it’d be good to take the temperature on the ground.

    Hannah, your description of the many ways awful, inefficient service affects people is priceless. Your flexibility and ability to think on your feet when options you’ve counted on fail is admirable!

    Joe, once again, great top down analysis of the problem. But I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard that the plans for the car barn are already in place…a large building like the bio lab on Galen, only this time for hundreds and hundreds of units of housing. When I mentioned that this would probably not meet the needs or desires of Watertown families, I was assured that this kind of housing was a big hit with foreign students.

    That shuttle is great and sadly underutilized. There’s also a bus that you can pick up on the corner of California and Bridge Streets and at Repton, I believe?, that I believe will get you to the Boston Express bus in Newton Corner… Lisa, you’re clearly the expert in this. Would strengthening the services already there and making them more frequent be enough?

    I think that the shuttle is not that well advertised. I was thinking that for events in the Square, like Faire on the Square, it should be free and highly advertised to get people to try it.

    So, the shuttle to Watertown Square and Harvard Square, with bus connections to Central Square; the 558 to Newton and Boston. The possibilities are there. How do we fix this??

    • Quote: “That shuttle is great and sadly underutilized. There’s also a bus that you can pick up on the corner of California and Bridge Streets and at Repton, I believe?, that I believe will get you to the Boston Express bus in Newton Corner… Lisa, you’re clearly the expert in this. Would strengthening the services already there and making them more frequent be enough?”

      That is the MBTA 558 bus that stops at the corner of Bridge St and California St and goes down Pleasant St into Waltham, and in the other direction, goes to Newton Corner. The bus only runs a few times a day for morning and evening rush hour. Pre-pandemic the 558 was popular with those who needed to to go to and from downtown Boston but since the pandemic, the route no longer goes to downtown Boston and few people take the bus.

      The Watertown Connector Pleasant St shuttle is great but also only runs a few times in the morning and again in the evening. Ridership is low. Riders are those who live or work in the residential complexes and businesses along Pleasant St. I’m not sure how much Watertown is promoting the shuttle service to increase ridership to the general public. There is a sidewalk sign at the 71 / 52 bus stop in Watertown Sq but people just get on the 71 even if they are going straight to Harvard Sq. I agree that the town or the Watertown Connector should advertise the Pleasant St shuttle more, such as at the farmer’s market or Faire on the Square and other town events. Maybe even advertise when Arsenal Yards has community events and invite local businesses to have info tables.

      Better bus service along Pleasant St would be helpful, whether that be the T or the Pleasant St. shuttle. Service needs to be more frequent and not limited to just morning and evening rush hour. Weekend service would be a plus. There is no 558 or Pleasant St shuttle bus service on weekends so anyone who needs to go anywhere has to make the trek to Main St to catch the 70 bus.

  11. The T has bigger fish to fry other than worrying about what folks in Mayberry RFD (aka Watertown) think about the former’s service initiativest.iatives

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