Boston's subway system - locally we call it the "T" - is the easiest and cheapest way to get around the city, aside from walking.
It can also be the most frustrating.
Trains get crowded, and sometimes break down.
Service can be less frequent than you'd like during off-peak hours and weekends.
A fast, heavy snowstorm brings above-ground sections of the T to a halt. Severe winter weather - an almost annual occurance in Boston - can bring the subway system to a halt.
And the Green Line - which really are trolleys, not trains - is notoriously slow.
Boston's subway system dates back to 1897, making it the oldest in the United States. Once you ride on it, this fact will not surprise you.
Compared with newer subway systems in other American cities and around the world, ours is downright shabby.
But if you are visiting Boston, you'll actually find a lot to love about the T.
Despite the T's quirks and shortcomings, reasons for using it for transportation far outweigh the inconveniences:
- You can easily reach most tourist attractions by T
- By taking the subway (and perhaps water taxis), you avoid the considerable trouble and expense of having a car in the city
- Boston's T is relatively cheap - in fact, it's a bargain - compared with subways in other U.S. cities such as Washington D.C.
- It's relatively fast (unless you are on the Green Line)
- On Friday and Saturday nights, the T now provides service until 2am when the bars close
Governance: Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA). The MBTA system also includes commuter rail trains, buses, and ferries.
Number of lines: 5
T line names: Green (4 branches), Red (2 branches), Blue, Orange, Silver
Hours of Service: Varies by line and station. First trip is generally between about 5am-6am, and last trip is generally between 12 midnight-1pm, with last trip departures on Friday and Saturday from most (not all) stations between 1am-2am.
Fares per trip (1-way):
- Charlie Card (plastic stored-value multiple-use card): $2.10
- Charlie Ticket (paper ticket; you can also add value to it) and Pay on Board: $2.65
Unlimited trip passes ("LinkPass"):
- 1-day: $12
- 7-day: $19
- Monthly: $75
A LinkPass is not a separate type of pass. Instead, it is value that is added to either a plastic CharlieCard or a paper CharlieTicket. In other words, you must have a CharlieCard or CharlieTicket before you can add on a LinkPass. Confusing? Yes.
More fare options: See the MBTA website, Fares & Gifts tab
Figuring out which type of T ticket or LinkPass will give you the most value at the cheapest price depends on how long you will be in Boston, how much you expect to use the T, and if/when you are likely to return. In these examples, "1 trip" means a 1-way ride, not round trip.
If you will be in Boston for only a day -
If you expect to make 7 or fewer trips, buy Charlie Tickets. They expire after 90 days, so don't buy more than you need unless you know you'll be back before they expire.
If you expect to make more than 4 trips during a day, you can save money by buying a 1-day LinkPass. You can also use the LinkPass on local buses.
If you will be in Boston for 2 or more days -
Charlie Tickets may still be your best choice if you plan only occasional T usage.
But ... if you expect to make 8 or more trips during your stay, you can save money by getting a 1-week LinkPass.
Another option is to buy a reloadable Charlie Card. Although the Charlie Card saves you about 20% on each trip compared with buying a single-use Charlie Ticket, you have to load fare on it in $1, $5, $10, $20 increments - so you may end up with more money on your card than you can use during your visit.
If you plan to return to Boston for another visit, you can use it later. Charlie Cards expire in 5 or 10 years, but if that happens and you don't mind going to the Downtown Crossing T office, you can get your remaining funds transferred to a new card.
T stations located underground have full service Fare Vending Machines where you can buy Charlie Tickets, add LinkPasses to your CharlieTicket or CharlieCard, and add funds to your stored value Charlie Card.
Above-ground stations and bus stations have limited-use fare boxes. You can use them to pay your fare, buy a stored value CharlieTicket, and add stored value to a CharlieCard.
To get a plastic CharlieCard, which gives you the 20% discount, you have to get it from MBTA Customer Service Agents, from one of the T's Distribution Centers, or from the Sales Office in the Downtown Crossing Station. The card is free. Once you get it, you load value onto it, using cash or a credit card.
MBTA's website has a list of stations with Customer Service Agents. To find it, click on Fares and Gifts. In the right column, click on Where Can I Find A CharlieCard?
The T's five color-coded lines - Red, Green, Orange, Blue, and Silver - serve many (but not all) Boston neighborhoods plus parts of Cambridge, Somerville, Revere, Malden, Brookline, Newton, Milton, and Quincy.
As you can see, the western end of the Green Line has several branches (B, C, D, E - that's right, no A - don't ask ...) and the southern end of the Red Line has 2 branches (Mattapan and Braintree). If you're taking one of the lines with branches, be sure to check the sign at the front of the first car to verify the destination. The Green Line can be especially confusing because the B, C, D, and E lines branch off at different points.
The Silver Line of the Boston subway consists of 2 sections, with 2 routes each.
One section (SL1 and SL2) provides service from South Station to Logan Airport (SL1) and from South Station to several points in South Boston, including the CruisePort Terminal and the Institute of Contemporary Art (SL2).
Because the SL 1 and SL2 buses travel partly underground as well as on surface roads, MBTA classifies them as part of the subway system. Most Bostonians call them buses, because that's what they are.
The other two Silver Line sections (SL 4 and SL5; and no, there's no SL 3) use only above-ground roads, and MBTA considers them part of the bus system, which makes sense. The SL 4 and SL 5 routes provide service between South Station and Dudley Square in Roxbury, traveling along Washington Street in the South End.
All of the other Boston subway lines have some above-ground stations. As you might imagine, this slows the progress of the trains, especially the Green Line, as cars and pedestrians cross the tracks in front of them.
Only the Red, Orange, and Blue lines have subway cars that are classified as trains.
The Green Line has trolleys, considered light rail.
The Silver Line uses regular buses and duel-fuel (diesel and electric) buses.
Most of the time, Boston's subway system is fairly efficient, except for when breakdowns or other delays occur. The above-ground sections of track are especially prone to problems during the winter, when heavy or rapid snow accummulation can make the tracks impassible.
Although the MBTA is normally fairly efficient about digging out the tracks, service will be delayed or shut down. During extreme conditions, the T cannot operate, as anyone who relied on public transportation during the winter of 2014-2015 can testify.
You can access the MBTA map and related information about the subway system on line at: MBTA map
This link brings you to the same subway map that you see above, which lets you drill down for additional details.
Click on the MBTA map. See the tab near the top marked "Interactive Street Map"? Click on that, zoom in, and you get a street map. Find a specific address or neighborhood, and you can determine the closest subway, bus, and other public transportation options.
If you need to print a map, you'll find links to .pdf (printable) versions in the upper right corner.
Now, find the colored bars labeled "Red Line," "Orange Line," and so forth near the upper right corner. Click on these to get details about each line.
If you're visiting Boston from another country, you may be accustomed to subways, trains, and buses arriving and departing according to a schedule. Please be aware that being on schedule doesn't happen here.
Boston subway schedules are only useful for telling you approximate service start and end times, and intervals that would be between stops barring other things such as traffic backups.
Since delays and changes of various sorts do happen, the details of the schedules are meaningless.
Want station-specific information? Click on a station on the line map and you will find connecting bus lines, accessibility information, and parking availability and cost.
The only thing that's missing is a description of the very cool public art and the performers found in and near some stations.
If you need accessibility, please note that a few stations are still not accessible.
Even if a station appears to be accessible, you should confirm its current status. Click on the Service Alerts link that says "Click here for all service alerts." When the Service Alerts page appears, click on the "Elevators, Escalators, Lifts" tab at the top to the real-time status.
You'll also find detailed subway maps at several points in all T stations and near bus stops on the Silver Line routes.
Boston Subway Hours
Operating hours vary slightly by line. The earliest morning departure time is slightly before 5am, and the latest evening (early morning, actually) departure time is around 2am on Fridays and Saturdays.
This link to the T Frequency Schedule will give you the big picture and "peak" vs "non-peak" hours for each line, as well as the scheduled interval between trains for various periods within the day.
Like the schedules for each line, the Frequency Schedule isn't necessarily accurate but it will give you a general idea of what to expect, especially if you're planning to use the T on the weekend when service is sparse on some lines.
Tip: If you're planning to enjoy some of Boston's nightlife and then return to your hotel on the T, remember that bars can stay open until 2. Even on Friday and Saturday, your last drink should be well before last call in order to allow time to reach the station . . . unless you want to call a cab.
Inbound vs Outbound - Definitions
Go to any Boston subway station and you'll see signs and hear announcements about "Inbound" and "Outbound" service. You might logically infer that trains going in toward the center of Boston are "Inbound" and going out are "Outbound."
That's more or less true, but because there's no central station where all lines converge, the switch from Outbound to Inbound occurs where another line intersects with the line you're on:
- Green Line and Blue Line: Toward Government Center (Green and Blue Line intersection) is Inbound; away is Outbound
- Red Line: Toward Park Street (Green Line intersection) is Inbound; away is Outbound
- Orange Line: Toward Downtown Crossing (Red Line intersection) is Inbound: away is Outbound
- Silver Line: Toward South Station (Red Line intersection) is Inbound; away is Outbound
Confused? Don't worry ... even born-and-bred Bostonians find this tough to keep straight.
Your best strategy? Look carefully at the sign in the front car to see the train's destination.
Inbound or Outbound? Look at the Entrance Signs!
Another very important fact to keep in mind when you are entering a station is that not all entrances will let you access both outbound and inbound tracks (although most do).
Therefore, you need to look carefully at the station sign before entering to make sure you can access the tracks going in the direction that you hope to go.
For example - this photo (on the left) of one of the Kendall station entrances goes ONLY to the outbound tracks going in the direction of the Alewife station at the end of the Red Line in Cambridge.
If you want to go inbound toward Downtown Boston, you need either an inbound entrance, or one that leads to both inbound and outbound.
Also, some entrances are not actually entrances - they are exits only, meaning that you will not be able to reach any tracks in either direction.
If this seems confusing, just remember that Boston's subway system is old. Not everything makes sense.
Things about the T that You Can (Usually) Safely Ignore
- Lurching and screeching - Hey, the T is old...it deserves to be a little, um, quirky. So if you're new to Boston's subway, don't be alarmed by a ride that's less than smooth. Lurches are normal, loud screeching noises are normal ... you get the idea.
- Unexplained stops between stations - No need to be alarmed...don't know why this happens, but it happens a lot.
- Furry creatures with long tails running around the tracks - The good news is that they usually stay at track level and normally don't come up on the platform where you're waiting. They probably don't even like people. More good news ... some of them are mice, not rats, although it is true that most are rats. They're entertaining to watch if you have a long wait. If they make you nervous, repeat to yourself "They never come above track level" until you believe it.
Remember: "They never come above track level."
Is the 7-Day LinkPass a good deal for visitors?
My family is visiting Boston in October, and we're thinking about getting the 7-day pass for Boston's subway. Is this a good deal? Or is there . . .