Boston is one of the most fantastic cities on the eastern seaboard. A city steeped in history mingling with a beautiful modern city. Boston is home of the oldest baseball stadium in the country and also boasts a vibrant food scene. The only downfall for travelers is figuring out how to navigate the rather confusing public transportation in Boston. It’s actually fairly straight-forward once you understand how the system works.
Quick Intro to Public Transportation in Boston
The MBTA, also known as the Massachutes Bay Transportation Authority, is the network where jolly self-described “Massholes” make their way around their beloved city on their not-so-beloved public transportation system. A 2-star Yelp rating, disgruntled facebook pages, and unfavorable news coverage all attest to the short-fallings of the MBTA.
The MBTA is comprised of a public transportation system which includes the subway/train, bus, commuter rail, and bicycle rental systems. Most of the subway lines are relatively straightforward with the exception of the Green Line and the Silver Line (actually a bus), which needs some explanation before attempting.
The commuter rail will conveniently shuttle you to the outlying suburbs but is separate from the other systems and is not covered by the Charlie Pass (more on this). The bicycle rental, or Hubway, is magnificent and is a wonderfully executed addition to the MBTA. Let’s get started on some of the more confusing aspects of the subway system.
Inbound, Outbound, Uptown, Downtown
The Boston subway routes are labeled with the terms “Inbound” and “Outbound.” For a weary foreigner who doesn’t know the Boston Harbor from the Boston Herald, use of this terminology is a tad confusing. Don’t worry though, I will show you the way.
“In” and “Out” of what is a fair question. If you are travel past “In” are you now headed “Out.” What direction do you go if you are already “In?”
The simple answer: Inbound refers to trains heading to any one of 4 stations located in the Boston city center: Park Street, State, Downtown Crossing, and Government Center.
Any train heading toward one of these 4 stations is “Inbound,” if the train is headed away it is “Outbound.” This terminology isn’t used if you are in one of these stations.
Why are there so many Green Lines?
Look at the map of the Green Line and you will see there are actually 4 separate Green Lines. They all appear to merge at some point, but they all have different starting points…whaaa?
You need to know in-advance which Green Line to board because they start and end at different locations. Sometimes it is necessary to take the Green Line to the Green Line and transfer to the Green Line.
Let’s try and make sense of this. For example let’s say you are in North Station (Downtown Boston) and you want to go to Fenway Park. You board the Green Line “C” at North Station, then you get off at any station where the trains merge between Government Center and Copley. Transfer to the Green Line “D” and proceed to Fenway. The subways here all use the same track so you will just have to get off and wait for the next “D” train to come.
Now look at this map. It’s kind of magical, and while you can see a similar map in the Green Line stations, it isn’t available anywhere on the MBTA website or on any of the apps or travel tools.
Pay attention to the Lines because they don’t always say “C” or “D”, sometimes they are listed as the final or sometimes an intermediate destination on the route.
If you are still confused, remember that all of the Green Lines merge at Government Center, Park Street, Boylston, Arlington, and Copley. Simply go to one of these and wait for your train letter to appear.
The Commuter Rail System is Separate from the Subway
If you bought a Charlie card and expect it to work on the Commuter Rail (the Purple Line) you will be sorely disappointed. Good news is that the Commuter Rail system was designed to serve the outlying suburbs. If you plan to stick to inner Boston you can get away without worrying about taking the Commuter Rail.
Wait, the Silver Line is a Bus???
Yes. The Silver Line listed on the MBTA subway map is actually a bus. Get your head in the game Silver Line! The map is admittedly one of the most confusing routes in the history of public transportation. However the Silver Line may actually be the best way to get from Downtown to the Airport. The key is to start from South Station.
From South Station simply board the Silver Line SL1 bus toward Logan Airport and wait for your terminal. There may be some squiggles along the way but you will eventually get there. This map of the Silver Line route is much easier to understand.
Getting to and From Logan International Airport
The Silver Line may be too confusing for all but the most hardened Bostonians. But fear not, there are alternative routes to/from the airport! One of the great things about public transportation in Boston is free bus transfers from Logan International airport to the Blue and Silver subway lines. Here is an explanation of all your options.
Take the Massport shuttle bus from the lower level of your terminal to the Airport station on the blue line subway. On your return trip to the airport make sure you are on the right bus as they all travel to different terminals. Bus 22 serves terminals A&B and 33 serves C&E. For the complete schedule of the Massport routes click here. https://www.massport.com/logan-airport/to-and-from-logan/on-airport-shuttle/
Did I mention earlier that the Silver subway line is actually a bus? Don’t let that deter you though as the MBTA offers free service to the South Station near downtown Boston.
A more expensive but quicker option if you are heading to downtown is to take the Logan Express. The bus travels from the airport to the Hynes Convention Center or Copley Station. The fare will run you $7.50 ($3.00 if you have a Charlie Pass) but it will get you there in only about 20 minutes. Here is the full schedule.
Everything is Better on a Bike
The Boston public bike-share system is simple, elegant, and fabulous. Bravo Boston.
Ride the Hubway through Boston for only $6 a day. With over 1,600 bikes and 185 stations it’s a great way to see the city! Simply locate a station, buy a pass, and unlock a bike. You can take as many trips as you want and drop the bike off at any available station. Easy peasy.
Some tools to help plan your routes:
The MBTA offers an online tool to help guide you the correct lines. I would suggest practicing this for a few routes before heading to Boston for the first time.
Transit App – Enter your destination and the app will give you directions on how to get there using public transportation. It takes some getting used to but is a very powerful tool.
Guide to MBTA Fares
The Charlie card operates similar to a credit card. It is plastic and can be reloaded online using a debit or credit card. The per ride fare is also slightly less than the Charlie ticket and offers free local bus transfers. Click here for a more in-debth guide to the Charlie fare structure and where to purchase a Card.
Subway fare: $2.25
The paper version of a Charlie Card. These can be purchased at any station at the self-serve machines. They are rechargeable and are used the same way as a Card but there is a surcharge for each use.
Subway fare: $2.75
If you will be taking multiple trips using public transportation in Boston this is the way to go. The link pass offers unlimited travel on subway and busses, Inner Harbor Ferry and Commuter Rail Zone 1A.
If you are in town for more than one day the 7-day LinkPass for $21.25 is the way to go. It saves you money and you don’t need to wait in line at the machine every time you need to take a ride. If you are in Boston for longer than a week consider the monthly LinkPass for $84.50.