Derailed: My Public Transit Odyssey across Massachusetts

How hard is it to take public transit from one end of the state to the other? Wayyyy harder than it should be. We did it anyway.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

It’s 6:30 a.m., and I’m standing beside a bus shelter in the parking lot of the North Adams Walmart Supercenter with an envelope filled with $1 bills and quarters. The late-summer day isn’t sweltering yet, but when I look up and see thunderheads, I hope I won’t be here long. I’m waiting for a bus operated by the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority (BRTA)—one of the 16 regional transit authorities scattered across Massachusetts—which will take me south on Route 8 to Pittsfield on my way to Amherst tonight. A stout yellow bus that looks like an airport shuttle creeps into the lot, the BRTA logo splashed across its side. I climb aboard, feed $4.50 into the fare box, and I’m off, rumbling down the highway past streams, glens, and towering spruce hemlocks alive with squirrels and doves. Warm rain begins to patter against the windshield. I’ve prepared, both mentally and pragmatically, for this to be the start of a very long trip.

As for why I’m on this bus to Pittsfield? The short version is that I’ve traveled to the area from Boston to perform an experiment: I want to see if it’s possible to get from the far western edge of the state to the easternmost corner, Provincetown, relying only on public transit. By car, it’s a roughly 250-mile trek that can be done in about four hours if there’s no traffic. Already, I know this won’t be so simple. The more detailed explanation is that as the state’s transit—from the mind-bending traffic gridlock to the MBTA quite literally going off the rails to Governor Charlie Baker’s better-late-than-never attempts to fund a fix—dominates the news, I want to see firsthand just how bad it really is out there. As a kid from the ’burbs, I grew up in love with the MBTA and the sense of freedom it gave me, but decades of underfunding and mismanagement have recently pushed us to a moment of crisis. We live in a state that runs a mere 190 miles west to east, and has the 11th-largest state economy despite being the sixth-smallest by square mileage, but somehow it will take me more than 72 hours on 16 buses, seven trains, and one ferry, for a grand total of $84 worth of fares, to complete my task. I need to know why.

To start, I’ve given myself a few rules. The first is that I can’t step into a car anywhere along the journey. Public transit exists as an alternative to individual vehicles, which makes this one a no-brainer. Still, I need a lifeline for when I inevitably hit a public transit desert, so for my second rule, I decide to allow myself to step aboard one for-profit carrier, such as Megabus or Amtrak, each day if needed. The proviso is that I can only go from one public transit zone to the closest neighboring zone—I can’t leapfrog large swaths of the state. Finally, in the interest of my stamina, safety, and the soles of my shoes, the third rule is that I can’t walk more than one mile between transit pickup and drop-off points.

By 7:30 a.m., as my bus swerves into the Pittsfield Intermodal Transportation Center, I’m already in trouble: I’ve run into my first dead zone. There’s no discernible way to travel from Pittsfield to my next stop, Springfield, using public transportation. There is an Amtrak line, but the trains aren’t running—the tracks are being repaired. My best option is the Amtrak Thruway bus to Springfield that departs at 4 p.m., which means waiting nearly eight hours in Pittsfield. I look up at the sky and notice that the rain has followed me and is pouring down harder than ever.

Pittsfield is a perfect example of a transit disaster: The city of almost 43,000 people—the largest in the Berkshires—is not only cut off from the rest of the state, but there are only limited options for getting around town once you’re here. Throughout western Massachusetts, places like Pittsfield struggle to raise money to fund buses and have to fight an uninterested Beacon Hill to keep what they have, says state Senator Eric Lesser, who represents several towns across the region: “Every year, it’s a knock-down, drag-out battle to protect the [Regional Transit Authority’s] funding.”

What Pittsfield does have is Rose & Cole’s Transport Co-op. The worker-owned, grant-funded car-service provider, which has its headquarters about a mile from the transit center, fills in bus-coverage gaps for western Massachusetts residents. I walk over to check it out, getting soaked in the process. “The BRTA can only get you so far, and you’re going to call Rose & Cole’s for that last mile,” explains Terry Moore, a military veteran and former New Yorker who co-manages the co-op, nodding through the window to the co-op’s fleet of cars and small buses. The service offers subsidized rides—$10 in town—for folks who qualify as low-income. If you don’t own a car here, life can be pretty tough, Moore says. As I walk back to the bus station, I’m starting to see what he means.

When the paltry mass transit offerings here don’t work well, even the simplest trip can become a saga. As I wait for the Amtrak Thruway bus along with 20 other ticket-holders, a woman in a green dress mentions that the bus was an hour late last week. I wince. Being late could mean missing any one of the three other bus connections I’m trying to make today, stranding me in Springfield for the night and putting me farther behind on my journey. At 22 minutes past 4 p.m., the nondescript white coach finally materializes and the driver takes my ticket, which cost $12. The bus merges onto the Mass. Pike and heads southeast, slowly escaping the mountains.

The isolation of the Berkshires is even clearer 87 minutes later when I stride into the vast white-walled bus terminal at Springfield’s Union Station. With too many route signs to count, it feels like you could go anywhere from here. Indeed, the short series of rides to Amherst, my final destination tonight, is easy—which is a real stroke of luck because the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), which serves more than 600,000 people and receives most of its funding from the governor’s budget, has been running deficits of greater than $800,000 since 2018. First, the teal PVTA bus delivers me and some teens to the Holyoke Mall. Half an hour later, I pick up the bus to Northampton and zip through groves of maple and birch trees. On Main Street in Northampton, I catch my final ride of the night to Amherst, where I can sleep after an exhausting day of transit-hopping. Surely, I think, tomorrow will be easier.

Since World War II, nearly 50 percent of the state’s railroads have been abandoned, razed, or converted into bike paths.

It can be tempting to think that as time marches on, life generally tends to get better. But a quick look at public transit’s trajectory in Massachusetts will show you that that’s not always true. Over the past century, in fact, we’ve actually taken huge leaps backward. During the late 1800s, more than 3,500 miles of railroad track spiderwebbed across the state—including in regions that are now devoid of train service. At the time, Boston was an important port and industrial economies in cities such as Lowell and Springfield were ascendant; rail played an integral role in connecting the region and bringing prosperity to the state, which underwrote many of the railroads. But when the auto boom swept across America after World War II, passenger rail service took a nosedive from coast to coast, and Massachusetts wasn’t spared. Since then, nearly 50 percent of the state’s railroads have been abandoned, razed, or converted into bike paths.

Today, crossing much of this territory means taking a bus. I think about this as I kick off day two of my journey with another succession of coach rides that span the Pioneer Valley, Franklin, and Montachusett transit authorities. The buses work well enough, but this part of the state still feels remote and disconnected from Boston. I watch the sun rise above a vegetable field in Sunderland, wolf down scones at a bakery in Greenfield, and spend the bus trip listening to the driver’s latest Spotify playlist, rocking out to the Outfield’s “Your Love” as we reach the end of the route—a
Hannaford in Athol.

Sure, these bus routes tie disparate parts of the state together, but public transit is only good if people can actually use it. The bus from Athol to Gardner, helmed by a younger driver named Mike with colorful tattoos and a full lumberjack beard, is mostly empty. “Five years ago, it was often standing-room-only on these buses,” Mike says as we climb a steep hillside. I ask him what happened. “The schedule is always changing,” he says. “I don’t think it’s that people don’t want to take public transportation. They just can’t get the bus when they need it.”

My final bus of the day ferries me to the Wachusett commuter-rail station in Fitchburg—about 50 miles from where I started this morning—before lunchtime. At last, I’ve returned to Boston’s sphere of influence, as marked by the commuter trains that carry folks in and out of the Hub. In contrast to the sense of disconnection I felt in western Massachusetts, here I feel suddenly plugged back in as I climb onto the platform and board the inbound train to Boston. Almost as soon as I’m off, a new inequity reveals itself: Within 45 minutes, I’ve already traveled the 30 miles from Wachusett to the tony hamlet of West Concord, bisecting multiple counties. As I walk into town to grab a bite, I realize that for all of the commuter rail’s service cuts and constant delays, it remains a far more efficient means of transit than regional buses.

Heading back to the platform to catch the next train into Boston, I’m sweating in the 90-degree heat when I remember that Walden Pond is just one stop away. I disembark at the Concord station five minutes later and walk roughly a mile through the wooded suburbs before plunging into the cool, welcoming water. (This isn’t cheating because I’ll backtrack.) The swim is all the more satisfying for having traveled to Thoreau’s Shangri-la without a car.

This backwoods interlude reminds me of the sense of possibility I used to feel about public transit. The glow is still with me as the train from Concord to Boston reaches Porter Square just in time for a fuchsia sunset. As a teenager from Winchester, I began taking the MBTA commuter rail into Boston unsupervised in ninth grade. The train was my gateway to wildflower-filled parks, exotic food seasoned with saffron, and shops that sold leather riding crops and DVDs with titles like Island Fever 3. By the time I met my first girlfriend as a teen, public transit had already captured my heart. When I moved back to Boston after finishing college on the West Coast, the MBTA was waiting for me, like an old friend.

Then things fell apart. Literally. The problems for which the agency is infamous—the signal failures; the severe train delays; the late buses so packed with people you can’t board—have been there all along, but they’ve only worsened in recent years. It’s impossible to ignore the toll that decades of public transit disinvestment by the state legislature has taken. MBTA trains have derailed more than 45 times in the past five years—the second-worst record in the country—and people are getting hurt. Recent instances have sent people to the hospital. One train filled with smoke, bringing to mind an incident in DC where someone died from smoke inhalation on a train. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before something truly bad happens.

Much of this erosion can be tied to “forward funding”—the state’s 2000 decision to create a sales-tax-based revenue stream for the MBTA and saddle the agency with debt for projects like the Big Dig, says Boston City Councilor and transit advocate Michelle Wu. “This made the T the most debt-burdened transit agency in the country, and it starved the agency of operating funds,” she tells me. “The last couple of years have felt especially bad because the recent growth in Boston has not been accompanied by investment to accommodate that growth. Not only is the T getting older, but more people are needing to use it.” The Baker administration’s recent filing of an $18 billion transportation bond bill gives the patina of action—about $5.7 billion of that capital would go toward MBTA projects—but the bill also provides incentives for not coming into Boston altogether, such as tax credits for businesses that allow their employees to work from home. That seems like a big step backward from the goal of expanding mobility for all.

Wu is particularly haunted by a recent transit survey that her office conducted with students. Weary of the MBTA’s disintegration, most of the young people queried stated that they’d prefer to drive. “We are forming, in their minds, this disgust in the system,” Wu says. “That’s the opposite of what we need.” The question now is: Is there still time to turn this broken train around?

The final leg of my journey—Boston to Provincetown—starts with a mistake. I take the Orange and Blue lines to Rowes Wharf and board the MBTA commuter ferry to Hingham for $9.75, thinking a morning cruise through the Harbor Islands will make a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, I sail myself straight into a dead end: Even though Plymouth is just down the road, there’s no way to get there, because the area’s public transit is designed for commuting into the city, and not for continuing down to the South Shore and then on to Cape Cod. Kicking myself, I catch an MBTA bus back into Boston just to head south again. It turns out to be a theme of my day: Despite the throngs of vacationers who invade the Cape, the region feels almost as disconnected from Boston as the rural expanses to the west.

After taking the commuter rail to a station outside Plymouth, I sprint (Tom Cruise–style) to catch the “Liberty Link” shuttle bus into town and reach the limits of South Shore transit. To cross the void between Plymouth and Hyannis, I fork over $9 to ride on the Plymouth & Brockton Street Railway Co., an ancient bus carrier that used to run street trolleys.

Thankfully, the rusting beige P & B coach gets us to Hyannis in one piece, and I hop on the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority’s (CCRTA) H2O bus to the Star Market in Harwich. This is where the last link of the journey—the Flex bus—begins its route to Provincetown. I can smell briny ocean air as I wait in the shade with my last $2. It’s just after 1 p.m., and I begin Googling where to eat in P-town as my journey nears its end. But the last ride will be a long one, because the Flex bus doesn’t exactly run a regular route; you can wait at the closest bus stop during a designated time frame, or you can call the CCRTA and arrange to have the Flex pick you up within three-quarters of a mile from the route. It sounds convenient, until you consider that the ride took me a staggering two and a half hours.

As the bus alternates between wooded side streets and the concrete ribbon of Route 6, we pick up a menagerie of passengers: families with kids and beach toys, a spectacled teenager munching on a big pepperoni pizza, people in store uniforms, and a retiree named Bruce. Sporting a kaleidoscopic shirt that could have been worn at the Rolling Stones’ doomed Altamont concert, he’s a recent convert to the CCRTA bus system. “This is all very new to me,” he muses as we pass a vast briny estuary.

Bruce and I part ways after the bus crawls into the center of Provincetown, today festooned with red-and-green banners and teeming with tanned revelers who’ve traveled here for the Provincetown Portuguese Festival. Moments later, I’m sitting on a bench by the Pilgrim Monument with a bowl of chorizo-and-kale soup in hand. My journey is finally over.

I realize that I’ve made the trip from North Adams to Provincetown the hard way—I could have taken a series of Peter Pan buses, of course—but traveling via public transit should never have been this difficult. And it’s important to realize that we created this hardship when we chose to take our transit authorities off the state books and adopt an austerity-driven mindset when it comes to improving and expanding public transit. “Most of our transportation problems are political problems,” says Chris Dempsey, the state’s director of transportation. “We need a really bold, aggressive push to change our state transportation policies. Picking up the phone and contacting your state rep or senator, it really matters. We need the legislature hearing from people saying, ‘We cannot deal with the status quo.’”

There are still reasons to believe that we can turn the corner before it’s too late. Dempsey points to Michelle Wu’s recent #UnfairHikes protest against the MBTA’s recent fare increases. Wu recruited volunteers to engage commuters at transit stations across the state and discuss potential solutions for transit erosion—such as raising the state gas tax (which has barely budged relative to mass transit prices) and using the proceeds to revitalize not just the MBTA, but also regional transit authorities across Massachusetts. This could also give the state the ability to reduce or even eliminate fares for lower-income residents. (A recent MIT study found that low-income riders who received a 50 percent discount used public transit 30 percent more than a control group that paid the current fares.)

Another popular idea among transit advocates, especially state Senator Lesser, is connecting eastern and western Massachusetts with a new rail system, which could provide a much-needed boost to cities such as Springfield and Pittsfield while also alleviating the housing costs and traffic gridlock that Boston has become infamous for. MassDOT recently released six schematics of what this railroad might look like. All that’s missing now, according to Lesser, is political will. “We have some of the greatest institutions here in Massachusetts, and an economy that most states would kill for,” he says. “What we need to do is get out of its way and invest in the infrastructure so that people can move around here.”

He’s right. Ours is an illustrious state full of not just institutions, but also sights, sounds, smells, and characters worth savoring. I witnessed many of these things through the windshield of a bus, the window of a train, and on the deck of a ship. Others I encountered just beyond the perimeter of mass transit stations—in bustling parks and resurgent little business districts where I’d ask myself, “How did I get here?” In truth, I feel lucky that I got to make this pilgrimage—but I’m sure I’d feel differently if I hadn’t done it by choice. After all, not every trip should be a pain in the ass. One day, I hope we’ll live in a state where simply crossing its grand 190 miles doesn’t have to be.