Mass Transit

MBTA: The Slum Beneath Boston


"Capitalism causes slums." Thus might run the first line of a statement by prominent social critics of today. "Free trade," they might assert, "results in dehumanizing poverty." This is so well known that in stating it, we border on truism. The era of capitalism is over; the golden age of government involvement has begun. Time and time again, American entrepreneurs have displayed their inability to deal with social problems that threaten to crush us. Unemployment, poor housing and inadequate education have touched off a cycle of despair which is spinning toward chaos.

"This cycle must be broken, before our society spirals into violent collapse. Government must do the job; the alternative has failed.

"Although a few of the business community's more enlightened members have begun to wrestle with slum problems, they generally must do so at a low rate of profit. For one reason or another, firm after firm has found rebuilding the central cities an unrewarding task. As long as the entrepreneur must keep one eye fixed on profits, his experiments in human reclamation can have only token effects.

"The government, however, has no excuse. The petty inter-agency and multi-level infighting must be stopped. Injurious restrictions on direct government spending must be relaxed, and programs made more effective through use of a broader political and geographic base. Inefficient methods must give way to more systematic ones. Congress should, for example, consider the possibility of the negative income tax as substitute for the knotted network of local and national welfare.

"The problems of the cities," these critics might conclude, "can be solved only when the government is granted power freely to replace the fumblings of free enterprise with a multi-pronged attack of modern programs."

So it is that prominent social critics would agree: Capitalism causes (or is at least unable to eradicate) slums; governments could cure them, given the chance. Time agrees; Newsweek concurs. "Yes, that's the way it is," chime Life and Look in unison. The sedate New York Times nods assent. "Maybe you've got something there, offers U.S. News apologetically.

According to the dominant critics, blame for the slums is to be placed more or less upon the property owners. After all, who else could be at fault? Government action has been directed either toward regulation of the owners, as in rent controls, or toward their elimination through the power of "eminent domain," as in public housing and urban renewal. The more power and the more tax money which the government can brandish in these situations, it is thought, the more successful will be its attempts to renovate the cities.

Thus the politicians of Boston have applauded the Federal government's decision to make theirs a Model City, under the Model Cities Act, a blueprint for what is little more than giant-size urban renewal.

Before such a program is undertaken, however, it would be appropriate to question the premises upon which it is based. Most of the relevant questions may be subsumed under one: How does the introduction of political power, i.e., of force, help to solve extremely complex urban problems? Implicit in this is the question as to whether the government can actually eradicate slums.

The city of Boston has already provided an answer.

The city of Boston owns and controls one of Boston's most extensive slum properties, and has in fact controlled it for nearly a century.

The properties in question, The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority's (MBTA or "T") subway holdings, are such that they afford the city total control over every aspect of environment and operation. Having listened to the "liberal" social critics, we might then expect a paradise. The Authority has the power. It has the money— $70,000,000 a year. But "paradise" would hardly be an apt description of its floundering system of subways.

Indeed, the system displays many of the dominant characteristics of a slum: overcrowding, filth, inadequate sanitary facilities, poor heating, high accident rate due to faulty equipment, high and rapidly rising prices, and decrepit visual surroundings.

At Park Street Station, for example, literally thousands of customers (33,000 per day) must crowd onto a narrow platform to wait for cars that arrive at erratic intervals. Station police allow the trains to be packed past the limits of comfort and safety; the Authority cannot or will not provide more rolling stock. Operators often slam doors on riders attempting to get on or off. It is standard operating procedure for drivers of outbound Cleveland Circle trains to discharge passengers at the Park Street boarding location, instead of making two separate stops and thus preventing the riot scene of customers attempting to board and to leave at the same time and place.

Government Center, another major station, although recently re-designed and rebuilt under a special Federal grant, is similarly clogged. It is triangular, with trains arriving on two sides and discharging passengers onto a common platform. As in the case of the Cleveland Circle trains at Park Street, passengers must exit through the car's single left-hand door (the right side has two doors) and brave the friendly mob waiting to board.

Filth and garbage litter the stations. Plastic bags and open cardboard boxes filled with used paper cups and half-eaten pizzas from a concession stand are thoughtlessly stacked against a wall at Park Street for hours at a time. Although stations seem to be swept daily, it is to no avail; the concrete remains dark and gritty, as if dirt were part of its surface. Perhaps it now is—most of the stations have not been thoroughly cleaned now in years.

In all the system, there is only one set of rest rooms. Derelicts and assorted stray alcoholics, however, have found adequate substitutes—the passageways leading to the stations.

Frigid winter gusts whip into subway entrances, turning customers at such stations as Haymarket into tortured windtunnel prisoners, sentenced to shiver while waiting for chronically overdue trains.

Derailments, breakdowns and even collisions are commonplace in Boston's subsurface funhouse. A Harvard-Ashmont train, for example, jumped track last summer, causing a two-day delay while crews worked to replace ruined rail. Ancient street cars on the "Green Line" frequently expire while in service, leaving passengers stranded. When cars aren't breaking down, they can be found crashing into each other, particularly at busy stations such as Park Street, the site of several such mishaps last year.

With a few notable exceptions, none of the stations have been updated since their construction at the turn of the century. The walls of most are chipped, cracked, peeling, covered with graffiti badly in need of soap, water and paint. The floors are filthy (swept but rarely if ever washed), often heavily littered and beginning to crumble in places. Such graphic aids as signs, maps and instructions are unclear, inaccurate, vandalized or non-existent. Wastebaskets and benches are infrequent.

In the last 18 years, the price of admission into the subway has risen approximately 66%, or about 4% a year. However, this is merely apparent cost. After figuring in local and Federal taxes used to pay the system's debt, the cost of a subway ride across the city becomes as expensive as sharing a taxi.

When questioned about its slumholdings, the Authority is quick to blame its failures on lack of money. But is it that simple?

Is it lack of money that prevents operators from making two separate stops at Park Street? Lack of money that causes them to collide? Lack of money that prevents the concession stand from removing garbage? Lack, of money that prevents the officer at the information booth at Park Street from replacing the ten-year old wall maps with the expensive ones the Authority just printed? No, it is not lack of money that is to blame, but lack of competence, of care—of incentive.

No matter how well funded the Authority was, it could not run the system efficiently. Let the case of graphic aids in the newly renovated stations serve as illustration. The Authority can hardly excuse itself for oversights here by whimpering that it didn't have the money. These stations were rebuilt using federal and state grants of over $9 million. Yet oversights there are.

At Airport, for example, signs pointing out the exit for the airport bus are abutted at each end by vertical structural columns which block one's view of the arrows, unless one happens to stand in the proper position. Since seeing the arrows is of more importance than seeing the last letter of one's destination, it would be logical to redesign the sign. Cost (while in the planning stage): $0.

After a visit to Government Center, one becomes convinced that the Authority's designers were either blind or deranged. Again an important (and rather expensive) lighted sign is impossible to see until one is directly beneath it. The sign is blocked by low-hanging fluorescent lights. Upstairs—if one can find, his way upstairs—the Authority's multi-million dollar ineptness is again aptly demonstrated by its choice of wall murals to symbolize Government Center a crude stylization of the American Flag, made vaguely to resemble a bright red swastika.

The artlessness displayed, in the choice of graphic designers can be related to a broad general principle. Government-supported institutions tend to draw on the least competent help and, all other things being equal, public employees tend to do a poorer job than they would for a private concern.

In a free society, the owner of a private subway system would be forced by economic considerations to provide excellent service and handsome surroundings. Competition from other forms of transportation would see to that. If the subway did not provide service attractive enough to draw customers from other modes of transportation, it could not make enough profit to stay in business. But no such pressure operates in the case of the MBTA which has a bottomless well of tax revenue to draw upon (about $30 million a year.)

In a free society, the subway owner would be encouraged to hire, promote and fire employees exclusively on their ability and performance, in order to maximize service and profit. Employees would have tremendous incentive to do their best. The personnel procedures of the MBTA, however, are characterized by featherbedding, seniority systems and complex dismissal procedures.

The private subway owner—and his employees—would be encouraged to rid themselves of these useless roadblocks. Customers would likely not be attacked by sadistic rush-hour door-closers, or ignored at bus stops by behind-schedule drivers, or forced to exit at unnecessarily crowded locations. The private owner would be encouraged to reward building contracts according to objective standards, rather than to the lowest bidder.

Contrary to the engrained thought patterns of the fourth estate, political power is not the solution to the slums. Power perpetuates them.

If the MBTA has failed to alleviate its slum conditions, it is not despite, but because of, its tremendous powers. The power physically to exclude competitors from the field—the power to cover enormous deficits with tax money—these turn what could be a forward looking, profit-making transit operation into a bloated socialist pig, concerned only with maintaining the status quo and qualifying for even larger chunks of federal loot. Unless the system is turned over to private hands and given total freedom, the pig will continue to vegetate beneath Boston.

Far from blocking the road, to slum recovery, it is capitalism and freedom which could serve as the springboard of growth and new health. If the citizens and the press is confused as to the roles of power and freedom in man's progress, they would do well to take a short ride on the "T." There they will find the squalid results of the doctrine of power.