“Use the Elevated!”: The Boston Elevated Railway Promotes its Services in 1926
On July 1st, riders on the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) rail and bus system saw fare increases that brought the cost of a single local bus ride to $1.60 and a single rapid transit (“T”) ride to $2.10. In light of this change, and the ongoing discussion within the Boston metropolitan area -- as well as across the country -- about the place of mass transit in the fabric of our lives, I thought it would be timely to look back at the history of Bostonians transit options.
The history of “mass” transportation in the Boston area actually begins much earlier than one might assume, with the commencement of stagecoach service between Boston and Cambridge in 1793. The nineteenth century saw an expansion of horse-drawn omnibuses and railcars, then a conversion to electric trolley lines in the late 1800s. This shift came about in part due to organized opposition to the harsh treatment of the working horses. The 1890s also saw the construction of the first subway tunnel in the United States, Boston’s Tremont Street Subway completed in 1897. By the 1920s there were hundreds of miles of streetcar, elevated, and subway tracks wending their way through Boston, many of them run by the Boston Elevated Railway Company. In 1926, the Elevated issued a Guide and Information Book for riders which offers us a glimpse at what public transit was like almost a century ago.
In 1926 the fare for a single ride on the local rail and bus lines in Boston was ten cents, or $1.30 in today’s currency (adjusted for inflation). As today, the company struggled to make needed improvements in service on the income these fares produced. In a section of the pamphlet titled, “USE THE ELEVATED,” the company exhorted Bostonians to use the railway “operated by the public and for the public.” According to the company’s 1925 ridership statistics, the average resident rode the railway less than once per day. Their faith in the public’s civic engagement is admirable as they proceed to provide a line-item budget for needed improvements and suggest that “If the population served had traveled an average of once a day per capita … revenue would have increased by $7,800,000”! Would that Bostonians of today responded to such fiscally-minded challenges to “use it more”!
With a network of railways and bus routes that trace similar routes to modern-day transit lines, then, as now, “the railway [offered] a solution for traffic congestion.” Even before the highway and automobile boom following World War Two, Bostonians wrestled with the problem of congested streets and long commutes. “At Governor Square and Kenmore Station in the … period between 5.30 to 5.45 P. M.,” the Guide reports, “there were 30 elevated units comprising 78 cars transporting 4178 passengers [while] 1204 automobiles [carried] 2057 passengers.” One pictures earnest civil engineers standing on each corner, pencil and notebook in hand, scribbling away.
The Guide also offers visitors to Boston a useful list of cultural and historical sites of interest, including our very own Massachusetts Historical Society (“Subway--Ipswitch Street car”). “To the resident or visitor,” the Guide concludes on the final page, “Boston offers an inexhaustible variety, whatever his [sic] inclination may be”:
If it be historical, here he may find the scenes of the events which shaped the early development of our country. If literary and education, its churches, libraries, schools and colleges; if artistic, in its galleries, museums and concerts halls where the world’s best of art and music may be seen and heard. … for amusement there are its theatres, skating rinks, baseball parks, boating and canoeing, trolley rides, automobile rides, and nearby all the delights of the seashore, salt water bathing, and excursion trips.
Such boosterism would definitely make modern-day Boston’s promoters proud.
Interested in exploring the history of Boston’s transportation network further? For a live-action tour through the history of Boston street cars, check out Civil Engineering student Gil Propp’s twenty-minute documentary film “Streetcar Tracks” available to stream at his website Boston Streetcars. And of course, researchers are always welcome to stop by the Massachusetts Historical Society (Green line T--Hynes Convention Center) to explore our holdings!
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