The road to Boston’s highest office might run north through the heart of the city, along some of its most popular bus lines.
City Council President Kim Janey, who will become acting mayor if Martin J. Walsh is confirmed as US secretary of labor, has helped define her political persona as one of the thousands of bus riders who head through Nubian Square each day.
As mayor, Janey, who has previously said she does not own a car, could receive a police detail to drive her, and it’s unclear whether she would continue riding the bus and train. But if she remains a straphanger, she would be the first mayor in decades to regularly take public transit to City Hall, and public transit advocates are hopeful that shift would bring greater urgency to improve the aging system.
“When you have to spend a lot of time educating and working with a politician to get them [to understand], you lose time,” said Stacy Thompson, director of the Livable Streets Alliance, a Boston-area advocacy group. “A mayor who has been taking the bus to work every day is starting in a different place than one who was driving every day.”
Progressive politicians have stressed their public transit bona fides in some recent high-profile races. US Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, heavily featured transit in their campaigns for Congress.
“It signals there’s been a shift, I think, in our politics. The public at large is demanding candidates with lived experiences that mirror their own,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the progressive Working Families Party. Similarly, he said, some constituents may demand that politicians send their children to public schools. “It’s a demonstration that our politics are getting closer to the ground.”
The dynamic may emerge in Boston’s mayoral race, too. While Janey has not yet declared whether she will run for a full term, City Councilor Michelle Wu announced her candidacy in September, and her first campaign video heavily featured the Orange Line, which she rides as part of her commute from Roslindale.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, the only other declared candidate so far, drives to work from Mattapan, but in an interview stressed her lifelong experience taking public transit before joining the council.
Boston mayors, of course, have limited ability to improve the state-owned Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. They control the city’s streets, however, and can therefore play a key role in improving the bus system.
Janey’s office has declined to answer questions about her future commute, and it’s not clear how her commute might translate into public policy, especially with the transportation system and travel patterns upended by the pandemic. But as a councilor she has advocated for initiatives to reduce or eliminate fares on MBTA buses and, like Walsh, has decried the MBTA’s upcoming service cuts.
Her commute would mark a shared experience with thousands of constituents who lumber on buses through the city. The Roxbury resident has said she relies on four routes near her home, including the 28 from Mattapan to the Orange Line’s Ruggles Station, one of the most popular bus lines in the region. Like other routes that serve many low-income passengers and people of color, it has maintained a relatively high rate of ridership during the pandemic. A plan for bus-only lanes on Blue Hill Avenue, however, has caused some neighborhood tension.
There is some precedent for a mayor’s personal experience leading to a change in transportation policy. After Thomas M. Menino began cycling in 2007, he became more serious about creating long-promised bike lanes across the city. A few years later came the launch of the Bluebikes rental system, then known as Hubway.
Walsh, meanwhile, has mostly relied on the police detail as mayor. A self-described “car guy,” he at times has seemed uneasy with transportation policy that was not centered on automobiles, especially earlier in his tenure. But he has said he understands the importance of public transit as a lifelong resident of the city and through conversations with constituents and staff. His administration ultimately made some strides improving MBTA service by adding a number of bus-only lanes across the city.
Governor Charlie Baker has also regularly said that he doesn’t need to ride on public transit to improve it. But in 2020, he revealed he had occasionally been taking the Blue Line to the State House. One of his trips did indeed result in a quick improvement, though it was hardly sweeping public policy: The governor noticed a dead animal near the tracks, and it was promptly removed.
Wu and Campbell, meanwhile, have said they share many of the same goals for public transportation. Each wants to add more bus lanes. In interviews, they also promised to use the mayor’s bully pulpit to advocate for systemwide improvements.
But their different modes of getting to work could become a fault line in the race. Wu, who has led many of the council’s transportation initiatives in recent years, has stressed her personal experience as a bus and subway rider as a crucial qualification.
“There’s no substitute for feeling the impact directly when service is unreliable or fares are going up,” Wu said.
Wu pledged that she would continue to use the transit system to commute to City Hall as mayor, though she noted there may be days when her schedule would require her to be driven. On those days, she said, she would forgo the SUV that Walsh takes in favor of a smaller electric vehicle.
Campbell was noncommittal about how she would commute as mayor.
“If we are blessed to win this election, we’ll have this conversation with folks at the city about what that could look like at that time,” she said.
Campbell said that even though she now drives, she is well attuned to the issues of the transit system, because she rode it for much of her life. She said she is especially concerned about the long commutes of Black riders, who on average spend much more time on buses than white passengers. Residents of Mattapan, meanwhile, face the longest commutes in the city — one reason, Campbell said, that she bought her car.