Sunday, July 21, 2024

America’s favorite late-night variety show, “Saturday Night Live,” aired a one-minute commercial spoof Sept. 18, 1976, about the then monopolistic phone company. Legendary comedian Lily Tomlin, playing Ernestine, a deliciously impossible-to-circumvent telephone operator whose giggles and snorts only make her more irritating and hilarious, addresses us from the company’s control center. Ernestine tells us her employer can do whatever they want, including shutting down service and ignoring complaints about charges on phone bills. “You see, this phone system consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of space-age technology that is so sophisticated, even we can’t handle it,” she says, concluding with the classic “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company,” which she delivers with a malicious and fetching grin while posing, one hand on her hip, the other at work adjusting her 1950s hairdo. The audience loved it. You can view the spot here.

Cut to the present. My friend and neighbor, M., has stopped riding the red line from Porter, where he lives, to Kendall, where he works, because it’s way too slow; because he’s started to spot syringes on the platform; because it stinks down there from urine; and because [fill in your answer here]. M. bikes to work now – even in the dead of winter. M. hadn’t heard about the new green line extension fiasco, the one with the wrong gauge rail ties, but he isn’t surprised.

He tells me the Tokyo subway system works because each line is independently operated, with stakeholders proudly one-upping each other to provide riders with better service, cleaner cars, nicer stations.

Now, I’m no free-marketer. I happen to like state-subsidized health care, which lets me choose from a variety of plans and tends to level the playing field on cost. But the story with the T is altogether different. Folks, the T has the monopoly on public transportation. It’s the only kid on the block. There is no one else. When we need to get from Point A to Point B by subway, streetcar or bus, there’s only one option, and it’s not pretty. I’ll spare us the punch list of problems; we know what they are.

What’s to be done? More to point: What would make my neighbor take public transit again?

To begin with, accept that the T’s systemwide problems (anyone take the orange line recently?) are not necessarily Cambridge’s or Somerville’s. Next, we have at least two options and should exercise both. Being a Cambridge resident I’ll focus on my city, but Somerville can benefit as well by enacting similar policies.

A new City Council would fast-track a pilot program for a city-run shuttle-style bus system. Half-sized electric buses (we’d double the fleet to accommodate the number of passengers), more agile than the T’s whale-sized clunkers, could navigate our increasingly claustrophobic main corridors with greater ease. Starting at MIT and running up Massachusetts Avenue to Arlington (or beyond? Arlington, are you with us?), the Cambridge-funded fleet would be free to all. Bring these smaller buses online, charge nothing, have them show up at bus stops more frequently and watch how quickly commuters return to public transportation.

The second option that should also be exercised is to have the council contribute improvement funds to the T. That may sound like throwing good money after bad, but the contributions come with strings attached. For starters, a city-led review with input from the T of the ills plaguing the red line from Kendall to Alewife (via Davis in Somerville, granted). Once the council gets that done, Cambridge’s new city manager, Yi-an Huang, and not the T suggests which contractors get to improve things. Anyone that’s had their home painted knows that contractors range from great to abysmal. By having Cambridge decide whom to hire to fix our corner of the T we are, in a sense, competing with the T. We are trying to go one better than they have (witness the past 10 years).

As long as the T remains the only game in town it’ll act like the monopoly it is. It’ll get it wrong, waste time and money, provide awful service and it won’t matter. It won’t care. It won’t have to. It’s the T.

Federico Muchnik is a candidate for Cambridge City Council