Community Involvement in Commuter Rail Improvements: The Case of the Fairmount Line in Boston

TitleCommunity Involvement in Commuter Rail Improvements: The Case of the Fairmount Line in Boston
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsAndrew Lai
Academic DepartmentDept. of Urban Studies and Planning
DegreeMaster in City Planning
UniversityMassachusetts Institute of Technology
CityCambridge, MA
Thesis TypeMCP

This thesis examines a successful community- led initiative to improve service on commuter rail and examines whether this initiative’s focus on commuter rail in particular – as opposed to a focus on other modes of transit – affected the strategies of community members’ participation and actions. It finds that despite the project’s focus on commuter rail and significant community involvement, the focus on commuter rail was largely incidental to the strategies used.

The case study used is the Fairmount Line, a 9.2-mile Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter rail line that passes through largely low-income, minority neighborhoods entirely within Boston. For most of its history it has seen low levels of service. Starting in the early 2000s, community pressure began to build for more stops and more frequent service.

This eventually culminated in the construction of three new stations in city neighborhoods, the lowering of fares to equivalent to subway fares, more frequent service and eventually – by 2020 – a plan for operation of diesel multiple units on the line. Community action was crucial and significant to moving the project forward. The Fairmount Coalition, an alliance of nonprofits, advocacy organizations, community development corporation and others – played four major roles in the initiative: they drove the effort, employed legal tactics and strategies, maintained pressure and publicity on government agencies, and broadened the scope of the project from its initial narrow focus on transportation.

To justify these major actions, however, community actors largely appealed to social justice, environmental justice and transit equity grounds, reasons that were not specific to commuter rail. The fact that it focused on commuter rail was most relevant when community actors claimed that residents had negative perceptions of commuter rail, bolstering the justice- and equity-based narrative of the effort. Otherwise, the fact that this project focused on commuter rail did not appear to have a significant impact on the project’s strategies or success.


Supervised by Jinhua Zhao