86 (MBTA bus)

A white and yellow transit bus on an urban street
A route 86 bus at Cleveland Circle in May 2017
SystemMBTA bus
GarageSomerville Garage[1]
LocaleBoston, Cambridge, and Somerville, Massachusetts
StartSullivan Square station
EndReservoir station (Cleveland Circle)
Length6.79 miles (10.93 km) eastbound
6.70 miles (10.78 km) westbound
Daily ridership6,150 (2018)[2]

Route 86 is a local bus route in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, Massachusetts, operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) as part of MBTA bus service. It operates on a circumferential route between Sullivan Square station and Reservoir station (Cleveland Circle) via Union Square, Somerville, Harvard Square, and Brighton Center. In 2018, it had the 18th-highest weekday ridership on the system, though it ranked 37th by number of weekday trips.[2] A 2018–19 MBTA review of its bus system found that route 86 had infrequent and unreliable service, including irregular scheduled headways, despite its high ridership and significance as a crosstown connecting route.

Transit service on three portions of the modern route date back to horsecar lines opened in the 19th century, with the section between Union Square and Sullivan Square opened in 1858. Two of those sections were converted to electric streetcars in the 1890s. Three overlapping bus routes (later designated 63, 86, and 91) were established between 1925 and 1931, replacing circumferential streetcar services and creating new connections. Route 86 ran between Union Square, Allston and Union Square, Somerville until it was extended to Sullivan Square in 1977 and 1981 to supplement route 91. In 1989, the western end was extended to Cleveland Circle, replacing route 63.


Route 86 runs between Sullivan Square station at Sullivan Square on the East Somerville / Charlestown, Boston border and Reservoir station at Cleveland Circle on the Brookline / Brighton, Boston border. From the Sullivan Square busway, it runs west along Cambridge Street / Washington Street, with short jogs on Prospect Street and Somerville Avenue at Union Square. It continues west along Washington Street / Kirkland Street, then diverts onto Quincy Street and Cambridge Street to reach Harvard Square. Westbound buses run on the surface through the square on Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street, and Eliot Street; eastbound buses enter the Harvard Bus Tunnel via Eliot Street and Bennett Street, and loop around Flagstaff Park to reach Cambridge Street. South of Harvard Square, the route runs south on John F. Kennedy Street / North Harvard Street to Barry's Corner, west on Western Avenue, and south on Leo M. Birmingham Parkway and Market Street to Brighton Center, then south on Chestnut Hill Avenue to the Reservoir station busway.[3][2]

It operates as a crosstown/circumferential route, with MBTA subway connections at Sullivan Square (Orange Line), Harvard (Red Line), Chestnut Hill Avenue (Green Line B branch), Cleveland Circle (Green Line C branch), and Reservoir (Green Line D branch). Additional connections will be available at East Somerville (Green Line D branch) and Union Square (Green Line E branch) when the Green Line Extension opens in 2021. Connections to a number of MBTA bus routes are possible; Brighton Center, Harvard station, Union Square, and Sullivan Square are major transfer locations.[3][2] Ridership turnover along the route is high, as many passengers transfer or terminate at these stations and hubs.[2]

One-way running distances are 6.79 miles (10.93 km) eastbound and 6.70 miles (10.78 km) westbound.[1] Scheduled one-way running times range from 40 minutes off-peak to 55 minutes at peak, with shorter times during early mornings and late nights. Service operates from about 5:00 am to 12:30 am on weekdays and Saturdays, and from about 7:30 am to 9:30 pm on Sundays. Scheduled headways are irregular, ranging from 8 to 20 minutes (average 14) during the morning peak and 12 to 22 minutes (average 16) during the evening peak, and from 13 to 45 minutes midday and evenings. Weekend service is less frequent and similarly irregular; Saturday headways average 34 minutes and Sunday headways 52, with some headways as long as 80 minutes both days.[2]

Route 86 runs as a local route with standard local bus fare. In 2018, the route averaged 6,150 boardings on weekdays; average weekend ridership was 3,040 on Saturdays and 1,840 on Sundays. This made it the 18th-highest-ridership route in the MBTA bus system, with more boardings than four of the key bus routes. Despite this, it ranked 37th by number of weekday trips, leading to crowding on many trips.[2]


Early lines[]

Several portions of the route originated as horsecar and streetcar lines:

Bus replacements[]

Streetcar tracks on an urban street
Streetcar tracks on Market Street in Brighton in 1930

Horsecar and streetcar operations in Boston and surrounding municipalities were consolidated under the West End Street Railway in the 1880s; it was leased by the Boston Elevated Railway (BERy) in 1897. The BERy began operating bus service in 1922.[4]: 46  A Harvard Square–Union Square, Somerville bus route began operation on August 22, 1925. It was extended from Harvard Square to Union Square, Allston on December 19.[12][4]: 50 

By 1930, the Union Square–Sullivan Square segment was operated as part of a Central Square–Sullivan Square streetcar line. On February 1, the Central Square–Union Square segment was replaced by a bus route, leaving a Union Square–Sullivan Square streetcar shuttle.[13] On November 15, that shuttle was replaced with a new bus route at the city's request, with the intention of reducing congestion in Union Square.[14][15][4]: 200  The two bus routes were connected into a single route on February 14, 1931, again forming a Central Square–Sullivan Square route.[16] The Sullivan–Union tracks remained in use for non-revenue equipment moves until 1951.[17]: 143 

On June 8, 1931, the Brighton Center–Central Square streetcar line was replaced with buses and extended south to Commonwealth Avenue.[18][4]: 54  (The Western Avenue tracks would remain in use until 1950 for Watertown service, which is now bus route 70.[4]: 210 )

Later history[]

In 1940–41, the BERy reassigned its public-facing route numbers.[19]: 27  The Commonwealth Avenue–Central Square route was designated route 63, Union Square–Union Square as route 86, and Central Square–Sullivan Square as route 91.[20] The Western Avenue segment of route 63 was eliminated in February 1943 as a wartime measure, but it was extended slightly from Commonwealth Avenue to Cleveland Circle. The Western Avenue segment was resumed in 1946, forming a Cleveland Circle–Central Square route.[4]: 63 

The BERy was replaced in 1947 by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Sunday service on route 63 ended in 1958.[21] On July 4, 1959, the southern terminal was extended slightly from Cleveland Circle to a new busway at Reservoir station as the Riverside Line opened, though the terminus was still listed as "Cleveland Circle" in public schedules.[22] In September 1962, the MTA through-routed several routes as part of experimental attempts to increase ridership. Route 63 was interlined with route 83 to form a Cleveland Circle–Porter Square route, while route 91 was interlined with route 93 to form a Central Square–Haymarket route. Neither was successful; they returned to their previous terminals in March 1964 and June 1963, respectively.[21]

A transit bus in a station busway in an urban area
A route 86 bus at Sullivan Square in 2006

The MTA was in turn replaced by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in 1964. Sunday service on a Union Square, Somerville–Cleveland Circle route – a combination of routes 63, 64, and 86 – began in June 1973. In September 1977, peak hour route 86 service was extended to Sullivan Square, supplementing route 91.[21] The Sunday route was discontinued in April 1981, but off-peak and Saturday route 86 service was extended to Sullivan Square.[23][21] At the same time, weekday evening and Saturday morning service on routes 63 and 64 was combined into a loop that followed route 64 westbound and route 63 eastbound. This loop route began running on Sundays in January 1983. From 1979 to the early 1980s, route 86 was detoured over Somerville Avenue and Dane Street west while the Washington Street bridge over the Fitchburg Line was rebuilt.[21]

In December 1989, route 63 was discontinued, with route 86 realigned over much of the former route to form a Cleveland Circle–Sullivan Square circumferential line. Route 66 was extended from Union Square to Harvard Square to replace the realigned segment of route 86 (supplementing it between Barry's Corner and Harvard Square), while route 70 continued serving the discontinued east portion of route 63. Sunday service on route 86 began at this time. Elderly patrons who lost their one-seat ride from Brighton to Central Square petitioned for route 63 to return. As a result, midday Cleveland Circle–Central Square service, operating as a variation of route 64, operated from December 1990 to December 1993.[21]

Peak-hour short turn trips of route 86 were added in the 1990s. Limited-stop crosstown route CT2 was extended to Sullivan Square in September 2000, supplementing routes 86 and 91 on the Union Square–Sullivan Square segment. In September 2008, eastbound buses were rerouted through the Harvard Bus Tunnel, rather than passing through Harvard Square on the surface. Most peak-hour short turn trips were discontinued in September 2011. From April 2019 to May 2020, route 86 was detoured via Cross Street while the Lowell Line overhead bridge was rebuilt as part of the Green Line Extension project.[21] A 2018–19 MBTA review of its bus system found that route 86 had infrequent and unreliable service, including irregular scheduled headways, despite its high ridership and significance as a crosstown connecting route.[2] No short-term changes to the routing were recommended.[24]


  1. ^ a b "Ridership and Service Statistics" (PDF) (14th ed.). Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Route 86" (PDF). Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. December 2018.
  3. ^ a b "MBTA System Map". Retrieved March 30, 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Humphrey, Thomas J. (August 2020). "Origin and Development of the Fixed-Route Local Bus Transportation Network in the Cities and Towns of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority District as of December 31, 1973: Revised Edition" (PDF). NETransit.
  5. ^ "Union Square Electrics". Boston Globe. August 9, 1895. p. 7 – via Newspapers.com.
  6. ^ a b Ninth Annual Report of the West End Street Railway Company for the Year Ending September 30, 1896. Walker, Young & Co. 1896. p. 7 – via Internet Archive.
  7. ^ "Horse Line No Longer". Boston Globe. October 15, 1895. p. 7 – via Newspapers.com.
  8. ^ "The Boston Elevated Railway Company: A Model Road". Street Railway Review. Vol. 8. August 1898. pp. 525–545.
  9. ^ "Will be ready for use next month". Boston Globe. June 14, 1901. p. 3 – via Newspapers.com.
  10. ^ "The Union Street Railway". Boston Globe. December 30, 1879. p. 4 – via Newspapers.com. open access
  11. ^ Clarke, Bradley H.; Cummings, O.R. (1997). Tremont Street Subway: A Century of Public Service. Boston Street Railway Association. p. 58. ISBN 0938315048.
  12. ^ "Elevated to Run Busses Allston to Somerville". Boston Globe. December 16, 1925. p. 16 – via Newspapers.com.
  13. ^ "Changes in Bus Service Announced by Elevated". Boston Globe. February 1, 1930. p. 4 – via Newspapers.com.
  14. ^ "Many Seek Busses to Replace Trolley". Boston Globe. September 11, 1930. p. 12 – via Newspapers.com.
  15. ^ "Extension of El Bus Service in Somerville". Boston Globe. November 14, 1930. p. 7 – via Newspapers.com.
  16. ^ "Central-Sq Bus Line to be Extended to Sullivan Sq". Boston Globe. February 13, 1931. p. 11 – via Newspapers.com.
  17. ^ Clarke, Bradley H. (2015). Streetcar Lines of the Hub: Boston's MTA Through Riverside and Beyond. Boston Street Railway Association. ISBN 9780938315070.
  18. ^ "Brighton–Cambridge Bus Service Announced". Boston Globe. June 6, 1931. p. 21 – via Newspapers.com.
  19. ^ Clarke, Bradley H. (2003). Streetcar Lines of the Hub – The 1940s. Boston Street Railway Association. ISBN 0938315056.
  20. ^ Lufkin, Richard F. (1942), Boston Elevated Railway System Route Map, Boston Elevated Railway – via Wikimedia Commons
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Belcher, Jonathan. "Changes to Transit Service in the MBTA district" (PDF). Boston Street Railway Association.
  22. ^ "Plenty of Parking on New M.T.A. Highland Branch". Boston Globe. June 16, 1959. p. 33 – via Newspapers.com.
  23. ^ "The bus routes affected". Boston Globe. April 3, 1981. p. 19 – via Newspapers.com.
  24. ^ "Better Bus Project Route Proposals" (PDF). Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. January 2019.

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