Will Boston Turn Around Its Ailing Bus System?

Implementing just seven miles of bus lanes can speed trips for nearly a fifth of the city's bus riders.

If House Republicans get their way, the next federal transportation bill will set off a round of fare hikes and service cuts. Photo: LivableStreets Alliance
If House Republicans get their way, the next federal transportation bill will set off a round of fare hikes and service cuts. Photo: LivableStreets Alliance

In Boston, like many U.S. cities, fewer people are riding the bus. MBTA bus ridership fell 8 percent in 2016  compared to the previous year, even as the Boston region adds people and jobs.

The reason people are abandoning the bus is clear enough: Service is slow and unreliable. The region’s most important bus routes tend to be the worst performers — mired in congestion and delayed by a boarding process that takes forever. The slowest bus route in the system, the 1, also has the fifth-highest ridership.

The burden of bad bus service falls disproportionately on people of color and low-income people, who comprise a greater share of bus riders in the region compared to other modes of transit.

Making bus service work well again for all these riders isn’t a huge, complicated undertaking. A new report from the local advocacy group LivableStreets Alliance highlights a few changes that could have a major impact on bus service in less than four years [PDF].

One key is dedicated bus lanes. By prioritizing transit on a relatively small number of streets, huge numbers of bus riders would get faster trips.

The LivableStreets Alliance has identified seven miles of congested streets where buses carry 92,000 passengers on weekdays — about a fifth of all MBTA bus ridership. Converting general traffic lanes into bus lanes on these seven miles of streets would have a huge impact.

This map shows where MBTA bus passengers spend the most time sitting in traffic. Map: Livable Streets Alliance
Where MBTA bus riders spend the most time sitting in traffic. Map: LivableStreets Alliance

The MBTA tested out bus lanes on Washington Street with a low-cost experiment last year, using orange cones to convert a parking lane into a temporary bus lane. Passengers reported huge time savings.

What bus riders need, says the Alliance, is political leadership to make the leap from short-term experiments to permanent upgrades.

In addition to bus lanes, the Alliance recommends implementing traffic signals that can hold green lights for buses and creating better passenger environments bus stops. Only about 8 percent of MBTA bus stops have shelters. All high-ridership stops (with 70 or more daily boardings) should have shelters and be ADA accessible by 2021, the organization says.

Because these changes all involve city infrastructure, and most MBTA bus ridership is within Boston proper, the Alliance wants to see Mayor Marty Walsh hire staff to oversee and implement bus upgrades. Cities including Seattle, Baltimore, New York, and San Francisco all employ people who work specifically on improving bus service.

To generate funding for this initiative, the Alliance recommends a 15-cent surcharge on ride-hailing trips. A recent study from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council showed app-based services like Uber have been clogging streets, feeding a vicious cycle of declining bus service quality and worsening congestion.

One other major change the Alliance recommends is the adoption of all-door boarding to speed trips. The MBTA tested all-door boarding on the Silver Line last year and found it reduced the “dwell time” for buses by 30 percent. The agency says it aims to have all-door boarding in place systemwide by 2020.

“We’re not doomed to poor transit service. At a local level, there are plenty of tools in our toolbox to fix this crisis,” said LivableStreets Director Stacy Thompson. “Now’s the time to step up and put them to work.”

  • rainydayinterns

    A “dedicated” bus lane between 7 and 10AM and 4-7PM would help without taking away the on-street parking for local merchants and such.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Doing a dedicated bus lane on the 1 is really, really hard — given the narrowness of Mass. Ave. Also, on any dedicated lane, you still have to have some space so people can be dropped off/picked up. Personally, I think the better way is the Red-Blue Connector at MGH, and then send the Blue Line to Riverside via Copley Junction and Huntington Ave, taking over the D at Riverway.

    For Blue Hill Ave., given the capacity problems of the 28 bus (demand is much more unidirecitonal than the 1), I think extending the Tremont St. Subway to Mattapan Sq. via Washington St. and Blue Hill Ave. as a hybrid tramway/subway (while folding in the 23/28/29/SL4/SL5 into the route) is much, much better than BRT. Tremont St. Subway to Mattapan Sq. would give South End, Roxbury, and Mattapan a one-seat ride to the CBD, and connect (much better) to all the other lines. Further, Mattapan already rejected BRT on Blue Hill Ave. several years ago (28X).

  • Michael

    Forget seaport, a gondola tict-tacking across the charles from Harvard square to the mass ave bridge with 3 or 4 crossings, would sew together boston/cambridge transit connectivity while connecting harvard to bu, fenway and back bay.

  • Ayanna Matlock

    love this idea!

  • newtonmarunner

    Ewwww.

    The gondola idea is insane. Mass. Ave. isn’t even wide enough (or at best barely wide enough) for dedicated bus lanes, so how do you expect to fit a gondola there?

    The 1 bus alone has more than three times the capacity of an air gondola carrying 10 passengers every 9 seconds, and doesn’t take above ground air space (and loading space that should be used for buildings) the way a gondola does. The bus is also friendlier to the elderly and disabled, a more comfortable ride, hits more destinations, and has far greater resiliency than air gondola (buses can go around).

    Really, save the gondolas for Disney. Keep them out of Boston.

  • Michael

    All these ideas are correct in the context of seaport, but in other parts of the city such as parallel to the number 1 bus which has to cross body of water, a bus can’t provide additional water crossings at a fraction of the price of additional bridge width. IMO, it’s reasonable in the context of improving crossings of the charles. One could even wind it’s way along the harbor and up the mystic to everett, medford etc. It could be useful in some corridors where buses are inadequate but the capital isn’t there for subway.

  • Newtonmarunner

    What is wrong with dedicated bus lanes the way the rest of the world does it?

    The 1/CT1 buses carry together 15,000+ riders/weekday. The Red Line carries 280K riders/weekday. The Green Line carries 230K riders/weekday. A gondola scooping up riders every 0:09 per car (which is insanely fast for an average) carries 4,000/riders day; isn’t necessarily disability accessible; has a far less comfortable ride and greater operating expenses than a bus, subway, or light rail; and picks up and transports people from far fewer locations that a bus, subway, or light rail.

    Also, where are you going to put the gondola stations? Right at MIT? Right by the Hynes Station? Where is there public space for a gondola station? Also, you can’t cross the harbor because planes flying into Logan need room to land.

    Just order more buses and use rail expansions to increase capacity and operating efficiencies like the rest of the world does.

  • MarkinArl

    A dedicated bus lane was only made hard by the narrowing of roads and removal of lanes. Cambridge replaced many lane miles of roadway with sidewalk and bike lanes. I hope useless bump outs are removed so parking lanes can be used before 10am when most retailers open. Bump outs were postulated as a way to make pedestrians safer, but the data isn’t there – they are still looking at their phones or otherwise not looking before/while crossing streets.

  • Michael

    The rest of the world can build bridges for less than a quarter billion dollars. Since we seem incapable of doing that and I’ll be long dead before we get 2 dedicated lanes across any charles bridge to run buses in both directions, we’ll need a different approach unless traveling at 3 mph on the 1 or 66 is acceptable.

  • bumpasaurus

    What makes you think the gondola would be constructed on time and on budget?

  • Michael

    It’s an established technology used in some of the most technically challenging locations in the world. If they can be routinely built in the alps & rockies, i’m pretty confident it could be built in a place like Allston.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    There’s definitely something misleading in calling bikes “single occupancy vehicles”. It’s true that they are slightly less space efficient than buses, but only a little bit. (The difference is negligible compared with any sort of automotive infrastructure.)

    Meanwhile, you tell us to remove pedestrian safety features because pedestrians use their phones, and instead we should replace these safety features with *parking*?! That is the *least* efficient use of space.

    https://www.treehugger.com/cars/amount-of-space-required-to-transport-people-by-car-bus-or-bicycle.html

  • MarkinArl

    I’m just saying that curb extensions don’t make pedestrians safer – they only LOOK like they do. Pedestrians are protected by parked cars, not by 5 or fewer inches of elevation on a curb extension. An actual safety feature for pedestrians are raised refuge medians, but bicyclists want that actual safety space for far less effective bike lanes which offer scant safety improvements for a smaller number of people. Walking is several times as popular as cycling. So, if you want to attack anti-safety proponents, attack cyclists for wanting no raised road medians where pedestrians jaywalk much more safely.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Wait, are you saying that pedestrians standing on a curb extension are no safer than pedestrians standing in a right-turn lane?! Because that’s what it sounds like you’re saying. You’re right that if a car is barrelling directly at a person and the driver doesn’t try to stop, then a curb won’t protect them as much as a parked car will. But the main way pedestrians are protected is by design features that encourage drivers not to aim at pedestrians, and not by physical barriers. And that’s what curbs, and curb extensions, provide.

    Raised refuge medians work just the same way as curb extensions, and have the further advantage of enabling people to pay attention to just one direction of traffic at a time while crossing. So yes, medians are probably more useful than curb extensions for pedestrian safety. But they both work only by removing space from automobiles.

  • MarkinArl

    I’m saying to look at data from safety studies showing little to no reduction in pedestrian crashes from curb extensions while a 50% reduction from raised center median refuges.

    Center medians allow pedestrians to cross in two steps, waiting for a gap in traffic each time – a far more frequent occurrence than finding both directions having a gap simultaneously.

    Bump outs extend less into a road than the parking lane, so they don’t extend any kind of protection, nor really any meaningful shortening of crossing distance at what is usually a controlled intersection with traffic signals and a walk signal. Its all imagined improvement as the crash data shows little to no reduction in crashes.

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