Boston Fixed Its Most Frustrating Street for Bus Riders, But Just for a Month

Then the city let cars take over again.

Boston's Washington Street bus/bike lane pilot. Photo: LivableStreets Alliance
Boston's Washington Street bus/bike lane pilot. Photo: LivableStreets Alliance

For the last month, one of Boston’s most important and most frustrating bus corridors got a big upgrade.

Each weekday, half a dozen bus routes carrying 19,000 riders travel the 1.2-mile stretch of Washington Street to the Forest Hill Orange Line Station. Most people on the street at rush hour are in a bus. But the commute can be terribly slow and unpredictable, because the buses don’t have priority.

Council Member Michelle Wu, who commutes daily by bus along the route with her kids, says sometimes it takes half an hour just to go a mile.

That changed during a one-month pilot, when the city converted a parking lane on Washington Street into a bus lane during the morning rush hour. Cyclists were also allowed to use the lane.

Once the city cordoned off the lane for buses using orange cones, the improvement was noticeable immediately. Wu said the makeshift bus lane shaved the trip on Washington Street down to 10 minutes or less.

“Everybody’s been thrilled at what a difference it’s made,” Wu told Streetsblog, “whether it’s on the bus or driving along side or on a bike.”

Michele Wu
Council Member Michelle Wu

But instead of keeping the temporary bus improvement in place while evaluating its impact, the city let Washington Street go “back to gridlock” Monday, reports the Boston community news site Universal Hub.

Wu was disppointed. “My initial hope was that the pilot would roll right into a permanent [bus lane],” she said. “I have not heard a single complaint from residents about how this worked until today when the pilot ended.”

It’s up to Mayor Marty Walsh to make the bus lane permanent. Walsh, for his part, has made speeding up bus service a priority in his upcoming budget cycle.

The cost of designating a permanent bus lane would be relatively small. But by letting the pilot expire, said Andrew McFarland of the local advocacy organization LivableStreets Alliance, “the city [is] actually electing to make more congestion for their residents.”

  • newtonmarunner

    As a Boston local, I think the bigger fix is getting rid of the Needham Commuter Rail Branch in Exchange for sending the Orange Line to West Roxbury. This gets rid of the 35/36/37/38’s bus ride through Washington St. Regional Rail will get rid of Hyde Park’s bus ride (32) to Forest Hills. Still, 34 needs the dedicated lanes on Washington St.

  • Michael

    I don’t know. I’d say the 66 is the worst bus in the system. I’d walk the 4 miles from Harvard to Dudley faster than the bus. As far as I can tell, there’s no section of that bus route that can’t be out performed by a brisk walk.

  • newtonmarunner

    28 on Blue Hill Ave. is by far the worst. What Roxbury and Mattapan have to deal with in terms of waiting out in single digit weather all winter long for a notoriously bus that crawls only to find out that they can’t board the overcapacity 28, and must continue to wait in single digit weather for the next bus is perilously close to a manifest injustice.

    And yet we in Boston remain almost indifferent to the plight of low-income Blue Hill Ave. residents.

  • AlanThinks

    This will never happen as it would require hundreds of millions of dollars to construct, require eminent domain of houses along the way, rip up part of the Arboretum, require massive infrastructure for electrification (3rd rail) all to gain zero new ridership. I wish people would stop trotting this non-starter idea.

  • AlanThinks

    The improvement needs to be made permanent. It markedly reduced bus travel times during the peak hours and made the commute much safer for bicyclists who had the full lane instead of being squeezed in between traveling and parked cars. Email Mayor Walsh at ; and Chief of Streets ‘Chris Osgood’ to ask that the lane be made permanent ASAP.

  • AlanThinks

    Agreed. Dedicated bus lanes need to be set up along all major boulevards around the city. Let’s start with Wash st and expand it to Blue Hill & Hyde Park Ave.

  • newtonmarunner

    It’s not about adding ridership; it’s about increasing capacity and improving the service quality. Orange Line to West Roxbury is waaay cheaper than expanding South Station and 4-tracking the currently 2-tracked Southwest Corridor in order to retain regional rail service levels in West Roxbury and Rozzie (add capacity). It also gets rid of the inefficient 35/36/37 buses for more reliable and predictable Orange Line.

  • AlanThinks

    Absolutely crazy & impracticable idea. Would have to build a new bridge, take away yards, intrude into Arboretum, lay large infrastructure for electricity costing many hundreds of millions of dollars from a system that has no money to add a tiny expansion of capacity. Give it up.

  • newtonmarunner

    Regional rail (turning the commuter rail into express subway lines) like RER, S-Bahn, Crossrail, etc. will help those in Hyde Park and on the Fairmount Line and Providence/Stoughton/Franklin Lines waaay more than dedicated bus lanes on Blue Hill Ave. and Hyde Park Ave. I’d eventually send the Tremont St. Subway down Washington St. and branch after Grove Hall to Blue Hill Ave. and Ashmont (vía Washington St). The Boylston St. Subway would go to the Seaport District vía South Station, then L St. You could use the Blue Line to prune a Green Line Branch.

  • AlanThinks

    Completely agree with regional rail and better serving other parts of the city. Just that OLX cannot be justified on a cost/benefit calculation particularly given inadequate revenue stream for MBTA

  • gb52

    These are the common sense kind of improvements cities need across the country. Streets should be for people, walking, biking, driving, taking transit. However for too long we’ve prioritized car storage rather than mobility. There is a point where we have too many cars just parked, and we’ve reached that point.

  • Randy Neufeld

    It’s actually really good public policy to take out demonstration projects. If you leave them in then people think they are a trick, they oppose demonstrations, and it makes them harder to do. Demonstrations are best scheduled for a specific amount of time, long enough to see if they really work, usually 3 to 6 months. One month is not long enough. Sometimes a full year to get all the seasons and events. Then removed and given a thorough evaluation. The criteria is really important. Then the city decides whether to put in long term. Sometimes the long term installation is with temporary materials until the permanent infrastructure can be put in. Copenhagen does this process really well.

    When demonstrations are not scheduled for removal then opponents try and stop the demonstration and attack it vigorously if it is constructed. Scheduled removal allows for a more civilized demonstration process. Obviously if you have a high crash corridor and the demonstration is long enough to show a significant crash reduction, that would be grounds for keeping the demonstration in prior to the evaluation and decision. But that should be the exception not the rule. Officials can accelerate the process when there’s life and limb on the line.

  • Artie Bonney

    This article should now be updated to show the City of Boston has decided to make the pilot permanent as of 6/7/2018. This is a huge change for the City and bodes well for future targeted shifts to improve transit! https://www.universalhub.com/2018/city-decides-morning-lane-just-buses-bikes-great#comments

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