Greater Boston’s economic competitiveness is largely driven by its skilled and diverse workforce and varied industries. Unfortunately, the region’s transit system, especially its bus system, isn’t keeping pace with a growing and changing population.
A new report released by ITPD and LivableStreets earlier this year showed that over the last 50 years, Greater Boston has seen a 53 percent increase in the overall population – while the bus system has remained largely the same. In fact, the current MBTA bus fleet is actually smaller than it was 50 years ago. In our most heavily transit-dependent communities, train service is limited or nonexistent, and bus service has not kept up with the surging demand.
Key corridors are choked with traffic and air pollution, and low-income riders and people of color are disproportionately impacted. This is especially apparent in communities like Revere, Chelsea and Everett, which have seen a staggering 42 percent growth in their populations since 1990.
While municipalities and state agencies are making laudable steps to improve bus service, progress has been piecemeal and insufficient. The region is crippled by having too few buses, outdated facilities, slow and unreliable service and, underlying it all, a broken budget.
Only a comprehensive, coordinated, and well-resourced effort to transform the bus system will bring it up to speed to meet the region’s current and future needs. Our report outlines a concrete, time-bound plan for policymakers across all levels of government to get our bus system on the right track.
Fix the Budget, Fix the Streets
First, the Healey-Driscoll administration and the state legislature must make a real effort to adequately fund the MBTA. Long before the pandemic, the MBTA was chronically underfunded. Buses are often overlooked when the media and public discuss the MBTA. However, bus service is a major part of the MBTA’s budget, with the fiscal year 2023 MBTA operating budget allocating nearly 2,500 of the 5,641 (45 percent) total positions to bus operations and maintenance. Bus service needs to be actively considered in financing conversations for the MBTA.
Municipalities in Greater Boston also have an important role to play: They have ownership of the streets that carry thousands of bus riders every day. Some of the key steps they can take to improve bus operations in their own communities are prioritizing multimodal streets that include bus priority, improving bus stops, and amending zoning codes to allow for more housing near transit.
The recently established multifamily zoning requirement for MBTA communities is a good start. However, this law defines “high-frequency transit” as subway or commuter rail service and does not include current or future high-frequency bus routes. Municipalities can and should also allow for and plan multi-family housing near high-frequency bus service. Doing so will start a cycle where increased population results in increased ridership and demand for more frequency.
And, of course, the MBTA has a critical role in advancing the bus system across the region. First and foremost, the MBTA must prioritize hiring and retaining bus operators and the staff that support them. In addition to the 300 drivers they lack to meet current service needs, the MBTA will also need to deploy 440 additional bus drivers to provide the 25 percent service increase proposed in the Bus Network Redesign project.
While the MBTA has invested significant resources to hire new bus operators, even if they double the current rate of hiring, it could take up to two years to hire and train enough operators to bring bus service up to the pre-pandemic level. The MBTA must also hire more dispatch, maintenance, and managerial personnel to assist those operators.
The MBTA will also need to focus on improving service with the existing bus fleet while expanding the electric fleet and the bus network. This will include building new bus facilities, purchasing 200 to 600 additional electric buses, and recruiting and retaining bus operators to support current and future bus operations.
While none of this will be easy, through collaboration with the Healey-Driscoll administration, the legislature, municipalities and others, the system can be fixed and back on track by 2030.
Stacy Thompson is executive director of transit advocacy organization LivableStreets and Julia Wallerce is the Boston program manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.