New study touts pilot-to-permanent bus programs in Everett, Cambridge/Watertown, Everett

Although the pandemic has cut down on public transit ridership overall, bus ridership is still relatively strong. A new study from the local think tank the Pioneer Institute found that improved bus infrastructure proved popular for bus riders and municipalities alike after three pilot programs.

“The pilots really moved the needle in public demonstration of how the streets can be repurposed to support buses and people,” said Julia Wallerce, the Boston program manager for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which administered the pilot programs.

The study looked at three pilot programs using Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT features, including a dedicated bus-only lane in the center of the roadway, off-board fare collection, changes in traffic flow at intersections to prioritize buses, and boarding level with the curb.

Each of the pilot programs in Massachusetts, in Cambridge/Watertown, Everett and Arlington, was funded with $100,000 from the Barr Foundation, in partnership with the research collaborative BostonBRT, and lasted from fall 2018 at the latest through the end of 2019 at the latest. Each pilot has now become permanent.

The Arlington pilot, which ran from there to the Porter Square station on the Red Line, saved riders up to 10 minutes on their commutes. At the end of the program, 70% of residents supported keeping the new lanes, which were made permanent in October 2019.

The Cambridge and Watertown pilot ran on MBTA routes 71 and 73 along Mount Auburn Street. Both cities have made these changes permanent, while working to increase bus lanes.

The Everett project received enthusiastic support from the city’s mayor, Carlo DeMaria, who has said he wants the city to be home to the first gold standard-level BRT system in the country by 2023, which would require the community to add prepayment for riders and make other BRT improvements.

Other BRT-like programs include the Columbus Avenue center bus lane and new boarding platforms in Boston, which opened this past fall. A study by Livable Streets found that 78% of bus riders were satisfied with the new features, and a quarter said they ride the bus more now.

Although the pandemic has reduced bus ridership, it’s still a critical means of transportation for many essential workers. “We’ve seen it with our eyes during the pandemic who was still riding those buses, and we lauded them as our heroes and what we’re gonna just give them the shaft and stick them back in traffic?” Wallerce said, adding that bus riders are currently treated as “third-class citizens.”

The report noted that community-level pushback can be a challenge for areas looking to implement these programs, including a 2009 effort by Deval Patrick on Blue Hill Avenue that residents sank, worried about parking loss.

“On-street parking is not the best use of our scarce pavement,” said Josh Ostroff, interim director of Transportation for Massachusetts. “Strong public engagement with local businesses is important, but no business can have veto power over the curb.”

Only eight American cities have full BRT programs, including Cleveland’s HealthLine, which opened in 2008. The Cleveland program is estimated to have generated $9.5 billion in development along its corridor after a $200 million initial investment into HealthLine. The report noted that, on average, BRT can be seven times more affordable to implement than a light rail system.