Commuter rail has been in the headlines. But it’s not really the most important part of our region’s mass transit system. About 130,300 people take a train trip each day; nearly 795,800 take a bus, trackless trolley, or the Green Line. Unfortunately, despite the lower media profile, buses and trolleys are performing even more poorly than rail.
It’s easy to blame the state – governor, MassDOT, MBTA, and the legislature -- for inadequacies in bus and trolley service. They are, after all, ultimately responsible for the lack of funds, incompetent management, and narrow-minded planning that dug the hole we’re now trying to climb out of. They are in charge of the malfunctioning equipment (selection and maintenance of vehicles, tracks, signals) and the operations (staffing, training, running) of the system. And they are the only ones capable of implementing several vital service improvement changes: off-board fare collection, all-door boarding, platform/level boarding, high capacity vehicles, protected shelters, clean and safe facilities, easy rail and subway transfers, and more.
But a narrow focus on state-level mis-leadership leaves a key set of players off the hook: mayors, city managers, and their administrations. Buses run on city streets and through city-controlled intersections. Trolley’s run on tracks but are subject to city-regulated traffic lights. City leaders actually control the biggest cause of bus and trolley delay – treating mass transit as just another part of traffic, as part of the congestion problem rather than as a solution, as a peer to cars and parking rather than a priority, as a secondary problem rather than one of the foundations for future economic growth, urban livability, and social justice.
The resulting poor service exacerbates our region’s inequities rather than providing access to more opportunities. The MAPC’s recently released State of Equity report showed that there’s incredible racial disparity among bus commuters in Eastern Massachusetts, with black riders spending 64 hours per year more on the bus relative to their white counterparts.
It’s not that city officials aren’t aware of the need to make bus and trolley travel better. They know that giving busses and trolleys traffic light priority, reserving peak-hour bus-lanes, and providing space for better waiting/loading areas would hugely improve service -- as would providing bus stop shelters, maintaining and removing snow from adjacent sidewalks, and sweeping street trash from boarding areas. All this would attract more transit riders and reduce car traffic. And it’s not that they aren’t doing anything. It’s just that it’s simply not a high enough priority and therefore either action keeps getting delayed, or reduced in scope, or simply dropped in the face of even small amounts of car-driver pushback.
Case in point: despite the broad support developed through the Go Boston 2030 engagement process, Boston continues to stall on a bus-only pilot on Washington Street in Roslindale where the need is clear and bus improvements are a “no-brainer.” Supporters from Roslindale have been told repeatedly throughout 2017 that a pilot is in sight, but the new year is right around the corner without a definitive date or timeline nailed down, leaving many uncertain of the City's commitment to its bus priorities. The City supposedly has a “Better Buses Working Group” - a inter-agency task force dedicated to developing pro-transit policies and operations - but it’s unclear what this group is working on, what is their mandate from the Mayor’s Office, or how they’re accountable to the people of Boston. Bus riders are delayed by not only unreliable bus service but City Hall itself, it seems.
AN OBVIOUS MOVE
Enrique Penalosa says that the solution to car congestion is to install bus lanes. It may seem counter-intuitive – how can reducing a road’s car-carrying capacity make traffic go faster – but it builds on two powerful truths. First, it is almost impossible to eliminate congestion. While increasing car capacity, primarily do-able by widening or building more roads, leads to short-term improvements, it simply attracts more drivers and the activation of this “latent demand” (also called “induced demand” or “generated demand”) eventually recreates congestion – not to mention the homes, parks, and other space that must be taken to create the new dedicated car lanes. (Related to this is the fact that as a society’s wealth increases, people in individual-consumption-focused societies will pursue personalized solutions – including increased car usage – unless given strong incentives to use more social alternatives.)
Second, providing a better alternative – such as faster moving, attractive, affordable, and socially celebrated busses – will help people decide to not take their cars, a “nudging” process that is only helped by the removal of car lanes at peak hours. (Related to this is the fact that a surprisingly large percentage of urban households, up to 30% in Boston and nearly 50% in New York, do not own a car, either by choice or low-income; good mass transit reduces the pressure for them to join the car-driving crowd.)
SOME DO IT
Under Mayor Carlo DeMaria’s leadership, the city of Everett has shown what can be done quickly, at low-cost, with low-risk. Broadway is a major commuter corridor. A high percentage of people on the road during peak hours are in buses, a majority of whom live in Everett. But the street is often congested and slow, in large part because there are so many Single Occupancy Vehicle (SOV) cars -- many of which are coming through Everett from higher-income towns further out. Once MassDOT's Everett Transit Action Plan was finalized at the end of 2016, the City of Everett decided to quickly and quietly pilot one of its recommendations - a pop-up bus priority lane on "upper" Broadway. Treating it as just like a standard 3-day construction project, without fanfare the city put out cones and signs to close off the in-bound parking lane for a couple of hours in the morning. (There isn’t a lot of early AM parking on that street and parking is already totally banned twice a week for street cleaning.) The pilot was so successful (and here and here) in December 2016 that at the Mayor’s request it was recently made permanent with paintfor both the morning and afternoon peak hours,well ahead of MassDOT's recommended 1-3 year timeline for implementation. In terms of staffing, it only turned out to require two road crew members and two parking enforcement people. There were a few complaints, but the reaction was overwhelmingly positive – which shouldn’t be all that surprising because, by avoiding letting car drivers get up in arms about what might happen, actually doing it showed that it worked. A typical post-pilot feedback from car drivers was that the bus lane made driving easier “because it got those buses out of my way.”
Everett is now looking to expand bus-only lanes throughout the city, starting on Main Street. And Everett isn’t the only city to run tests that turn into successful permanence. To little fanfare, the City of Cambridge has recently installed communication equipment for and activated transit signal priority at about 10 intersections along Mass Ave and Prospect Street, and has activated TSP at two intersections on Mass Ave near Central Square. Recent proposals for capital construction projects like Inman Square have incorporated pro-transit features like queue jumps and floating bus boarding islands.
Elsewhere around the US, Baltimore is implementing miles of bus priority lanes this year. Seattle has been rolling out service upgrades like bus-only streets (not just lanes!), queue jumps, and off-board fare payment, rapidly increasing its ridership. Since 2004, NYC DOT has planned and implemented dozens of miles of bus priority lanes (program is a collaboration with MTA through a city-led program called Select Bus Service aka SBS) in areas of the city desperately needing better transit access. Things are also happening in Chicago, San Francisco, and other places.
WE KNOW WHAT IS NEEDED
In 2014, the Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS), which staffs the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that helps shape regional allocation of federal transportation funds, conducted an internal study called “MassDOT Dedicated Bus Lanes Handout” that identified 10 potential sites for dedicated bike lanes. One of them ran along Washington Street to Forest Hills Station.
In 2015 the Barr Foundation sponsored a BostonBRT Report that included City of Boston staff and Roslindale Village Main Streets (full disclosure: LivableStreets, on whose Board I sit, was also involved). The Forest Hills to West Roxbury corridor, including Washington Street in Roslindale, was identified as one of the 12 highly desirable corridors to try Bus Rapid Transit.
In 2016 the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, MAPC, researched the corridor’s parking patterns – capacity, usage at various times of day and night, and the license plate registration of parked cars. The results were shared with the city. MAPC found that “the Washington Street corridor between Forest Hills station and Roslindale Square has the highest rates of bus utilization in the entire MBTA service district, with 60% of travelers utilizing an MBTA bus during the AM and PM peak hours.” The report also documented low usage during the peak travel times, especially during the early morning, and that over 80% of parked cars were from outside the neighborhood driven in by people heading to the Forest Hills T-station.
In 2017, Mayor Walsh’s Administration conducted extensive interviews and surveys with people across the city to create the Go Boston 2030 vision and action plan. It, too, identified a Forest Hills-to-Roslindale Rapid Bus lane as a priority project (see page 156 of plan for details). The study found that an average of 19,000 bus riders pass along this corridor every day, and more than half the people traveling along Washington Street between Forest Hills and Roslindale Square are in a bus. The document concludes that: “This rapid bus service would improve the quality of experience for those connecting to the Orange Line, provide a boost to local businesses, open up new areas for potential development, and provide some measure of congestion relief to that segment of Washington Street.” The bus lane idea was the fifth-most popular project in Go Boston 2030 voted on by over 500 Bostonians. WalkUP Roslindale has also been a vocal supporter of bus priority on the corridor.
THE COMMUNITY WAITS
At the end of the day, bus riders ultimately pay for the slow pace of action. For too many riders, unreliable buses mean docked pay for missed work, less time in the classroom, and canceled doctor’s appointments. To engage bus riders in the potential benefits of bus priority in Roslindale, LivableStreets Alliance is currently leading a Street Ambassador campaign along Washington Street. They’ve been collecting dozens of stories from riders about how the current service negatively impacts their daily lives, which LivableStreets will be sending to the Mayor’s Office to urge him to act. Anyone interested in helping with this effort – or who wants to make sure their opinion gets included – should contact Andrew McFarland.
Here’re a few riders’ comments that stood out to me:
“[I need more reliable bus service] to be consistently on time for work and my students. I am teacher and inconsistent bus service causes whole school issues when I’m late.” - Deborah, Roslindale
“The only way for me to get to work is on bus. I would bike but biking feels too dangerous on [Washington] street.” - Anne, Roslindale
“I use buses to get to and from work every day. Bus delays and congestion are a big challenge, and I have to make extra time and spend longer on my commute away from my family.” - Hassan, Roslindale
“Half the time is is faster to get off the bus and walk than it is to take [the bus] all the way to Forest Hills. Every few months I have to get up 5 minutes earlier to be on time for work.” - Anne, Roslindale
The need for bus priority on Washington Street - and throughout the city - is painfully clear. In Everett, political leadership paved the way for much-needed bus improvements. It's now up to Boston's leaders to do the same in their city.
Thanks to Andrew McFarland and Stacy Thompson for feedback on earlier drafts.
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