fb-pixel
Starts & Stops

The next generation of bus lanes is coming to Greater Boston

Buses only along the median, or on the highway? City and state officials say they’re coming soon.

The city of Boston is planning to add a center bus lane on Columbus Ave. in Jamaica Plain, between Egleston and Jackson squares, similar to the type in the rendering from the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
The city of Boston is planning to add a center bus lane on Columbus Ave. in Jamaica Plain, between Egleston and Jackson squares, similar to the type in the rendering from the National Association of City Transportation Officials.City of Boston/NACTO

So have we all gotten used to those bus-only lanes that are popping up seemingly all over Boston-area roads these days? The ones that are painted red to warn drivers to stay out?

Good, because the next generation of bus lanes is going to kick things up a notch.

Transportation planners in several cities are considering putting bus lanes in the center lanes of some main roads, with new concrete islands for passenger boarding and deboarding. Because they would not be in the right lanes along curbs, buses would be less likely to be held up by other traffic attempting to park or making a turn. Also, state transportation officials say they’re considering letting buses run exclusively on the shoulders of certain highways.

Advertisement



Neither concept is exactly novel. Many cities around the world and even in the United States already feature center-running bus lanes, a key facet of systems known as “bus rapid transit.” One was once even considered in Boston, on Blue Hill Avenue, back in 2009, long before the current bus lane renaissance. And on the highways, Massachusetts is decades behind other states that allow buses to operate apart from traffic.

But better late than never for Greater Boston to make bus travel more attractive as part of the fight against pollution and congestion, advocates say.

“It’s prioritizing transit,” said Julia Wallerce of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, whose Boston office has been pushing for more bus-only lanes in the region. “And anywhere we can do that, we should.”

The center-running lanes may first appear in Boston, straddling the Roxbury-Jamaica Plain border on Columbus Avenue between Egleston and Jackson squares.

It’s only a half-mile stretch, but it’s ideal for the configuration because of its width — it already features four lanes, plus space for parking, and a median strip — and because a high number of bus riders use it, said Boston transportation planning director Vineet Gupta. About a third of all people traveling along that busy stretch are in buses, but traffic jams can triple the length of their commute.

Advertisement



“It’s a very important bus corridor for us, and we’d like to see the best possible bus priority on this corridor,” Gupta said.

It will take about six months to design the Columbus Avenue project, and longer still to implement it, Gupta said. But the city has shared preliminary ideas of possible center-lane configurations. One version has bus stops in between the two bus lanes, essentially on a median. However, that would require buses with doors that open on the left, rather than the right, unlike almost all of the MBTA’s current bus fleet. So another option may be to stagger bus stops on the opposite side, on platforms with shelters, lighting, and other amenities.

This section of Columbus Avenue in Boston between Egleston and Jackson squares may soon have a dedicated bus lane running down the center of the road, with new concrete islands for passenger boarding and unboarding.
This section of Columbus Avenue in Boston between Egleston and Jackson squares may soon have a dedicated bus lane running down the center of the road, with new concrete islands for passenger boarding and unboarding.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Meanwhile, in Everett, Mayor Carlo DeMaria pledges to eventually set up a similar system for MBTA buses running along Broadway, extending the current dedicated bus lanes farther south, past the Encore Boston Harbor casino to the city line with Boston, where he hopes to see it continue to North Station.

Center lanes are also under consideration on the North Shore — on the busy six-lane Lynnway. As part of a review of possible transit improvements in Lynn, MBTA and city officials say these types of bus lanes on the Lynnway could make it easier for mass transit riders to go between the city’s downtown and the Wonderland Blue Line stop in Revere.

Advertisement



The Lynnway, which is owned by the state, is a major regional connection into Boston for much of the North Shore, with more than 40,000 cars a day. But Mayor Thomas McGee of Lynn thinks the current configuration could accommodate bus lanes without affecting other traffic too much. Moreover, a bus system with stops on center islands would make it easier for pedestrians to cross the Lynnway. That’s crucial for Lynn’s long-range plan to better link downtown to the now-desolate waterfront, which are both slated for significant development, McGee said.

“The Lynnway is a real barrier to connecting our community back to the waterfront. . . . So adding a bus lane in there is a reasonable discussion to have,” he said.

A lot of issues would need to be sorted out first, McGee noted. A recent MBTA presentation, for example, noted that center bus lanes would require some way for other motorists to make left turns at some intersections.

Buses may also get a leg up soon in the undisputed realm of the automobile: the major Massachusetts interstates. The state Department of Transportation is studying whether some highway shoulders could be turned over to buses during peak periods.

It’s a common practice in more than a dozen metro areas across the country, but Massachusetts went the other way back in the 1980s, when it allowed most vehicles to drive on some highways’ shoulders during rush hour.

Advertisement



But as soon as this year, officials hope to allow MBTA and other buses to ride on the shoulders of a section of Interstate 93 north of downtown Boston, freeing those commuters from some of the worst gridlock in the country. It will require approval from the Federal Highway Administration, but could be a “good learning experience” as a pilot program before being implemented on other highways as well, said Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.



Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.