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MBTA considering plans for service reductions as ridership falls during coronavirus

Regular service planned for Monday

MBTA ridership has fallen amid the coronavirus outbreak.
MBTA ridership has fallen amid the coronavirus outbreak.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority plans to run normal service Monday to serve a dwindling ridership amid the coronavirus outbreak, but acknowledged that it could eventually follow other cities in reducing the frequency of trains and buses.

MBTA leaders held a conference call Sunday morning to discuss the latest plans and came away still preparing to run regular weekday service, which — on a good day — means trains every few minutes on the subway. But the agency is also working on “contingency plans” that could lead to reductions, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

“In the event that circumstances necessitate a change in service, the MBTA is developing contingency plans to continue operating service at levels that will prioritize the safety and health of the MBTA workforce, MBTA customers, and policy directives and guidance issued by public health professionals,” Pesaturo said.

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On Friday, the Washington, DC, Metro became the first transit system in the nation to announce it would cut service on the subway in response to the pandemic, with trains running every 12 minutes throughout the day — a drop from every four to eight minutes during rush hour, depending on the line. New York City’s transit system is also considering potential service changes.

Other, smaller transit agencies in California have also reportedly said they will begin adjusting schedules to account for lower student ridership.

The MBTA has for about the past two weeks been disinfecting commonly used surfaces at stations every four hours, while also increasing cleaning on buses and trains. Public health experts have cautiously said it is likely still safe to ride public transit but that passengers must be vigilant to wash their hands. But they have also noted that ultimately transit can lead to crowding that is safest to avoid to stop the spread of the virus.

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During the first week of March, the T reported a roughly 3 percent drop in ridership as the virus began to spread in Massachusetts. By the end of last week, as the massive disruptions to daily life became clear, it was obvious that ridership had fallen much more sharply. The T has said it will release data to show the effect later this week, but often crammed parking lots at T stations late last week were less than half-full.

Transit advocates have spent recent years vociferously calling for more frequent MBTA service to help solve the region’s traffic congestion issues. But with the pandemic spreading, they said it would make sense to begin thinking about ways to reduce service.

A major concern is that with widespread school cancellations, some train operators and bus drivers may be forced to stay at home without backup childcare. That could lead to shortages that cause service gaps even without an official reduction in transit service.

It’s important for those still relying on transit — especially health care workers and grocery store workers who will be key during the pandemic — to at least have a rough idea of how long they’ll be waiting for trains and buses, rather than facing unexpected schedule gaps from driver shortages, said Jarred Johnson, director of the local nonprofit TransitMatters.

“It’s better to sort of officially reduce service, rather than running into issues where the schedule says one thing but they’re running into issues with operators” causing unexpected delays, Johnson said.

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Johnson suggested that any service reduction should come during rush hour rather than the middle of the day. There are already so many trains and buses running at rush hour that losing service there has less an impact on people getting around that it would in the middle of the day.

And because more drivers work during rush hour, it may be more prudent to reduce service during those periods, to mitigate concerns over both the impact of reduced MBTA fare revenue and driver availability, he said.

But, he said, finding the right approach would be “more art than science." Reducing service on some buses, for example, could lead to crowding that would be counterproductive to the advice from public officials to maintain distance from others.

Jim Evers, president of the Boston Carmen’s Union, which represents MBTA train and bus operators, said operators “don’t have the option to work from home."

“However, like everyone else, they will have to make plans and decisions in the best interest of themselves and their families,” he said. "The union is working with management to ensure the health, safety, and best interest of employees.”

Ari Ofsevit, a senior associate for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s Boston program, said the needs for reduced service may differ from line to line and route to route.

It may make sense to shift to reduced schedules that are already used on weekends or during snow emergencies on commuter trains and subways, he said. But the bus system may be more of a challenge to manage because it is more dispersed with different ridership trends across its many routes. Some lines may still need weekday-level frequent service while others could probably do without.

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“You can’t write a new bus schedule overnight,” he said.


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