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T trying to balance unhealthy crowding with fewer cars

Some transit agencies are maintaining high service levels but closing off seats and redirecting boarding

A MBTA warning sign posted at the North Quincy station about the spread of germs.
A MBTA warning sign posted at the North Quincy station about the spread of germs.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

A seat for everyone. No one relegated to standing room. Two passengers sharing a three-person bench.

Just a week or two ago, these conditions might have sounded like a blissful reprieve from typical rush-hour on the MBTA. But during a global pandemic, even that level of crowding feels dangerous to some public transit riders.

The MBTA is struggling to adjust service levels to lower ridership while still running enough vehicles so those passengers who are riding maintain the proper distance from one another to slow the virus from spreading.

The first day of reduced schedules did not go perfectly on Tuesday, with crowding reported on the Blue and Green lines, as well as some buses. The T said late Tuesday that it would add service for those routes Wednesday.

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On social media on Wednesday, some passengers highlighted what appeared to be still-crowded conditions on certain trains, while others posted pictures of near-empty cars.

“The MBTA will continue to track customer volumes and make service adjustments accordingly while continuing to meet the needs of customer demand and supporting social distancing,” the T said in a statement, that also encouraged passengers who don’t need to travel to avoid public transit.

Meanwhile, on the commuter rail, which also had reduced service Tuesday, some passengers wondered why operators only opened only some of the cars on longer train sets, forcing people to bunch together in fewer cars.

“They’re running the stock anyway. It’s not like they cut the cars down to three cars,” said Daniel Treger, an attorney from Beverly who is still heading into the office to answer phones and collect mail as his colleagues work from home. “These are situations that could pose a risk, and it seems to me, needlessly so.”

Keolis Commuter Services, the private company that operates the commuter rail for the MBTA, said it would open all coaches going forward.

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“We will continue to monitor service to make further adjustments as necessary in these unprecedented circumstances,” Keolis spokesman Tory Mazzola said.

The T is reducing schedules in response to huge ridership drops. The agency said Wednesday that subway station entries were down 68 percent Monday compared to more typical weekdays, and 78 percent on Tuesday, despite the crowds on some trains. Bus ridership is down roughly 50 percent.

But there is some evidence that routes that serve higher rates of low-income riders are more crowded, perhaps because those riders are more likely to work in service jobs that can’t be done from home. The Blue Line, for example, has more low-income riders than the overall subway and struggled with crowding on Tuesday; its ridership losses were also smaller than the rest of the subway.

And ridership on the 9 bus through South Boston, for example, was down 72 percent Monday, while the 28 bus through Mattapan was down just 24 percent. The 9’s ridership is 15 percent low-income, compared to about two-thirds on the 28, according to MBTA surveys.

Some public transit agencies are making operational changes beyond simply scheduling adjustments to mitigate the disease. In Austin, Texas, for example, officials have said they will run more service on some routes, while putting signs on every other seat or so to ensure passengers do not sit next to each other. Other bus systems are allowing passengers to enter through back doors, so they don’t have to interact with drivers at the fare collection area.

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With the MBTA taking a major financial hit already from lost fares, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu said the agency should follow suit and allow back-door boarding to cut off those interactions.

“The fact that we’re not even engaging on that yet... is infuriating,” Wu said. “Fares are not necessarily driving the revenue conversation anyway. Why risk drivers and riders exposure and continue having people crowding together to pay at the front door?”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said T officials “currently do not plan to implement all-door boarding procedures but we will continue to monitor this evolving situation.” The T will also begin disinfecting surfaces in buses during midday layover periods in addition to daily cleanings, the agency said Wednesday.

The T and transit agencies across the country are in a financial bind. They need to run enough service to keep at least essential employees, such as healthcare and grocery workers, moving, while keeping crowding to a minimum. That means almost by necessity the more service the T runs the more money it loses as it strives to meet those objectives.

Wu said the T’s service cuts do not reflect this reality. It may make sense, she said, to reduce service on some lines, but it isn’t appropriate to do so across the board and then add some back only after vehicles have gotten too crowded.

“We can’t start with restricting and then seeing where it’s crowded and then adding,” she said. “We have to start with the baseline of guaranteeing enough space for all riders and drivers to be safe, and then, where there are empty trains on a regular basis, to reduce from there.”

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There will be a time to address the financial implications, she said, ideally through Congressional action. National transit advocacy groups have begun pressing Congress to consider aid for transit systems, and New York City’s transit officials are lobbying for a $4 billion aid package. But so far, the T has not reached out to the Massachusetts Congressional delegation about its own needs. Locally, Beacon Hill has said its immediate focus is on addressing the public health crisis.

The Massachusetts Port Authority said Wednesday it will reduce frequencies on its express buses between Logan International Airport and Braintree and Back Bay to every 30 minutes instead of every 20, and shutter the Peabody line for now.

Logan has also seen a big drop in passenger traffic. Massport said it is working with the Congressional delegation and other airports as they begin to assess whether the industry will need financial help.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story misstated the rate of low-income ridership on the MBTA’s Route 9 bus. The correct figure is 15 percent.


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