With the coronavirus unlikely to go away anytime soon, the state’s top transportation official on Thursday pushed work-from-home policies as a crucial strategy to keep commuting safe even once the economy begins to reopen.
“There’s a lot of good reasons that maintaining work from home well into the reopening and recovery of the economy may make sense,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told an audience of business leaders on a Zoom call hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber recently released its own memo about the economic reopening, which said work-from-home practices would likely continue, but “can’t be the solution,” in part because small lunchtime businesses and coffee shops in Boston’s downtown would wither from the lack of customers.
Pollack is a member of the advisory board developing a plan for the economic reopening, and her comments may hint at strategies the panel is considering. She described a “Goldilocks" dilemma for the transportation system: too many people on the MBTA may make commuting unsafe; too few may suggest people are turning to driving and creating traffic problems.
Policies such as remote work, as well as staggered shifts or even weekend hours, could help solve the T find the ‘just-right’ balance — enough transit capacity “for the people who really need to use transit, who can’t work from home, who go to workplaces where you have to be physically present,” Pollack said.
She noted recent survey data, including a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WGBH poll, indicating that much of the public is worried about riding transit before a vaccine is available, even if a strong treatment to the virus is developed.
The MBTA has been running on a reduced schedule since March, but is preparing a budget that features a return to normal weekday service, even while anticipating low ridership. The goal is to limit crowding.
The increase in service will come as ridership returns, with Pollack willing to “hazard a guess” that full service will return by the fall.
“We’ve got the financial wherewithal to do it sooner if the ridership justifies it,” she said. “There’s not going to be a giant plan that the T is going to release that is going to tell you exactly how much service they’re going to have ... every month for the next 12 months.”
She suggested some service with more riders may return to normal frequencies sooner than others. Commuter rail in particular might take much longer to see ridership return, Pollack suggested, because many riders on that service own cars and work in jobs that can be done remotely, whereas the bus has a higher rate of low-income commuters in service jobs.
The T may need to find ways to run more bus service, added MBTA general manager Steve Poftak, who joined Pollack in the videoconference. Bus ridership is down nearly 80 percent during the pandemic. If it rebounds to even half of normal ridership, that would mean that about 9 percent of bus trips will have more people on them than is deemed safe by the T’s pandemic standards, he said.
One solution would be to run more service, but the MBTA will be limited to some extent by the number of vehicles and drivers it has on hand. So Poftak said the agency is urging municipalities to reserve more space on their roads for bus-only lanes, which would create more throughput with the same number of vehicles.
Pollack also encouraged employers to consider their role in limiting demand for transit, especially stressing work-from-home. She noted that last year, well before the pandemic, state officials had floated increased work-from-home as a solution to the region’s punishing congestion, but got a lukewarm response. Now, with nearly two months of practice, there may be a greater appetite, she suggested.
“While there are plenty of people who are eagerly looking forward to getting back to their workplace, there has been a far higher acceptance of telecommuting, and a far higher sense among both employers and employees that it is in fact a productive way of getting work done,” she said.