Dispatches from the near future: Globe journalists imagine summer during the pandemic.
It’s almost hard to believe that just a few months ago, MBTA riders would bulldoze through train doors and into a sea of flesh to force space where there wasn’t any.
These days, the few passengers still waiting are more than willing to let even a lightly crowded train sail by, then cautiously enter the next one if it looks a little emptier. At least it’s gotten easier to plan since the T started warning riders about crowding conditions in text message alerts.
Crowded, by the way, has a very different meaning in the age of coronavirus. In the past, MBTA policies defined a subway car as crowded if it was carrying nearly three times as many people as seats. Now, with ridership still just a small fraction of pre-pandemic levels, finding a seat is often the easy part. Finding one sufficiently distant from fellow riders can still be a challenge, however, and one with much greater stakes.
Where’d everybody go, anyway? Even after the lockdown lifted, those with the luxury to work from home have kept doing so. Others no longer commute because they’re still out of work. Some are driving now, or maybe walking or biking. Green Line riders have been spared the Red Sox crowds, but of course it’s come at great cost: The team is playing, but fans aren’t allowed at the park.
Some of those old crowds may still be riding, but at different times — part of an attempted strategy from business leaders and transportation authorities to try to stagger shift times and working days to spread out rush hour. It’s hard to tell if it has worked, or if the flattened rush hour curve just proves that most remaining riders are service workers who have always held odd shifts.
The T hasn’t taken an especially forceful approach to its new normal. Consider masks. Yes, the agency’s rule is that everybody should wear one, probably until there’s a vaccine, but mostly the T is relying on advertising to make the point. Drivers and operators aren’t kicking unmasked passengers off, though fellow passengers sometimes have a thing or two to say if you try getting aboard without one.
Nor has the MBTA set hard capacity caps, such as closing a bus’s doors once 20 riders are aboard. Instead, the goal has been to run enough service to give enough space for a deflated ridership. The frequency of trains and buses has been increasing over the course of the summer, but it’s a constant re-calibration; ridership and crowding vary from line to line and even fluctuate day by day.
After all, while the pandemic has changed so much, some things are forever — like Orange Line breakdowns. Even with text alerts to help, it’s hard to avoid crowds when trains are running 15 minutes behind.