The MBTA said Thursday that it will try to keep its vehicles less than half full in a bid to keep crowding down, but does not plan to strictly enforce ridership limits as commuters return to work and the economy reopens from the coronavirus shutdown.
Vehicles in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s fleet will now be considered crowded once they reach a much lower threshold than under previous standards. For buses, the new targets are less than 40 percent of the prior standard — 20 riders, compared to 56 at rush hour prior to the pandemic. On subway lines, the targets are between 40 and 50 percent of normal crowding standards.
General manager Steve Poftak emphasized that those are merely guidelines and not strict limits, meaning the agency would not be closing doors to riders once a vehicle gets too full. The idea is instead to monitor crowds, and then run more vehicles or find other ways to spread out travel if passengers are having trouble maintaining social distancing.
“It allows us to track where crowding is occurring, allows us to think about alternatives,” Poftak said at a meeting of the MBTA’s governing board. "To the extent where we can reallocate capacity, we will do so.”
But riders would still have to make their own judgment calls if a crowded bus or train comes along.
“There’s real limitations logistically on the T’s ability to enforce capacity limits," said Poftak, who has previously noted that it would be nearly impossible for a single train operator to keep track of crowding on a six-car set. “And I think it raises very real equity issues about how this may be enforced.”
Poftak has also said the T is in no position to strictly enforce another aspect of the crisis: the requirement by Governor Charlie Baker that commuters wear face masks on public transit.
The crowding guidelines could face their first real test Tuesday, when office buildings around the state can begin letting people back to work, except in Boston, where they cannot return until June 1. The state has set a limit of 25 percent capacity at offices, although Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh worries that figure is too high and might lead to crowding.
Under the standards, most buses will now be considered crowded once they hit 20 riders, though for larger buses the standard is 31. The target for a Red Line car will now be 66, and 62 for the Orange Line, while the smaller Blue Line cars will have a target threshold of 42 riders. Green Line trolleys will be counted as full at 46 riders. The MBTA did not release a specific target for the commuter rail, which is still undergoing a review.
Normally, a Red Line car with 63 seats is considered crowded at about 165 passengers, while an Orange Line car is meant to squeeze in around 140 people before it’s considered full.
The capacity targets would give each rider roughly one meter of space, in line with the World Health Organization’s standards for transit systems, but short of the 6-foot standard people in the United States have been told to maintain in recent months.
The guidelines come a week after the business group A Better City called for the T to impose capacity limits, and offered metrics based on either one meter or 6 feet of space per rider. Rick Dimino, the organization’s president, said the targets should go “hand-in-hand with a well developed implementation plan,” which may include markers to block off seats on vehicles.
The agency is considering measures such as keeping buses on hand to “run as directed” on busy routes, encouraging cities to establish bus-only lanes that would allow quicker — and thus more frequent — trips, or running more trips off-peak. The T also said it is considering other “operational tactics" to keep crowds down, such as running “short-turn” Blue Line trains between just a few stations.
Transit has been a clear concern as Massachusetts begins to inch back to life, with large chunks of the public saying they will avoid it absent a treatment or vaccine for the virus. The Baker administration’s reopening plan calls for the T to eventually resume normal service, but not until the third phase of the process — which is at least six weeks away.
Some transit advocates have said the T should begin boosting service immediately to keep crowding to a minimum.
“We believe the MBTA’s immediate focus should be on providing frequent service, even with far below average ridership, to mitigate crowding for essential workers,” the advocacy group TransitMatters said in a statement this week.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack on Thursday said crowding may not be an issue in the near term, noting that schools and colleges are out of session, pro sports games are off indefinitely, and thousands of office workers are expected to continue working from home.
“It’s important to understand that a number of drivers of demand for transit service are not going to be open in phase one, or in some cases in phase two, or in some cases in phase three,” Pollack said.
Poftak added that the T can adjust service levels if ridership comes back sooner than expected, though there are limits: about a quarter of the T’s bus operators have been unavailable in recent days either because they are sick or in quarantine. While the T has been adjusting service to thin crowds throughout the spring, there have been occasional lapses, as a photo of a crowded Silver Line bus that circulated on social media this week showed.
The T may also notify riders about when to avoid crowds, Poftak said. However, those warnings may be based on trends and not real-time information that would allow riders to quickly adjust their commutes.
The state’s reopening strategy rests on employers staggering work hours to make rush hour longer but less crowded. If that happens, Poftak said, the T could run more service during those traditionally off-peak periods.
On the commuter rail, the T expects to run a “modified” version of normal service that may spread the same number of trains out over longer rush hours. Also, Keolis Commuter Services, the T’s commuter rail operator, plans to keep all coaches on trains open regardless of crowding levels; in the past, the company has closed off cars for lightly crowded trips.
State officials have theorized that commuter rail ridership may be slowest to rebound, because many riders are office workers who can telecommute or drive to work. So another idea is to shift riders from crowded buses and trains to the commuter rail.
The T is going to test that concept next week, by temporarily reducing the cost of a train ride from Lynn to the Zone 1A price of $2.40, down from $7. The goal would be to draw riders from the Blue Line or bus routes. The MBTA said it may seek to implement that tactic at other commuter stations.
Maria Belen Power, of the Chelsea advocacy group GreenRoots, suggested the T consider opening up the commuter rail to more riders by offering free or reduced-fare service from places such as Chelsea, where buses are crowded and coronavirus infection rates are high.
“It’s a great resource to expand service and allow for the physical distancing guidelines that would protect our residents and make our communities safe," she said.