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Up next at the MBTA: crowding alerts?

The T aims to help riders decide if the next train or bus has room for social distancing. But providing real-time data to all will be difficult

An empty outbound Green Line train in Boston in early April.
An empty outbound Green Line train in Boston in early April.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

Transit riders have grown accustomed to staring at smartphone apps and Twitter feeds in a desperate hunt for information about when their train or bus will arrive. Now, that quest takes on an even more urgent tone: Is it even safe to board the next T vehicle in the era of coronavirus?

As the economy slowly reopens, the T would like to keep its vehicles less than half full in order to provide enough room to passengers to maintain a safe distance from each other. General manager Steve Poftak said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is racing to develop a new messaging system to alert riders when a train or bus has become too crowded — ideally during the second phase of the state’s reopening plan.

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“We understand that there’s going to be an appetite for this relatively soon,” Poftak said, adding that it may debut as a test on a few busy routes.

“Not every customer has the discretion to alter their commute, and I want to acknowledge that upfront. But for those who do, giving them this information gives them the discretion to make decisions about commute times or commute mode if they have the flexibility.”

MassINC Polling Group recently found that 67 percent of Massachusetts respondents in a poll would feel more comfortable using public transportation if they had access to real-time information about crowds.

And in the past, researchers have repeatedly found that riders are at much greater ease when they have more information about other transit-related concerns, such as arrival times and delays.

“People feel more comfortable riding transit when they feel a sense of control and confidence in the service,” said Julia Wallerce, who leads the Boston office of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “Sending people alerts about crowded stations or bus lines enables people to make decisions.”

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Yet real-time information will be difficult for the MBTA to provide to all riders. While apps and the T’s website may be able to show live passenger counts for many buses, the information will not be nearly as fresh for the subways. Subway riders would instead be likely to receive information about crowding on given lines at given times, based on trends from recent days.

The issue with the subway is technical. Except for a handful of new cars on the Orange and Green lines, the fleet lacks modern sensors that tally riders as they board and exit. Instead, the T can determine subway ridership only retroactively, based on passenger entries at stations and the times between train arrivals.

Prior to the pandemic, the MBTA was equipping commuter rail cars with sensors to count passengers, but so far only about 20 percent of the fleet has them.

Counters are more common on buses, yet only half capture the information in real time. Those buses will probably be able to broadcast real-time ridership numbers.

The MBTA is still working to determine how information about crowding might be displayed, but officials it they probably wouldn’t simply provide raw ridership numbers. Instead, some other sort of terminology or label could be used to show the level of crowding, based on the T’s standards for the pandemic era, which range from 20 on buses to more than 60 on the Red Line.

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Laurel Paget-Seekins, an assistant general manager, said the T is still discussing whether crowding information based on recent trends should be displayed live on location, or exist as a sort of guide online for riders to consult.

The popular smartphone app Transit is already publishing crowd information for a few smaller US transit authorities. One need not look far for an example: The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which serves the Springfield-Northampton area, has passenger counters on its entire bus fleet and has published live ridership data for years.

“It was just info that was available . . . We had it, so it’s like, why not share it?" said Sandra Sheehan, the authority’s director. “Now it has a more important meaning. It can help individuals that are anxious.”

The PVTA website displays the location of buses and passenger counts for each vehicle. The Transit app renders that data as labels, such as “standing room only” or “many seats available,” plotted alongside a bus’s location.

Mitch Skyer, president of Passio Technologies, a company that develops passenger-count software, said many US transit systems have asked his company to lower crowding thresholds in order to communicate crowded conditions to riders.

“We can change the maximum load,” he said. “So if your bus could hold 50 in the past, but now you only want to hold 12, we can change that" setting.

Poftak said that for now the MBTA is focused on how to distribute the information it does have to riders. He did not close the door to equipping more buses as well as subway cars with the technology, but spokesman Joe Pesaturo said this is a large-scale undertaking that can’t be done quickly, requiring work alongside tracks as well as on vehicles.

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The historical data may actually be more useful for some riders, Paget-Seekins said, adding that riders were split in a survey sent by the T: Those planning a trip far in advance would prefer to know when vehicles are most likely to be empty, while someone waiting at a stop may want specific details about the vehicle they will soon board.

Ben Fried, a spokesman for the New York-based advocacy organization Transit Center, said US transit systems are not known for being tech savvy. But work over the past decade or so to publish real-time arrival information and service alerts on a variety of platforms should make it easier to disseminate crowding information.

While transit authorities should strive for real-time information, any information is better than none, Fried said.

“Ultimately, I think people will want that accuracy to feel trust in the system,” Fried said. But “I don’t want to dismiss the utility of recent historical data. If that’s the best agencies can do for now, by all means go ahead. Just don’t stop there.”


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