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MBTA buses emerge as a lifeline during COVID-19. But different routes tell very different stories

Riders boarded the 109 bus at Sullivan Square.
Riders boarded the 109 bus at Sullivan Square.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

For months, the bus system has been the MBTA’s workhorse, shuttling essential workers around the region while many commuter rail and subway trains rumble nearly empty down the tracks.

But within the bus network, the primary transit option in many neighborhoods, different lines tell very different stories.

Some, like the normally popular routes through South Boston, are still drawing only small fractions of their pre-pandemic ridership. The 7 bus, which connects the neighborhood to the financial district, for example, reflects the kind of ghost town that Boston’s central business district has been since spring — fewer than 300 people ride each day, compared to nearly 5,000 earlier this year.

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But just a few miles away, the 109, from Sullivan Square through Everett to Malden, has regained more than 60 percent of its ridership. It’s one of about 20 bus lines that transports more than half the riders it did before the virus struck, according to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority data. And in recent weeks, its passengers have been substantially more likely to ride in what the MBTA now considers a crowded vehicle.

“It’s pretty packed,” said Doma Sherpa, who takes the 109 to the Orange Line on her way to a baby-sitting job in Boston. “If there’s too many people, there’s a chance to get infected . . . [But] I have to go to work to survive.”

The 7 and the 109 offer a study in the contrasts found throughout the transit system. Passengers on many of the routes that have regained much of their ridership are more likely to have lower incomes and no access to a car, compared to those on routes that have regained much smaller portions of their ridership. That indicates many of those riders hold jobs that can’t be done from home and have no other way to get to work or to other destinations.

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On the 7 bus, just 6 percent of the riders describe themselves as low-income, and only 19 percent have no access to a car, according to MBTA survey data.

“This is precisely the type of pattern where ridership has fallen most dramatically and is recovering the slowest,” said Philip Groth, a project manager for the MBTA.

But on the 109, about three in five riders are low-income and have no access to a car.

“I think it tells a story that we’ve known for a long time: We have a large community of folks who depend on the bus,” said Jay Monty, Everett’s transportation director.

The MBTA has long known that buses are essential to poorer riders and communities of color, and transit advocates for years have pushed to expand service on these routes. But the pandemic brought this dynamic to the forefront.

“What we’re seeing is that the people who are riding transit really need it,” said Ben Fried, spokesman for TransitCenter, a national transit advocacy group that has analyzed MBTA data during the pandemic. “The general contours of these patterns will probably last several months, at least,” he added, since so many white-collar office commuters remain at home.

The pandemic has also introduced a crucial new consideration: the need to minimize crowding to allow social distancing.

The MBTA has adopted a much stricter standard for crowding than it used before the virus. Previously, buses were considered crowded under a complicated metric that shifted by time of day; if more than 55 riders were onboard at rush hour, for example, it was considered “uncomfortable.”

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Now, most buses are considered crowded at 20 riders.

Since mid-June, bus passengers have been stuck in crowded conditions 10 to 14 percent of the time, and more often on some routes, such as the 109. Riders faced uncomfortable conditions less than 10 percent of the time before the pandemic, though officials stress that a direct comparison is difficult because of the changed thresholds.

The MBTA is posting crowding information for some routes online, but conditions can be hard to predict.

“Sometimes there’s a lot of people, sometimes there’s not,” said Tyrel Stevenson, who rides the bus in Everett to a security job in Boston. “It depends on the day.”

This summer, the MBTA’s strategy has been to guarantee baseline bus frequencies that were generally lower than pre-pandemic levels, then deploy extra buses to crowded lines.

On some still-busy routes, like the 111 from Chelsea, that approach has spurred similar or even increased levels of service, compared to before the pandemic, said Kat Benesh, the MBTA’s chief of operations, strategy, policy, and oversight.

“We tried to move those flexible resources to those routes in the short term, and in the longer term, when we change our schedules on a quarterly basis, we’ll change to account for the fact that there’s more crowding,” Benesh said.

Longer-term schedule adjustments are coming at the end of August, which will expand bus service across most of the system. Some popular routes, like the 109 and the 104, which travels a similar route and shares many of the same demographics and ridership trends, will receive even greater boosts. Other lines, however, will remain reduced or even suspended, to push more service to routes with worse crowding.

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What riders gain in more scheduled buses, however, they’ll lose in flexible added service when routes are busy. Once the changes go into effect, about 5 percent of buses and drivers will be deployed as needed, compared to the current 30 percent — a reflection of the finite number of vehicles in the MBTA fleet. While the MBTA has about 60 buses on order, they won’t be available for at least several months, and the T will need to build new garages if it hopes to add more.

“You can’t change overnight that the T has had a shortage of buses for some time now, and a shortage of places to even store the buses,” said Jarred Johnson, director of the local group TransitMatters.

That’s one reason the MBTA has been pushing cities to implement bus-only lanes on their streets: Faster service could allow buses to run more often. For several years, the 109 and 104 have used a bus-only lane through part of Everett in the morning, though buses are often slowed by traffic as they approach Sweetser Circle. Monty, the Everett official, said the city plans to soon repaint the traffic circle to essentially create a bus lane through it.

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“We really want to reduce delay,” he said. “When buses run faster, we can run more trips and reduce crowding.”


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