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Planning your return to the MBTA? Here’s what you missed in the last six months

Governor Charlie Baker said he considers the MBTA safe. But an epidemiologist says bigger crowds will raise risks.
Governor Charlie Baker said he considers the MBTA safe. But an epidemiologist says bigger crowds will raise risks.Erin Clark / Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Nothing signals the end of summer quite like the sudden swell of sun-kissed commuters jamming back onto the MBTA after Labor Day.

Except this year.

While the return of college students and a slowly reopening economy may slightly boost ridership, much of the transit system will probably still have that empty feel of a summer Sunday. Most office workers remain in work-from-home mode, schools start late, the Red Sox play without fans, and thousands displaced by the pandemic do not have a job to commute to.

Nevertheless, it’s been a busy six months at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, with a pandemic layered over all of the problems from before, back when the condition of the aging transit system was an urgent political issue. What we learned in the interim is that trains and buses aren’t necessarily rolling virus factories, the T can indeed move quickly to adjust service, and that it’s easier to upgrade century-old infrastructure when barely anyone is using it.

Some highlights:

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So, is it safe?

At the outset of the pandemic, public transit was widely seen as a huge risk for obvious reasons: Commuters crowded into tight spaces, breathing on each other and leaving germs all over straps, poles and other surfaces touched by thousands of hands.

But advocates have excitedly pointed to research showing there have been few, if any, outbreaks traced to public transportation.

Mohamed Mezghani, head of the International Association of Public Transport in Europe, recently tweeted that transit seems safe because people generally are wearing masks, don’t speak at loud volumes that spread more particles, and are onboard for short periods of time.

Even Governor Charlie Baker said he “absolutely” considers the MBTA safe to ride.

It’s important to note, however, that this is partially due to small crowds, and maintaining thinned ridership will be “essential” going forward, said Melissa Perry, a George Washington University epidemiologist. A crowded train where everybody wore a mask would still be a risk.

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“Face coverings combined with physical distance, that really reduces droplet spread,” she said.

While the current scientific thinking is the virus is mostly transmitted through airborne particles, Perry advised riders to continue using hand sanitizer because commonly touched surfaces like subway poles still shouldn’t be considered safe.

Pro tip: Bring your own sanitizer. While the MBTA has installed dispensers in several stations, they aren’t always full.

You are required to wear a mask to ride the T. But the agency has faced criticism from riders and its drivers union over enforcement, as it won’t refuse service to mask-less passengers. Some have also complained that T employees don’t always properly cover up.

Jarred Johnson, director of the advocacy group TransitMatters, said about 90 percent of riders he has seen on the T have worn masks. He suggested the T hand out masks on vehicles and in stations to cut down on at least some of the holdouts.

Ventilation is also crucial. General manager Steve Poftak said subway cars circulate air at a rate superior to most office buildings, and officials say bus operators will open windows as temperatures fall. At stations, where a delayed train could mean a long wait, many doors are also being propped open, both to increase air flow and prevent people from having to touch them.

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Is it crowded?

For now, commuters can probably expect room to spread out, but that depends on what you’re riding. Among the subway lines, the Blue Line has seen the most appreciable return, though even there ridership is about 40 percent of prepandemic levels.

The bus network is a different story, as it has higher numbers of people whose jobs can’t be done remotely or who rely on transit for non-work trips. Some routes serving low-income communities have recovered more than half their ridership, and it can be a struggle to find even a couple feet of social distance. Other routes, especially those serving largely white-collar workers, are less crowded.

Of the three modes, the commuter rail is the one that still looks most like a ghost ship, with less than 10 percent of prior ridership. Because riders are more likely to own a car or work an office job, that will probably remain the case a while. At a recent rush hour at South Station, maybe two dozen people were scattered across the lobby, a stark contrast from the mob scenes of the past. Onboard, riders have little trouble getting a three-seat bench to themselves.

Overall, a transit system that once provided a million trips a day with its many forms of transportation is now providing less than 30 percent of that.

Yes, the T can innovate

Rapid transit is not often associated with rapid change. But the MBTA has won praise from local and national advocacy groups for adapting service. For most of the summer, the T kept some buses and drivers unassigned to specific routes so they could be deployed where capacity was needed. The agency has since boosted scheduled frequencies, dedicating more buses to busy routes.

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The goal is to have enough service to match ridership while keeping most 40-foot buses under 20 passengers. The subway has similar targets, generally aimed at maintaining three feet of space between passengers.

But this is a goal, not a requirement, and it is decidedly not always met, especially on busier routes at busier times, or during a delay. Bus drivers can ask for permission to skip stops if they believe their vehicle is too crowded.

There is also more helpful information available at your fingertips: Through its website and the Transit smartphone app, the T now relays crowding levels on individual buses for many routes — information that could help riders with flexible travel times shift plans. It is not available on subways and commuter trains, which don’t have the same passenger counting technology as buses.

Despite losing hundreds of millions of dollars in fare revenue, the T is cutting some riders a break in hopes of thinning crowds. It has lowered the $7 commuter rail fare between Boston and Lynn to $2.40, the cost of a subway ride, through December, a bid to shift riders who usually take buses to the Blue Line to less crowded commuter trains. The MBTA has said it will consider similar measures elsewhere.

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Aside from the pandemic, the T introduced a new fare policy for the Fairmount Line, allowing free transfers to buses and the Red Line, a boon for its passengers who have long pushed for more subway-like service. The T also lowered fares across the system for riders who pay in cash, bringing them in line with those who use CharlieCards, a nod to poorer riders who rely on cash fares.

What’s gotten done?

Some heavy-duty construction projects got a bump during the pandemic, with the lull in ridership allowing the T to accelerate work that would otherwise take much longer. Parts of the Red and Blue lines were shut entirely for tunnel repairs, elevator improvements, and track replacements that allow trains to run at higher speeds.

Two branches of the Green Line were also closed for one month this summer for track replacements and intersection improvements; these projects were planned before the pandemic, but were much less disruptive with ridership so low.

Meanwhile, the pandemic helped accelerate one of the T’s biggest initiatives: improving bus service by getting municipalities to dedicate portions of their roads to just MBTA vehicles. The lanes can shorten the amount of time riders are onboard and allow more frequent trips. The agency and several cities have announced plans to install about 14 miles of bus lanes in the coming months.

But for Red or Orange line riders hoping to return to a fleet of spiffy new subway cars, no such luck: The roll-out of dozens of new cars proceeds at a more typically glacial pace. Just one new Orange Line train has come online during the pandemic, bringing the total to three, and the Red Line is still awaiting its first new six-car set, as officials cite the pandemic for the delay.

Meanwhile, the expansion of the Green Line through Somerville, scheduled for completion late next year, is past the point of no return, with the recent removal of the Lechmere viaduct, and officials have issued two key construction contracts for the commuter rail expansion to New Bedford and Fall River.

Is it any better?

There are some signs of improved performance. Buses continue to have better on-time arrivals, attributed in part to adjustments made even before the pandemic, as well as emptier streets. Ironically, the pandemic saw an uptick in buses running off schedule because they arrived at their stops too early, rather than too late.

Subway lines are running at about the same on-time performance levels as before, though the Green Line branches and the Blue Line should run slightly faster because of those track upgrades.

Service alerts show that there continue to be delays and breakdowns here and there. The commuter rail, however, has had some of its best performance since the T began regularly publishing on-time data.

This may reflect how performance is often as dependent on the number of people queuing up to board and leave as it is on the age of equipment — underlining that, with or without a pandemic, crowds matter. So when the time comes that we can all safely get back onboard, remember to stay clear of the doors. And best to keep washing those hands, too.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that MBTA fares for commuter rail riders boarding or deboarding in Lynn cost $2.40, the same as a subway trip. Some conductors have allowed those passengers to simply show a Charlie Card, essentially riding for free, but T policy is they have to buy a separate Zone 1A ticket.