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Will they or won’t they? Getting people back to the office means getting people back on the MBTA

Business leaders urge Mass. transportation officials to ‘bring your A game’ to revive public transit this fall

Commuters, all masked up, rode the Red Line into Boston last week.
Commuters, all masked up, rode the Red Line into Boston last week.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

The success of getting people back to the office hinges on the MBTA.

Uh-oh is right.

Employers are understandably nervous. In the pandemic age, it’s not so much signal problems or faulty new trains that worry them the most. These days it’s whether commuters feel comfortable riding by bus, train, or subway.

If they don’t, people will probably drive, which could worsen Boston’s notorious congestion as a new crop of commuters hits the roads. More to the point, employees could decide it’s easier to work from home than making the hellish trek downtown.

“We need to work as hard as we can to ensure the commute isn’t the reason employees aren’t coming in,” said Rick Dimino, president of A Better City, a business group that focuses on transportation issues. “If everybody gets into their car, we know the highway system will fail.”

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As COVID-19 has been brought under control, more of us have eaten at a restaurant, visited a hair salon, and returned to shopping in stores without one-way aisles. Few of us have been clamoring to ride the T, primarily because many people can work remotely. That’s going to change after Labor Day when more companies reopen their offices and expect employees to be back in person at least once or twice a week.

Ridership on public transit has been growing since we emerged from COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020, but the numbers remain far below normal. Average weekday subway ridership, for example, is only 35 percent of what it was in June 2019, while the weekday average for the commuter rail is about 23 percent of June 2019 levels. Bus ridership has rebounded more strongly, but it’s still only averaging 54 percent of pre-pandemic numbers.

It’s especially telling that demand lags even though the MBTA, with the help of nearly $2 billion in federal aid, has restored service to about 90 percent of 2019 levels.

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The uncertainty of commutes looms large enough that it has shaped the reentry strategy for 800 employees at Putnam Investments’ downtown Boston headquarters. After Labor Day, the financial firm will roll out a hybrid workplace initially by dividing employees into three groups, working one week in the office, two weeks at home on a rotating basis. The schedule will be phased in over six weeks so workers can figure out which type of transportation they are most comfortable with. After that, managers will reassess what kind of in-office schedule works.

Prior to the pandemic, about 65 percent of Putnam employees took public transit to work. In surveys, workers have ranked transportation as one of their biggest concerns about coming back. They’re particularly worried about frequency of service and the ability to socially distance if trains become crowded again.

Putnam chief executive Bob Reynolds said the MBTA has to do a better job communicating to commuters that it’s doing all it can to reduce the spread of COVID-19. He wants his employees back on public transit and would like the state to spend even more of its federal rescue money to improve the experience, such as by adding train cars to allow for more social distancing.

“Now is the time to really make a statement,” said Reynolds. “The more people you have taking public transportation, the better it is for business, the better it is for the economy, and to get back to more normal circumstances.”

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Transit systems across the country are grappling with how to lure back riders. In May, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York launched a marketing campaign with hashtags #TakeTheTrain and #TakeTheBus. In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit is offering riders a 50 percent fare discount in September.

You may have missed it, but the MBTA rolled out its own marketing effort, dubbed “We’re Ready,” on July 5. The system also has a hashtag campaign, #RideSafer, that highlights how masks are mandatory for riders, regardless of vaccination status, and that the system is vigilant about disinfecting trains and buses.

One reassuring fact I learned: The air on MBTA buses and trains is filtered, recycled, and refreshed every 60 seconds, and completely exchanged at least 10 times every hour when vehicle doors open to allow fresh air in. That’s more frequently than other indoor spaces such as offices and hospitals.

Steve Poftak, general manager of the MBTA, said he doesn’t have firm projections on what ridership will look like after Labor Day, but expects numbers to rise gradually rather than dramatically.

“We believe we have an appropriate level of service,” said Poftak.

As for whether the MBTA can readily add capacity to allow for more social distancing, that’s more easily accomplished on the commuter rail than on subway cars and buses, though, between the pandemic and a labor shortage, hiring and training drivers has been slow-going.

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Poftak said the MBTA has been attuned to changing patterns of commuting and has made adjustments. Instead of the traditional rush hours, people are using transit throughout the day because of more flexible schedules. He expects that to continue.

That has meant shifting more subway service to the middle hours of the day, and adopting “clock face” schedules for the commuter rail with at least one train leaving at the same time every hour. That eliminates the need for riders to memorize complicated schedules.

Offering incentives such as fare discounts seem like a no-brainer, but don’t hold your breath. The MBTA probably won’t replicate what San Francisco is doing, Poftak told me, at least “not right now.”

”Running reliable service that goes to the places they want is the best way to get people back,” he added.

In full disclosure, I have not taken the T since March 2020. Now that I’m vaccinated and up to speed on the T’s public health protocols and service, I feel comfortable boarding a train full of strangers, and confident that I’ll get to where I’m going on time.

Plus, I don’t think driving will be a viable option in the fall, based on the traffic I see now even as many people still work from home.

The biggest challenge for the MBTA may be public relations. It’s spending $40,000 on radio ads for the “We’re Ready” campaign; the rest is being done in-house, relying on billboards at stations and on vehicles, and social media. There will be a second phase in mid-August — with a bigger budget — aimed at commuters returning to the office.

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Let’s hope the T goes big on marketing. There’s a lot of convincing to be done; we shouldn’t underestimate people’s reluctance to get back on public transit. If they stay away, the result would be bad for the environment and for a downtown that thrives on foot traffic.

The MBTA should absolutely be offering welcome-back discounts; the half-price program in San Francisco is only projected to cost that system about $4 million. Here’s another idea: How about free parking at commuter rail lots for the month of September?

C.A. Webb — president of the Kendall Square Association, whose member companies rely on transit — said the post-Labor Day period will be a big test for the MBTA, but also a chance to eradicate longstanding perceptions.

Her message to T brass: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ... We need you to bring your A game, functioning at the highest level possible, to re-instill confidence.”



Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.