It’s less than a mile long, but for Massachusetts, a busy stretch of Columbus Avenue featuring new bus-only lanes represents a big step in giving public transit priority over cars on the region’s notoriously jammed streets.
The first bus lanes in the state that run down the center of a street will debut on Saturday in Boston, outfitted with new ramp-accessible boarding platforms, lit shelters with seating, arrival time information screens, and traffic-slowing crosswalks and curbs.
Touting the improved experience for bus riders, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has similar projects planned for other neighborhoods in Boston, and in Cambridge and Lynn.
“If you’ve ever ridden a bus on this street, you know that pre-center running bus lane you’ve got lots of traffic, lots of congestion,” MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said at a recent board of directors meeting. “Now folks are going to have a straight shot. . . . It’s an important commitment to the Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods, it’s a commitment to our bus customers, and it’s symbolic of what we want to get done with our bus system.”
But not everyone is convinced of the benefits. Residents and business owners along Columbus Avenue are worried about the new traffic restrictions and the loss of parking spaces.
“It’s a mix of emotions,” said Carmen Peña, 38, owner of La Parada Dominican Kitchen in Egleston Square. “I’m happy that new people will be able to get here more easily, especially those who rely on the bus, but worried about clients who can’t park.”
What was once a 0.7 mile stretch of four-lane road is now divided into one lane in each direction for cars on the outside and two lanes for buses in the center, painted red. There are four bus stops along the redesigned corridor from Walnut Avenue to Jackson Square with 9-inch-tall platforms on either side of the center lanes.
Bus lanes have popped up throughout Boston and surrounding cities and towns in recent years, but all are curbside. Putting the dedicated lanes in the center of the street will remove buses from car traffic and should eliminate slowdowns caused by curbside parking and loading so that buses can get to their stops on time and run more frequently. The city added loading zones to side streets that intersect with Columbus Avenue for businesses to use for deliveries.
There are now 116 curbside parking spaces along this stretch of Columbus, 52 fewer than before, according to Boston’s Department of Transportation. A city study found that many of the avenue’s parking spaces are used for commuter or employee parking, not residential parking.
Waiting for a bus along this section of Columbus should feel similar to waiting for the subway. Riders are protected from the elements in bus shelters that will feature audio announcements of arrival information. Security cameras and emergency buttons adorn each stop, and soon Charlie Card-enabled fare machines will too.
Just over two years in the making, the $11 million Columbus Avenue project signals a shift from the longstanding priority of moving as many vehicles as possible to moving as many people as possible, said Julia Wallerce of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which advocates for more bus-priority infrastructure.
“The bus has been the last resort that you take if you have no options,” she said. “For that to change we need to make it the best option.”
City and MBTA planners chose Columbus for the project because the three bus lines along this stretch — the 22, 29, and 44 — maintained high ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 22 bus has the highest so far, now back to 80 percent of pre-COVID weekday trips as of mid-October, according to MBTA data analyzed by TransitMatters, a transportation advocacy group. That’s compared to 58 percent of pre-COVID weekday ridership for the whole subway and bus system.
Planners estimate the new lanes will save bus riders between four and seven minutes in travel time. Bus service typically has the worst on-time performance of the three major transit modes, and the 29 in particular has struggled, according to MBTA data.
Marlon Givens, 43, relies on the 22 bus to commute between Dorchester and work at Lawson’s Barber Shop on Columbus Avenue. During construction, his commute has lengthened, souring him on the project. Clients tell him they are frustrated about parking and new turning restrictions, and he’s worried the project is costing the shop business.
“I don’t think it’s going to make a difference,” he said. “It’s a hassle, there’s nowhere to park.”
Guy Harris, 52, a librarian at the Egleston Square branch of the Boston Public Library, helped host several public meetings about the project. He’s happy to see traffic-slowing measures such as a new crosswalk with flashing signals just outside the library. But already, Harris said, drivers are breaking new traffic rules that prohibit left turns and U-turns across the center bus lanes in certain areas. Some are even blowing through the new crosswalk while the lights are flashing.
During construction, he’s noticed the car traffic is more backed up than before. Library patrons tell him they’re having a harder time finding parking.
“They’re not acknowledging that until everything changes, you’re just frustrating people who have to drive,” Harris said. “I don’t think they’re selling the benefits well enough.”
The benefits, the T and transit advocates say, extend beyond improved bus service. The new center lanes are the first of many that planners envision throughout Greater Boston to encourage commuters to switch from cars to transit to reduce emissions and congestion.
Top of the list is extending the Columbus corridor to Ruggles Station, using $12 million in federal funding and $2 million from the city and the MBTA. Planners hope to finish the extension by the end of 2023.
Next on the list is also in Boston, on Blue Hill Avenue from Mattapan Square to Warren Street, and another one in Lynn, along the Lynnway from the General Edwards Bridge to Central Square Station. Both are in the design phase for center-running bus lanes, and planners hope to secure federal grants to cover most of their cost.
Similar bus priority projects are being conceptualized for Cambridge, along Massachusetts Ave. from Memorial Drive to Central Square, and in Boston, on Malcolm X Boulevard from Nubian Station to Columbus Ave., the MBTA said.
But another center bus lane project, along Summer Street in the Seaport District in Boston, is on the back burner following opposition from the Massachusetts Port Authority, which owns much of the developed land in the district. MBTA planners say the 7 bus that runs on Summer Street has not regained as much ridership as other routes they are prioritizing.
The center-running bus lanes on Columbus Avenue are the first in New England, according to the MBTA. They have taken off in cities across Latin America and Asia. And the concepts are starting to catch on in the United States, too. As of 2019, 10 U.S. cities — Cleveland, Eugene, Ore., Fort Collins, Colo., Hartford, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., San Bernardino, Calif., and South Miami — had implemented “bus rapid transit” corridors, some center-running, some not, according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Kat Benesh, chief of operations strategy, policy and oversight at the MBTA, is hopeful that people will become more confident of turning over portions of their streets to buses once they see them in action.
”We’re building proof for the region that this is a worthy investment,” she said. “It’s moving as many people as safely and quickly as possible.”