MOST BOSTONIANS have come to accept the glacial pace of bus travel as just another unpleasant but immutable fact of life — like blizzards in the winter and the Yankees in the summer. But Beverly Scott, the MBTA’s general manager, announced a series of initiatives recently designed to speed travel on key bus routes. She is waging a good fight, which could ease commutes for residents in some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods — and she should build on this effort to launch other time-saving reforms.
The initiatives focus on 15 of the busiest bus lines, including the congested Route 1 between Dudley Square and Harvard Square and Route 28 that connects Ruggles and Mattapan. The plan would speed travel by lengthening some bus stops, adjusting traffic signals, and cutting the overall number of stops. The last part is likely to prove contentious — riders forced to walk a few more blocks are sure to howl. But the best way to run a bus faster is to stop it less; when the outcry comes, Scott should stick to her plans. The T projects the changes will make trips 10 to 15 percent faster.
One longstanding frustration the plan won’t fix, however, is delay caused by slow fare-collection — a problem the T needs to address next. In theory, electronic Charlie Cards should make boarding fast, since passengers only have to wave their card at a sensor on the farebox. But the magic only happens when cards actually have money on them. The reality is that boarding passengers often face a bottleneck of riders with empty cards, who have to load them up at the farebox, a singularly cumbersome process of uncrinkling bills, fumbling with coins, and deciphering complicated instructions. That defeats the whole purpose of the Charlie Card. It takes much longer to load a card that way than to drop coins in the till.
There is a better way. In the bus rapid-transit systems in some cities, passengers pay their fare before the bus arrives, passing through turnstile-like entrances to enclosed waiting areas. Experimenting with preboarding fare collection would be a worthy pilot program at a busy station somewhere in Boston.
In the meantime, the T should make it easier for passengers to load their Charlie Cards before the bus arrives. That means putting more machines in convenient locations, such as stores near bus stops.
The T should also reassess the fare structure on buses, which may be encouraging the wrong behavior. Right now, riders who use cash pay 50 cents more. That would seem to make sense: Giving a discount to riders who use a Charlie Card is an incentive to use one, saving everyone time. But in practice, many riders load a card with $1.50 for a single ride — saving themselves 50 cents, but achieving no time savings. To overcome this problem, the T should consider providing a bonus to passengers who load more than $20 on their card at a time, like the one that Washington’s Metrorail system once employed, which would reduce the incentive to reload a card for each trip.
Of course, cutting the number of riders loading cards at the farebox might only save a few seconds a trip. But then, getting rid of superfluous bus stops probably offers only marginal savings, too. Still, those seconds add up. Scott has started an overdue, if thankless, campaign to prove that Boston’s buses really can be faster and more reliable. She deserves riders’ support and patience.