Could bus-only lanes ease Everett’s commute woes?
EVERETT — In a city with no subway stations but plenty of bus stops, the solution to public transit delays seems at once simple and innovative: a bus-only lane during the rush hours.
Residents here take nearly 19,000 bus rides a day, a steady rumble through the downtown that regularly slows traffic to a crawl.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is trying to speed things up. From 4 to 9 a.m., one lane of the city’s main thoroughfare is now reserved for MBTA buses, giving them a clear path down a busy stretch of Broadway.
The new effort, which officials decided earlier this month to extend indefinitely, marks the MBTA’s first extensive bus-only lane besides the one for the Silver Line in Boston —
which in places also has its own tunnel — largely because the prospect of closing a lane of traffic or parking tends to draw sharp opposition. In Everett, the lane is usually reserved for parked cars.
“While we operate the buses, we don’t control the streets,” said Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary. “So having a great partner like the City of Everett that’s willing to give the bus lane a try, even at the cost of a few parking spaces, is really exciting.”
Pollack said the experiment is promising and could provide a model for similar projects in traffic-snarled areas, where the bus is often seen as the least desirable form of public transportation. Preliminary data from the city show that the bus lane has sped up rides by about four minutes.
In a region where the complaints of commuter rail and subway riders seem to take precedence, the plight of bus passengers — overcrowding, traffic, and persistent delays — are often overlooked. But the MBTA has been trying to change that, embarking on a long-delayed plan to review bus routes across the system in hopes of improving service.
In Everett, where many residents rely on public transportation, city officials had pressed the state for a transit study, which recently recommended the bus lanes.
Jay Monty, Everett’s transportation planner, said the city has wanted to “take transit into its own hands” for some time, and that focusing on bus service was an obvious choice.
“It’s pretty simple to put some cones down and just see what happens,” he said.
Monty described the morning rush for bus commuters with a single world: brutal. From 4 a.m. to 9 a.m., demand for buses is so high that passengers often get left at the curb.
Once on a bus, riders must endure a crawl down Broadway while packed together like sardines. For many, it’s only the first leg of the commute, usually to Wellington Station in Medford or Boston’s Sullivan Square.
The bus lane has caused some consternation, though. City Councilor Michael McLaughlin said businesses were caught unaware, and he worries they may be hurt by the reduced parking, about 130 spots by the MBTA’s count.
Like others, he noted that the bus lane doesn’t help the city’s worst traffic area, the stretch of Route 99 toward Boston, which during rush hour is often hopelessly snarled.
Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria said he understands the concerns, but hopes people will give the idea a chance.
“I know certain people want to park in front of their favorite coffee shop, and they might be bothered by it a little while, but once it becomes instituted, people change their ways,” he said. “We understand that not everyone’s going to be happy, but this is long-term thinking.”
Monty said he has received little negative feedback, and noticed that traffic on Broadway has been flowing a bit smoother.
Earlier this month, Monty spent some mornings looking for problem areas along the route. Predictably, some drivers had flouted the parking ban, but the lanes were mostly clear.
One day, two men sauntered out of a red pickup truck parked in the middle of the bus lane. The driver of a passing 97 bus was not pleased.
“You can’t stay here,” he told them, flinging his door open. “You can’t stay here!”
“Calm down,” the driver replied. “How am I supposed to know?”
Nearby, orange cones blocked off the lane. Signs on the parking meters read “No Parking OR STOPPING.”
On the bus, Kathlen Dos Santos said she thought the lane was helpful, but only to a point. Traffic will still be an issue, she said, especially on Route 99.
But as someone without a car, she hopes the change becomes permanent. City officials are hoping the same.
“Half of the people who move through this quarter are on a bus already,” Monty said. “We’re not impacting many folks in a negative way with this, but the number of people benefiting is so much larger.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of Wellington Station. It is in Medford.