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Starts & Stops

Incentives offered for bus rapid transit

An MBTA bus used a dedicated lane converted from parking spaces on Broadway in Everett.
An MBTA bus used a dedicated lane converted from parking spaces on Broadway in Everett. (Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/File)

If you don’t know much — or anything — about “bus rapid transit,” the Barr Foundation wants that to change.

The Boston-based foundation is offering as much as $100,000 in grants to communities that want to adopt the transit system, which features bus-only lanes, on-board fare collection, and more comfortable stations. Cities from Mexico City to Cleveland have gone all-in on the idea to improve bus service.

Officials at the Barr Foundation, which is seeking proposals from cities and transit agencies, said the competition is designed to motivate cities that are willing to try new things to improve public transportation.

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“It rewards the ambitions of these municipalities,” said Mary Skelton Roberts, a senior program officer at the foundation. “We think that municipalities that have a plan in place and have engaged stakeholders on the ground really have a bit of a competitive advantage.”

The idea of improving bus service, with the goal of making it as convenient as the subway, has been gaining momentum. Skelton Roberts says more cities and agencies are realizing that the features of “bus rapid transit” can make a major impact without the expense of building new rail lines.

So what would some of these experiments look like?

The foundation has pointed to an ongoing test in Everett, where the mayor pushed to convert more than 100 parking spaces to a bus-only lane on a major thoroughfare. The pop-up bus lane, which goes into effect during the morning rush hour, has earned good reviews from riders, who are plentiful in Everett. Residents there take nearly 19,000 bus rides a day.

The MBTA has its own version of bus rapid transit on the Silver Line, which has its own tunnel and right-of-way in some sections. The City of Boston is collaborating with the MBTA to improve bus service on the line, which will eventually extend to Chelsea, a community that relies heavily on the bus system.

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The Barr Foundation is marketing the grants both to communities and transit agencies because bus rapid transit requires collaboration between public agencies. MBTA officials have previously pointed out that because they don’t own city streets, they can’t enforce bus-only lanes without the permission of transportation departments. And taking away a lane on a busy road is bound to produce some grumbling.

But supporters of better bus service insist that the complaints will be short-term.

“It allows municipalities to show, not tell, how good bus service could be,” Skelton Roberts said.


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.