On mornings when Orange Line trains arrive at Sullivan Square already jammed to the gills, Spaulding sometimes crosses the platform and travels outbound for a stop or two, and then switches back to an inbound train that has more room.
“I know if I go north I can get on a train, but if I wait at Sullivan I don’t know when I can get on,” said Spaulding, a 35-year-old Medford resident who works for an insurance firm. “I laugh about it all the time, how absurd it is.”
With increasing development around transit stops, more companies relocating into the city, and delays along T routes, riders say overcrowding has substantially worsened on parts of the system. Parts of the Orange and Red lines, and some bus trips, are near or over the T’s capacity during the morning commute. Commuters are forced to routinely let packed buses and trains pass by before finding one with room — or go outbound in order to go inbound, as Spaulding does.
“The past 12 to 18 months have by far been much busier and congested than the first five years I have been here,” Spaulding said. “The downtown job market is good and people want to live as close to their job as possible.”
Red Line regulars have posted similar tales as Spaulding on social media, traveling outbound from busy Cambridge or Quincy stations to catch an inbound train at a less-crowded stop, while bus riders say they walk farther out to get on a bus before it overfills.
“I don’t mind having to stand,” said Amy Bucher, an Orange Line commuter who often waits until after rush hour to avoid the crowds. “I mind when you can’t see the space between another human being, because people are so closely packed together. ... You can’t even get a hand on one of the bars, so I’m basically relying on the fact that other people are pressed against me in every direction to keep me upright.”
While crowding may seem like a separate annoyance than the perpetual service delays on an aging system, the issues are closely linked. The longer it takes for a train to arrive, and the less consistently they arrive on time, the larger the crowds at the platforms and the less space available on the train when it finally arrives. Meanwhile, the longer it takes for passengers to squeeze on and off of crowded vehicles, the more the trains or buses fall behind schedule.
Randy Clarke, a vice president with the American Public Transit Association who formerly worked at the MBTA, said transit systems will always be crowded during rush hour — which shows the system is being well used.
“You don’t want to buy new trains and have 20 percent capacity,” he said. However, “there’s no question that if you’re traveling in the opposite direction to go the other direction, then yeah, you get to a threshold level that’s counterproductive to encouraging ridership.”
While the T has seen reduced ridership in the last year, perhaps in part to subway riders using Uber and Lyft, that is happening mostly during off-peak hours. Officials say rush hour has continued to live up to its name — and many riders say it has gotten worse.
MBTA leaders say scheduled improvements to address delays and service hiccups that plague the system will reduce overcrowding. New train cars, new signal systems, and even new data collection methods to improve planning, will add significant capacity, said Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.
But these changes are years off; in the meantime, the T’s short-term fixes are limited. On mornings it has enough cars available to accommodate demand on the Red Line, the T has been deploying an extra inbound train just south of downtown Boston. The agency has also installed marking tape on platforms at some stations to control crowds during boarding and unloading.
“We appreciate our customers’ willingness to put up with crowding where it exists on the system and we want to do what we can,” Pollack said.
The T has a little more wiggle room on the bus system, where it can bring more vehicles into service on busy routes. It did this last year on two busy routes out of South Boston — the 7 and 9 buses. Complaints about crowding on these routes have since decreased, according to the T, while on-time performance on those lines has improved.
Pollack said officials are studying the entire bus network to understand where adding more buses might help — which could result in new bus purchases.
On the commuter rail, certain rush-hour trains are so full of passengers standing in the aisles that conductors cannot get through to collect fares. Keolis Commuter Services, the private company that operates the service for the MBTA, recently added another car to its busiest morning train on the Worcester line to reduce crowding. Keolis has also added to the number of coaches in use across the system, with about 370 on the rails on a given day.
“There is more capacity than ever before on the network,” spokesman Tory Mazzola said.
He said Keolis regularly adjusts the size of its trainsets based on reviews of ridership and capacity.
Pollack said that some commuter rail passengers would prefer to stand rather than squeeze into a middle seat on vehicles, making crowding worse. Sitting passengers, meanwhile, don’t help when they put their bags on an open seat — not just on the commuter rail, but on buses and subways, too. The push-pull between boarding and debarking passengers can also add to delays.
“There are things we can try to educate our riders on,” Pollack said. “Etiquette that would help themselves and their fellow riders have a less uncomfortable ride.”
Looking further ahead, new trains and signal systems are scheduled to be in place on the Red and Orange lines by 2023, cutting waits between trains by more than a minute. The T expects this increased frequency will create more room for passengers immediately, and also allow both lines to accommodate additional ridership from nearby real estate complexes under development.
Similarly, the T expects bus service to speed up by eliminating cash payments on board vehicles by 2020, allowing passengers to enter through front and back doors, and establishing more bus-only lanes on municipal streets. The quicker routes would allow for more frequent service and less-crowded buses.
The T also expects to get a more precise handling on commuter rail crowding, with new technology that will keep running counts of how many passengers board each train. That will help the agency determine which lines could use more cars.
Several transit systems in other cities have experimented with different prices or other incentives to encourage people to travel during off-peak hours. The T would be able to try similar staggered rates when it has a new electronic fare collection system in 2020. But spokesman Joe Pesaturo said differing fares would only come after “conversations and discussions to fully understand the various perspectives and potential impacts.”
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.