The tired city bus, an old cog of the urban transit system that suffers from poor service and declining ridership, is about to get some love.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is unveiling two projects this month to expand bus service, beefing up some existing routes and launching a new branch of the Silver Line that will go to Chelsea. They are just the start of what officials hope will be a revival of bus service in the Boston area.
Like transit planners across the country, the MBTA has prioritized buses because they are a less expensive and quicker way to improve overall service. Bus lines are not nearly as expensive as rail lines and are more flexible to operate.
“It’s the area we can actually impact the fastest, because it doesn’t require us building a bunch of infrastructure upgrades,” said Luis Ramirez, the T’s general manager.
The MBTA and advocates who have pressed for better service have coalesced around the bus system as low-hanging fruit that could provide dramatic improvements in public transit. Cities around the world have been looking for ways to make buses run better, boosting service levels, crafting new routes, speeding up trips, and combatting the car traffic that turns riders off from buses. Slowly, and modestly, these ideas are beginning to sprout in Boston.
Notably, some activists have used the proposal by a private real estate developer to build an overhead gondola system in the Seaport District as an opportunity to argue that buses are by far the better and more cost-efficient solution to traffic congestion.
“For too long the narrative has been that the only way to fix the T is to spend billions of dollars on mega-projects,” said Stacy Thompson, director of the nonprofit Livable Streets Alliance, an advocacy group pushing for better buses. “I think this is a hopeful time for buses.”
Greater Boston’s bus system is already massive, providing about 400,000 rides a day, second only to the subway system. Many bus routes serve low-income and minority neighborhoods that are not near subways, including communities where the rapid transit system was removed decades ago and replaced by buses.
Yet buses are also the T’s least reliable mode of transit, with only about two-thirds of all bus trips arriving on time on any given day. Boston’s infamous congestion doesn’t help, nor do crowded vehicles, which can slow boarding.
And with the rise of alternatives like Uber, bus ridership has been dropping at an alarming rate. Despite jam-packed buses on certain lines at certain hours, weekday MBTA bus ridership fell more than 7 percent from 2014 to November 2017, and by more than 12 percent on Saturdays.
Transit activists say the best way to fight back is to improve bus service overall, and the T is hoping to do just that.
In the short term, the MBTA is adding more early-morning trips on 10 bus lines and will start service earlier in the day on several routes that get busy before dawn.
It will be more convenient for early-morning workers, and new routes could result in increased rush-hour capacity by spreading more riders over the course of a morning, Ramirez said.
On April 21, the T will open a new branch of the Silver Line to serve Chelsea. Crucially, the line will run on bus-only roadways along portions of the route in the Seaport District and in Chelsea, which should make the service faster and more reliable.
However, the new service is not expected to ease congestion on Silver Line buses in the Seaport, which are so crowded that passengers must sometimes wait for several buses to leave before they can board at South Station.
Other upcoming initiatives should also result in improved bus service.
The MBTA is moving to an all-electronic, no-cash fare system that will allow passengers to board through both front and rear doors. The T predicts these actions will shorten boarding times, cutting as much as 10 percent off the time of a bus trip.
The T is also considering an all-night bus service, proposed by the advocacy group Transit Matters, between Chelsea and Mattapan that would stop at South Station and Logan Airport. The authority is also working with Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge to install technology that automatically changes traffic lights to speed buses through certain intersections.
Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking is quietly bubbling under the surface: a review of every bus route, potentially leading to schedule or route changes and the purchasing of more buses to meet demand.
That last idea is of particular interest to some advocates, who note that a few cities have bucked the trend of falling bus ridership. Houston redrew its entire bus map a few years back, and ridership rebounded after years of decline, inspiring other transit systems to consider changes, said Jon Orcutt, communications director for the national advocacy group Transit Center.
“They’re taking ownership of the fact that these cities have changed,” Orcutt said. “You have to have that kind of approach, a rolling review of how bus routes are performing.”
But the T does not control the one thing that may influence bus service more than anything else: traffic on local roads.
“This is an area where we need to see municipalities take the lead,” Thompson said. “Our municipalities are a little behind the curve, in terms of their peers around the country.”
The T has been prodding municipal governments, including Boston’s, to take steps like reserving traffic or parking lanes for buses. It’s common elsewhere; London, New York, Cleveland, and Seattle have cordoned off sections of city streets for buses, while others have dedicated long stretches of road for “bus rapid transit” systems with big stations and raised platforms for faster boarding.
This spring, Boston will test a bus-only lane on a notoriously congested strip of Washington Street in Roslindale. Parking will be banned on one side during the morning rush. Everett set aside a stretch of Broadway for buses, Somerville recently created a bus lane near Union Square, and more are coming to Arlington, Cambridge, and Watertown.
Transit advocates and philanthropic groups, including the Barr Foundation, have been pushing for changes to improve the T’s bus service. The Cambridge, Watertown, and Arlington proposals are all funded by grants from Barr.
In March, the Livable Streets Alliance called for bus-only lanes in other parts of Boston. They could also be outfitted with the traffic-light technology, the group says.
So far, Boston has no set plans for bus lanes beyond the Roslindale test. But Gina Fiandaca, the city’s transportation commissioner, said officials are “definitely taking a look at where high demand is” to consider other possible bus lanes.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.