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Quick fixes for MBTA buses: Let buses trip green lights

When one of the most heavily traveled bus routes in Boston is nicknamed “the snail,” the city has a problem. The 28 bus, which plods between Mattapan and Roxbury along Blue Hill Avenue, is scheduled to take 38 minutes during rush hour. That’s an average speed of about 7 miles per hour. And the reality is often much worse — not just for riders, but for employers in a region that depends economically on public transit.

Governor Patrick's push for a tax hike for transportation and education, along with recent weather-related breakdowns on the MBTA's key rail lines, has reignited the debate over whether and how to get more money into the region's cash-strapped transit system. Yet some problems along the T's bus lines result not from money problems but from a failure of cooperation between the T and its host communities.

The MBTA usually bears the brunt of riders' frustrations, but the City of Boston should do a lot more to make the 28, and other key bus routes, run more quickly. For starters, the city ought to allow the buses to control stoplights in order to move more quickly through crowded intersections — a cheap, proven solution that will help speed travel times. In essence, "signal prioritization" equipment sends a signal from the bus to the light, holding the light green until the bus passes. A Northeastern study found that giving buses priority at intersections around Ruggles Station, for instance, would cut more than a minute off average round-trip travel times. The technology to achieve this is already in place at many stoplights, and is currently used by emergency vehicles.

The original plan for the Silver Line called for those buses to use signal prioritization, but the City of Boston balked at it. (The T maintains it does have a limited capacity to trip green lights along the line, but does not appear to be using it.) Boston's stance stemmed from concerns about giving undue precedence to bus traffic over private vehicles.


Yet there the broader public good outweighs a little extra wait for those cars.

Long bus commutes inflict a social cost on the poor neighborhoods that disproportionately rely on them. Largely because of slow buses, black workers face significantly longer commutes than whites, according to a study from the Dukakis Center. Regardless, speeding up buses on key routes would likely yield benefits for everyone — including motorists — if it took drivers off the road and reduced traffic. A straight, broad roadway with a multitude of stoplights like Blue Hill Avenue seems like an especially obvious candidate.


In Los Angeles, the use of signal prioritization for buses yielded a 25 percent improvement in travel times. Seattle, Chicago, and Portland also slashed bus travel times. Boston should be next.