If Charlie Baker wants to find inexpensive ways to improve the T, he might consider one fact: In 1954 — two years before he was born — the 34 bus ran from Forest Hills, down Washington Street past Roslindale, and onward to the Dedham line.
In 2015, it still does.
The map of where the T runs its buses would appear to be etched in stone: In some cases, today’s MBTA buses are still running along the same routes as the trolleys that preceded them. Yet the city surrounding those buses is unrecognizable, with huge population shifts and the emergence of whole new employment centers.
While the T often changes the frequency of buses, treating the routes themselves as sacrosanct is a recipe for inefficiency. To make sure the T is maximizing the value of its buses and drivers, the agency should imagine how the map would look if it were building a Boston bus network from scratch, based on today’s population and economy — not that of 1954 or 1912. The idea comes from the advocacy group A Better City, which recommended to Baker’s MBTA review panel recently that the agency conduct such a “zero-based” analysis every five years. Maybe the 34 bus should continue running along the same route it has plied since the Eisenhower administration, but why not at least double check?
Other cities and regions have done so, and then adjusted routes and schedules, with encouraging results: Rhode Island rearranged its bus routes in 2013, leading to increased ridership. Houston is in the midst of radically rearranging its bus map. Buses can operate almost anywhere, and the technological barriers to changing routes, and communicating alterations to riders, have never been lower. With smartphone apps and next-bus arrival screens at key stations, it’s far easier now for agencies like the T to alert customers to scheduling or route changes.
Still, the routing of buses — even the exact location of single stops — can quickly get bogged down in politics. In 2009, the Patrick administration’s effort to upgrade the 28 bus to Mattapan Square fell apart, even though it involved no route change. There’s a value to consistency and predictability, and that should be factored into any decision to change routes predicated on a zero-based study. But buses shouldn’t run on the same routes they always have just because they always have.
Baker’s review panel rightly emphasized that the T needs to turn into a more customer-focused organization. An obvious way to do that, and make the most of the T’s existing assets and labor force, would be to ensure that it is offering services that match the needs of today’s riders — not those of their great-grandparents.