71 Watertown Bus Service Issues

Service on the 71 Bus line is not what it used to be. What was 10 years ago a very well functioning route is now plagued by delays, overcrowding, bus bunching, ever-lengthening commutes and dubious reliability.

The Key Bus Initiatives work has been completed and a decent interval has passed. Although a number of stops were removed, service on the 71 bus line has not improved noticeably.

Removing bus stops has done nothing to solve the biggest problem plaguing the line, which is overcrowding. Overcrowding is a delay problem that far overshadows the number and spacing of stops. This works in two ways: First, an overcrowded bus takes far longer to board and un-board. Secondly an overcrowded bus generally becomes delayed and as it becomes increasingly late, riders accumulate at stops and the bus has to stop more often and pick up more riders than if it were running on schedule.

Presently, overcrowding during the morning rush often results in inbound buses being unable to take on passengers after Bigelow Avenue. 20-25 minute trips from Bigelow to Harvard Station are not uncommon. Outbound buses are regularly overcrowded by the T’s own standard (140% of seated capacity) until 10:30 or 11pm on weeknights.

The bus stop solution was attractive to the T because it was quick and dirty and required little change or effort on their part. The customers bear the burden of change and inconvenience. Often the T’s solutions to problems are based on this type of rationale. But there are solutions for the 71 bus line that will yield far greater improvements and enhanced customer satisfaction. Some of these are:

• Increase the number and frequency of buses on the route
• Provide real time management of the route (e.g. when buses bunch, make some express to restore spacing)
• Increase Watertown availability of Charlie Card sales (slow cash fare collection on board is a huge delay factor)
• Install a fare card machine at Watertown Square (and Watertown yard)
• Work with cities of Cambridge and Watertown on expediting buses through traffic signals
• Specifically work with Cambridge Traffic and DCR to improve bus movement through signals at Coolidge Road and Fresh Pond Parkway
• Consider altering fare collection in outbound direction, perhaps collecting fares on the Harvard Platform

The long suffering riders of the 71 line have experienced five years of deteriorating service. It is time for real solutions.

11 replies on “71 Watertown Bus Service Issues”

  1. Joe,

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful problem statement.

    I take this issue very much to heart, having ridden both the 71 and the 73 heavily through much of my life. We have raised with the T an immediate issue of the 73 which appears to have taken a sharp down turn in service quality related to the shift to diesels. But all of these issues merit conversation with the T and we will follow up at our next opportunity.

    I know it will be hard to add buses — even if the hardware is available as a result of using diesel on the 73, the real issue is drivers.

    I believe that a fundamental part of the problem is the congestion from Star Market through Fresh Pond Parkway — that adds many minutes to each trip. If we could find a way to reduce that problem, it would be like putting more buses in the loop. I’m working with Rep. Hecht to start a conversation with the City of Cambridge and the T to see if we can brainstorm any meaningful approaches to that problem.

  2. Will–

    I know that you are a strong supporter of Public Transportation. But I must disagree with your statement that it will be hard to get buses on the 71 route and that better service can be had without them. I want my State Senator to work to get us more buses. That is the only thing that will make a serious dent in this problem. More buses and better management of the route are the solutions that will provide the most relief to the Watertown ridership.

    Solving the Fresh Pond intersection is essential, I agree, but it will not help enough unless we get more buses. Of course getting more buses will not help so much in the am rush unless we make the Fresh Pond intersection better, but more buses will help right off the bat in the evening when the buses are overcrowded from 4:40pm until 10:30 or 11pm.

    There are many more tweaks that can be made (the lights between the bus terminal at Watertown Square and Common St come to mind) that would improve service, but without more buses, no amount of tweaking is going to make a serious difference. We are over capacity now and demand is only going to grow in the coming years, so more buses must be the top priority.

    Will, please tell them we need more buses!


  3. Thanks, Joe. I agree we need more buses.

    Representative Hecht has been working to bring the issue of Watertown bus capacity into focus and he and I are meeting with transportation officials on this issue today in fact. This is a long term project.

    You say:

    I must disagree with your statement that it will be hard to get buses on the 71 route.

    I understand how you feel, but I think the question we have to answer together is: How can we make short run increases in bus capacity? That requires taking buses from someplace else. Where should they come from? Of course the 73 trolleys are idle, but where are we going to get the additional drivers from?

    Are we prepared to identify other routes in the system that are over-served whose service should be diminished? My constituents ride many of the busiest buses in the system. The following routes have more than 10,000 average weekday boardings and serve my district: The 1, 39, 66 and 57. The 71 and 73 had respectively 5,483 and 6,396 weekday boardings in 2010. All of this service badly needs improvement. Please see link for ridership statistics. If we could, in fact, identify over-served routes, is the 71 the bus route that is most under-served and first in line for an improvement? We have to take a data-driven approach — that’s the way transportation planning has to work.

    It is one of my central priorities to strengthen transit service, including bus service, all across the system. That is the larger battle.

    Knowing how scarce the resources are system wide, I also take an active interest in anything that can improve local service without expanding resources, like improving traffic flow or addressing management/dispatch problems.

  4. Dear Will –
    A 2010 statistics really doesn’t help us a lot to understand the issue. We had tons of development of apartments in Watertown that went online in 2011, 2012, and 2013 with little to show for in infrastructure.
    As for drivers, given high unemployment I can’t believe that finding drivers is that difficult.

  5. I’m also curious if there is data on transfers; for example I (and several of my friends) will often take a 73 from Harvard station to Shaws at Trapelo because we are tired of waiting for the 71. Sometimes you can even walk to Shaws from there before a 71 shows up. (And then it is most disheartening to have a driver ignore you and pass you right by, even when standing at the stop and looking at them.) This is also preferable to waiting at the dismal dirty smelly Harvard Sq bus stop unless it is very cold weather.

  6. The Blue Book does not provide statistics on transfers. I’ll do a little research and see if I can find some answers.

    Andrew Bettinelli
    Legislative Aide
    Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger

  7. The MBTA does not currently have transfer data between buses, see the following explanation from MBTA Service Planning:

    We don’t have that info available yet, but might within a few months. We do some passenger surveys every few years which ask about their trip path, but the number of responses for individual bus routes makes the sample too small to be accurate. The passenger counters which show us ons and offs at each bus stop can’t tell whether a person is transferring. The farebox transactions don’t tell us anything about what bus route or bus stop, so we cannot use the farebox data currently. We are working with MIT on a project to combine the time of farebox transactions with the bus GPS – if that works we might also be able to make some logical inferences about transfer activity. This is a challenging problem with a lot of data, but we are hopeful that we will have something useful by the end of 2014.

    Andrew Bettinelli
    Legislative Aide
    Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger

  8. There are easier solutions to this problem which unfortunately involve common sense and desire on the part of the MBTA both of which I believe are seriously lacking. If given enough latitude to analyze and resolve this issue, I believe the issue could be fixed within a matter of days and weeks rather than months and years.

    As I noted in another post, business school classmates assessed the Green ‘C’ line over 20 years ago and found the variation of trolley’s leaving was primarily due to the fact trolley drivers relied upon their watches to determine when to leave. The inconsistency and inefficiency of the bus system makes me wonder if things have changed at all in 20 years.

    “MBTA does not currently have transfer data between buses”. ==> US factories in the past spent millions on creating a system to move small parts from one side of the factory floor to the other. The Japanese used bicycles with a basket mounted on them.

    Appoint some ‘surveyors’ among the ridership and give them log books. Ask them to log their responses and note the times using their phones. Why in the world do we have to wait for MIT to create an app to conduct some rudimentary analysis to get the ball rolling on fixing what is such an obvious problem (at least to those riders who are suffering through it)?

    1. You are right that timely dispatch can be an issue. The T does send old fashioned inspectors out to the far end of the 71 and 73 to monitor turnarounds from time to time, but cannot station people there permanently. As I mentioned in response to your other comment, we’ll have some better data on bus bunching on this website pretty soon!

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