The MBTA has embarked on a necessary, but politically perilous exercise: A complete redesign of the bus network. We will see details of their proposed redesign on Monday, May 16. The MBTA will be taking comments for several months before finalizing the plan.
The MBTA’s service planners have conducted a careful, evidence-driven process to create a redesign that will maximize the benefits of bus service in the region. As an elected official, I feel that my highest responsibility is to assure that the process moves forward to a successful conclusion.
For a public agency, cutting any part of any service is always politically dangerous. Existing users have a legitimate vested interest in continuation of services on which they have come to rely. Politicians, speaking for their constituents, are likely to criticize and even threaten the agency. Yet, redesign of the network does require moving routes around and that does mean that at least a few people may experience unwelcome changes.
Because the process is so risky, the MBTA has never comprehensively redesigned their bus route structure. Much of the route structure dates back to the trolley lines of 100 years ago. That means the route structure does not reflect the current distribution of jobs and housing. I salute the current MBTA leadership for being willing to tackle such a difficult challenge.
From both an equity perspective and an environmental perspective, the bus network design process has to be driven by ridership data. There is nothing good about an underloaded bus. Since buses are large, high-emissions vehicles, buses with only a few riders can be less efficient from an emissions perspective than single-occupancy vehicles.
In its redesign process, the MBTA has centered the goal of creating fast, frequent service on routes that will draw large numbers of riders. They are using a huge data set of anonymized data from cell phones that shows the trips that people are taking across the region, regardless of their mode of travel. This previously unavailable window into travel patterns is exposing opportunities for new cross-town connections. Many trips that previously might require several transfers will become one-seat (no transfer needed) rides.
On the other hand, some routes that currently provide one-seat rides for small numbers of people may be curtailed, with the replacement being a two-seat ride (transfer required). The upside will be that both legs of the trip will be on higher frequency routes — transfers are not a burden for riders when the service is frequent enough on both routes.
To achieve higher frequency, the MBTA is planning to add 25% to the current revenue-miles travelled by its bus fleet. The costs of this increase are built in to the MBTA’s board-approved financial plan.
Currently, at rush hour, essentially all serviceable buses are deployed; we cannot expand rush hour service without adding buses to the fleet. However, expansion of the bus fleet is not an immediate option because of limited garage space. So, the proposed service increases must be in off-hours and on weekends, with the goal of building loyal ridership on consistently served routes.
The designers are looking for simplicity or “legibility.” Currently, without trip planning software, it is difficult to navigate to an unfamiliar destination that might require one or more bus transfers. The trip planning apps may be wrong as to where the buses physically are and the transfers may involve delays. In the redesigned system, more of the routes will have high volume and serve recognizable corridors. It will be easier for people to visualize trips.
Improved service for low-income people is a central goal of the redesign. The new route structure will substantially increase the number of low-income people who have access to fast, frequent service. Through the depths of the COVID pandemic, the buses had the most durable ridership — more durable than subway or commuter rail: The low-income critical workers kept going to work. We need to improve service for them.
For the new, high-frequency routes to be fully successful, cities and towns will need to collaborate with the MBTA in creating bus lanes and coordinating traffic signals to give buses priority in critically congested areas.
The MBTA solicited a huge amount of public input before developing their redesign proposal and has mapped out a further ambitious program for soliciting comments on their proposal over the next few months. Visit the MBTA’s Bus Network Redesign Page for additional information and public meetings — that page will continue to be updated over the coming weeks.