Dedicating Asphalt to Bus Lanes

At the morning rush hour, one would be easily forgiven if one were to look at Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge approaching Mount Auburn Hospital and see a whole lot of people sitting in cars.

Yet, according to a recent throughput analysis,  the majority (56%) of people wading through that rush hour traffic are packed on the buses coming from Watertown (#71) and Waverley (#73).  These two bus routes are, according to another recent study, the two most crowded routes in the MBTA system.

The MBTA’s recent call to create more dedicated bus lanes reflects this fundamental reality:  In many congested road segments, a large share of the people are hidden away in buses, many of them standing.  They are much less comfortable and less able to tolerate stop-and-start delays than people in their own private cars.  Where the data prove high bus ridership, it is common sense to shift road resources towards the buses.

The recent traffic analysis on Mount Auburn Street was done as part of a large design study of that road segment.  The big ideas coming from that study are: (1) to realign the intersection of Fresh Pond and Mount Auburn to reduce the dead space in the middle which takes seconds from every light cycle to clear; (2) to create a dedicated bus lane in the segments where traffic currently queues up; (3) to give buses priority to move forward and out through the intersections in that stretch.

The result will be savings of 2.4 minutes per trip for the buses and a loss of about 44 seconds for cars.  All together, people — bus riders and drivers — will on average save 140 seconds per trip.   That is a big win.

Transit signal priority is the more general idea of making sure that traffic gets a green light when a bus is waiting (possibly including cars if the lanes is not dedicated).  The MBTA is making good progress on TSP as I wrote recently.  If we can combine the intersection improvements on Mount Auburn with transit signal priority at other points along the 71/73 corridors, then we knock enough time off the round trips that we can get a meaningful increase in total capacity.  Shorter round trips means more round trips and smoother flow means less bus bunching.  So, the service could noticeably improve.

If we can get service to improve, that may attract more riders, in turn taking cars off the congested corridor, improving travel times for everyone.  We should hope and work to create a virtuous cycle of transit service improvement.

Although the crowding on the 71 and the 73 stands out, there are many other heavily-used routes that need similar attention in Allston and Brighton and Watertown.

In every case, fragmentation of responsibility and concerns makes it harder to identify the opportunities and to get projects moving.  For example, in the Mount Auburn case, some of the roads are controlled by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, some by the Cambridge and, at the project edges, segments are controlled by Watertown and Belmont.  Proposed traffic flow changes would require investments by the MBTA to move the overhead electric lines that power the trolleys.  The state’s Department of Transportation is a necessary funding partner.  Several different neighborhood organizations have strong views on parts of the project that touch their space.

That is the continuing challenge for state and local leaders at all levels — to build and sustain the partnerships necessary to make real improvement happen.


A recent Watertown Tab story about bus lanes reflects progress on a component of the project discussed above. Cambridge is working with DCR to coordinate the necessary road striping (owned by Cambridge, mostly) and signal changes (owned by DCR mostly). At a recent DCR meeting about the overall project, this aspect was not fully discussed because Cambridge is leading it. However, it is part of the same design vision (same design consultant).

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

35 replies on “Dedicating Asphalt to Bus Lanes”

  1. Bus lanes area smart idea as well as smart lights that communicate with the buses. As far as other areas. I have been trying to promote a Gondola system that would go from the South Boston Waterfront to near North Station.

    There are many ways to improve transportation, and dedicated Bus lanes are one of them.

    I also believe that one option for the Pike improvement at Allston would be to bury the Roads, and the Rail tracks at that stretch, thus connecting the neighborhoods to the Esplanade.

  2. Would a dedicated bus lane on Trapelo in Watertown and Belmont bring us down to one lane for cars?

  3. I agree with the open-minded approach that you are describing and agree that the goal should be to improve travel times (and experiences) for the greatest number of commuters whether in buses or cars. Clearly, improving bus travel will benefit the larger number of commuters so it is reasonable to give priority to this transit mode. More buses and less cars could also improve the experiences for the people still using cars.

    In the long run, it is likely that the number of commuters will continue to increase and the only practical way to support reasonable commute times and experiences will be to make more and greater improvements in mass transportation.

    I am glad to see that we are looking at the options that you describe and hope that further improvements will be made to attract more bus riders along these routes.

  4. Thank you very much for any work you do to bring dedicated bus lanes in segments where that improves matters. Buses in the MBTA system get way too much negative comment when the main problem (now that the creakiest of the old fleet seems mostly out of service) is really from too many drivers in single occupancy vehicles. Since no one’s mentioned global warming yet, let me, for inspiration, link to an interview with Kevin Anderson from this year’s COP:

    It’s simply too late in the game to piddle around. Electric cars won’t come soon enough. Those of us who can need to leave our cars in the driveway and not buy new ones.

  5. Speaking as one who has both driven through and stood on a bus driving through the Fresh Pond/Mount Auburn intersection during rush hour, I can attest that standing on crowded bus is much harder to do. Reducing time for buses to traverse this stretch of road would be a mercy.

  6. My main concern would be for residents and businesses along the route to have a strong voice in the decision process. In Cambridge they jammed through these poorly thought out bike lanes that have been disastrous for local businesses, and make parking, including for people with disabilities, virtually impossible.

  7. I think this is a wonderful idea. It may even increase bus ridership, and get us more frequent buses.

  8. 1. I commute primarily by car.
    2. I, however, agree with dedicating lanes to buses and with TSP. Buses should have priorities over cars.
    3. I disagree with the bike lanes comment – as a driver, I am so very happy to have the bikes separated from me – like modern European cities have had for decades. Yes, there is less parking and I have taken my bike to more places for local shopping as a result.

  9. I traverse that intersection far more often by car than by bus. I support these proposals.

  10. Thank You Senator Brownsberger,
    Managing increasing traffic congestion and making our systems as efficient as possible would reduce carbon emissions and make life easier for commuters. I look forward to a similar analysis of the routes in Allston Brighton. Not withstanding the complexity of the problem and coordinating a unified response across agencies and municipalities this is very important and necessary work.

  11. There would often be two to five fewer people standing on a crowded bus, in my case, #’s 65, 66, 57, and 86, if the instructions on how to lower the wheelchair seating area fold up seats were displayed clearly. Very few of us passengers know how to fold down the seats and fewer can find the instructions. It’s a minor inconvenience and won’t help the flow of traffic.

  12. This is a difficult problem and I applaud the effort to find ways to address it. Sounds good to me.
    Thanks, Mary

  13. 44 extra seconds really is a quite long time to add in for car drivers waiting to get through the intersection , but it seems only fair to give standing and crowded bus riders a break.

  14. Thank you so much for devoting time to this! In my opinion, dedicated bus lanes are a reasonable interim solution, but buses are still uncomfortable and dangerous: I have come much closer to grievous injury (as a pedestrian, cylclist, and passenger) from buses than from any other form of transport. In the long run it seems clear that a dedicated rail line is needed. Whether car-obsessed politicians (or indeed public) would put up with the expense and time needed to ‘cut and cover’ underground rail lines to Watertown Square and Waverly is surely doubtful, but such lines would be by far the best solution in my opinion. Second best would be tram service on the model of the Green Line.

  15. I take this bus regularly and it’s jammed. But I don’t understand- WHY IS THERE NO DISCUSSION OF ADDING MORE BUSES TO THE ROUTE?!

  16. Thank you Will!

    I personally will not be affected by this, but I applaud the effort to lower people’s average travel time and to make the transit system more efficient.

    We have a long way to go with the T, but dedicated bus lanes and signal priority are low cost, pragmatic ways to make improvements.

  17. Since the last seven plus years I have been taking Bus# 73 to Harvard from Beech and Trapelo Monday to Friday between 7.30 and 7.40. There are 17 stops from Waverley to Harvard. Commute time with minimum traffic is about 22 minutes. With traffic congestion 45-50 mts. I take the bus at 7.30 am and get to Harvard around 8.10 to 8.15 am. Every stop during peak hour has at the minimum 5 passengers. I suggest between 7.30 and 8.30 there should be at least 4 buses to ease bus congestion. Dedicated bus Lanes on Trapelo, Mt.Auburn and Fresh Pond Intersection should be mandatory as this will ease up congestion. Cars should not be allowed to merge with Bus Lanes. This is an ongoing and chronic issue that has not been resolved. MBTA is planning to raise fares but at the same time they need to think about new bus lanes and better buses for Belmont commuters. I was in Roxbury sometime back and buses from Ruggles are brand new and retrofitted. Belmont commuters get left overs and discarded buses.

  18. Thanks, Will. I totally support making the 71/71 more reliable and shortening trip times. The bus lanes seem like common sense. I just hope we will be able to fit the bike lanes, and that the bus only lanes will be enforced.

  19. Buses should have priority along their entire route as much as possible, and bus lanes along with other steps such as TSP can help alleviate our current transit trauma. Every road has its own challenges, and I think exploring options like using parking spaces for bus lanes during rush hour, perhaps only on the more heavily traveled side, should be considered. Bike lanes are often on the same roads as bus lines, and I do not think this is wise. To be honest, bikes lanes have become too much of a priority, taking up space on roadways, the comment sections of innumerable websites, transit planners’ time and the public’s money. Thanks Will, as always, for your attention to transportation.

  20. The recent study in Everett where a bus lane replaced a parking lane showed that ADDING a travel lane made travel better for all vehicles.

    Years ago MassDOT did a study on HOV lanes. Again, when they are ADDED as an additional, specific use, travel lane, all benefit.

    So, once again, the solution is to add travel lanes to roads, especially those still the same capacity they were 50, 75, or 100 years ago. This is as backward as it gets, frozen in time.

    1. Okay, so who along the stretch from Star Market to Fresh Pond Parkway gets to give up their front lawn to allow for more room for cars? Maybe we’ll tear out a chunk from Mt. Auburn Cemetary?

      The senator won’t say this because he has to pander to the twentieth century mentality car oriented people who remain in the majority and will say on the one hand they care about climate change but on the other suppose action on that has to wait til the solution can be bought at Home Depot. There are going to be fewer cars on the road or we are going to fail to meet our Paris Accord commitments. Take your pick.

      1. The good news is we do not have to wait for ever for the resolution It will be sea level rise flooding out Boston before they get the message

  21. We did it for bikes and bike lanes; we certainly can do it for buses; everyone needs to be accommodated

  22. This is a case of last century’s technology sharing the same resources.All these choke points in the transit system have their roots in the hub and spoke concept left over from the 19th century. No one has yet investigated automated overhead people movers that remotely resemble enclosed ski chair lifts holding about 12 persons. Instead of funding nostalgia like the GLX think about tomorrows transit concepts. A lot of the ideas I seen are rehashes of old transit concepts like putting lipstick on the pig.

  23. I do not like this idea. I am a pedestrian and have nearly been hit by a bus on two separate occasions when the drivers decided to ignore the red light at Foster Street in Brighton. I clearly had the walk sign. I always wait very patiently for the walk sign. Now you will take more time away from me trying to cross the street. This plan makes it more dangerous for pedestrians and I think that it is unfair.

  24. I would not be affected by any change. Where will cars park if a lane is eliminated? Will this affect the businesses on these routes?

  25. Oh My! Let’s see, drivers are rude and cut off buses. Cambridge has resident permit parking so currently Mt. Auburn is one of the rare places with meters. We can’t widen these roads.
    The intersection from hell has issues far beyond dedicated anything. Traveling from Belmont to Mt. Auburn hospital means baring left at a point only locals know how to maneuver.
    There’s a bike lane on Huron (Gov. Welles wanted for his wife) and Brattle is ok for bikes, can we please not put a bike path on every parallel road?
    Given the cluster er, the profoundly nightmarish inability for Belmont and Cambridge to agree on the weird curve over on Blanchard near Hillside gardens, I see what Will is saying about lots of cooks involved with these roadways.
    This is a silly thought, but drivers mostly stop for school buses…

  26. thanks for the info. but when will there be as many 71 buses as 73s? the 71 buses are notoriously late and/or nonexistent. I often seen 2 in a row almost empty coming from Harvard, but never in the opposite direction. Let’s get that fixed, too.

    1. Bus bunching is the problem. If traffic holds up a lead bus, that bus ends up with more people on it and slows down due to boarding delays. Then on the trolley lines where buses can’t pass each other, the trailing bus ends up right behind it and creates a service gap.

      During that gap, you sit and wait and see the other bus line get service and feel like the other bus line has all the buses. I get this complaint from both 71 and 73 riders — they feel like the other line has all the buses.

      The 73 does have slightly higher ridership on weekdays. See the stats on page 51 of the “Bluebook”

  27. Ah. OK. More driver harassment. More ways to make our life miserable. Cambridge tried it, closing 3 out of 5 access routs. Did it help?
    I am fancying the reality of Arsenal street. Beautiful bicycle lines along the newly constructed apartments that NOBODY USES! And they won’t, coming winter. At this moment it’s too hot to bike. Come November/December, it will be too cold.
    People, face the reality – Boston is not and NEVER will be a bicycle paradise. Even you believe in climate change, it won’t change the reality: it’s either too hot, or too cold.
    Please spend money elsewhere (Hint: Public transportation!). And not the way it’s done right now – it’s dysfunctional and can not be fixed.

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