Making buses move through traffic faster

I wrote recently about the prospect of rising congestion across the region. While, in the long term, we need to think big, in the short and medium term, we have to focus on improving the operation of the transportation assets we already have — especially improving reliability and reducing delays and crowding on our bus and rail routes.

One helpful technology that is finally ready for prime time is “transit signal priority”. If we can give buses and surface light rail (the Green Line) a green light more reliably as they approach intersections, we can save precious seconds — seconds which add up to real improvements if we can control all the intersections along the route.

The MBTA has working for several years on debugging the technology. The first challenge was to get global positioning systems working in the moving vehicles so that they can report their position back to central MBTA systems in real time. GPS is operational now in most of the MBTA’s bus and light rail fleet. The consolidated GPS data feed from the fleet of vehicles is what is allowing the development of “where is my bus” smartphone apps.

The second challenge is to figure out how to tell the lights to turn as the transit vehicle approaches them. This requires different solutions in different communities, depending on how their stop lights are controlled. In Boston, where the lights are connected to a central system, the request to change the light goes from the MBTA’s central system to the city’s central system, which in turn directs the lights. In other communities, a cellular transmission runs directly to a device installed in each light’s control box.

The MBTA now has transit priority working at six intersections — 4 in Boston on the Green Line (E and B branches), 1 in Brookline on the C branch of the Green Line and one on Mass Ave in Central Square Cambridge for the Dudley bus.

The next step will be to roll the technology out to four full high-ridership corridors — Beacon Street in Brookline, Commonwealth and Huntington Avenues in Boston and Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. All together, this will mean getting the technology in place at 89 intersections for a cost of approximately $12,640 per signal.  The MBTA board recently approved this step at a recent hearing at which I testified in support.

Once the technology is in place along a full corridor, the seconds saved at each intersection will add up to reduce the probability of bunching and improve end-to-end run time. The most common complaint commuters have about bus service is bunching. Bunching arises when a lead bus is delayed by lights or traffic conditions. The delay results in more people waiting at each stop, which in turn means more delays in boarding. The delays cascade and trailing vehicles start to catch up and, on trolley lines, cannot pass.

After TSP is working on these first four very high-ridership corridors, the T will be looking for other high-ridership, high-delay routes in communities that are eager to partner and make the technology work. I’m hopeful that we can get TSP going on several routes in my district, top among them the 71 (Watertown) and 73 (Waverley) which are the two most crowded routes in the MBTA system.

Transit signal priority on the 71 and 73 will work well with the improvements currently under study in the segment of these routes in front of the Mount Auburn Cemetery, where buses often lose several minutes waiting in traffic — more on these improvements in a future post.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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    1. Said it well, Matthew. I feel the same way. Finally.
      We need our transit system to be better. I want to be able to depend on the T and the busses.

      Senator Brownsberger, Thank you of the analysis of so many issues.

  1. Fantastic work, Will! Yet again.
    Admittedly, I have not read the fine details but wonder how (or if) dedicated lanes for buses might contribute to improving matters even more. I have written to the MBTA about this several times in the past.

    Each time I ride the T I can’t help but note of just how few people I know who work in the Boston area are also taking public transportation. Granted, some are riding bikes but many more tell me how much “easier” it is to drive. This report is certainly one way to get people through traffic faster than driving – or at least on par. Next step is to make it unresistible. Thanks for all the great work!!

  2. What about Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington? The 77 bus starts from Harvard Square and goes all the way to Arlington Heights, and is heavily traveled.

    1. Yes, all 15 MBTA bus routes along the Western Edge (Watertown, Belmont, Arlington and Cambridge) could provide better service, even with the same equipment and number of drivers, if bus lanes and signal preference moved them faster through commuter traffic.

      Mount Auburn Street, The Access Roads from Route 2 to the Alewife T, and Massachusetts Avenue are all up for bus lanes.

      We need a sense of urgency, and specific, publicly named person(s) and agencies in charge.

    2. You’ll have TSP all the way up Mass Ave. to the Arlington line as a result of the currently planned improvements.

      Extending into Arlington is an additional project that needs to be teed up.

  3. Just now (evening of 11/14), Brookline Town Meeting has voted to re-appropriate $50,000 of Town funds to contribute to the prioritization of the C Line along Beacon Street.

    1. Free??? Lady there’s nothing free in this world if your getting a free bus ride I’m going to have to pay for it!

  4. Have you wasted more tax money on this really? Have you done a study to research how randomly changing the signals will affect the passenger car traffic? How about the rise in bus accidents by passenger cars and commercial vehicles tailgating busses trying to take advantage of the green light it triggers? More stupidity from our great leaders in the commonwealth. How about we spend time working on lowering taxes and revamping the welfare and ebt corruption in this state?

    1. James, we simply do not have the space on the roads within the Boston area to indulge your selfish preference to drive into the heart of downtown with 100% priority sadly.

      Furthermore, we must do everything possible to reduce the incentive to use cars in the city of Boston and surrounding communities. I propose that all parking within the city be a flat $20 per hour for surface streets, to discourage driving in automobiles.

    2. It’s been studied in other places, for example, Los Angeles:

      Given our density and employment growth, prioritizing single-occupancy-autos guarantees that we’ll waste money and increase congestion. We don’t have any place to park more cars, nor do we have any place to drive more cars (whose homes would you bulldoze for new/wider roads? Do you care to fund another Big Dig?)

      Improving bus service with signal priority gives people other options and can even save money by allowing the same service with fewer buses (or improved service with the same number).

  5. The MBTA seriously needs to consider pedestrian convenience as well. Any reconfiguration of traffic lights should not interrupt or delay pedestrian crossings: pedestrians need priority over all transport, including mass transport. In the long run, it would be much preferable to replace buses with trams such as Green Line trams as their schedules can be made more predictable.

  6. This is great Will. Thanks for staying on the case. We really need TSP on our 71 and 73 lines and I submit the 70 as well.

    What is the status of re-timing the signals at Mt. Auburn and Fresh Pond Parkway. Last week it took a bus I was riding seven light cycles to get through.

  7. How about moving people from Belmont to the commuter trains to relieve pressure on the buses. If the trains would go more frequently and would cost the same as the buses or the subway, much more people would use them. The current train situation at more than twice the price of the bus/subway and going only every couple hours plus having to pay again for transfers for buses/subway at the destination makes the trains a really bad choice, even though they provide the fastest way to get into Boston.

  8. This is good news. Another improvement I could suggest for the bus is better late night service on some lines. at times I ride the 86, 66 and 57 at night after rush hour and they are very crowded. The 86 especially decreases the number of runs it makes at night by a lot. Would it be too expensive to run them slightly more frequently? Many people are working at night or going out or something and need those routes.

    1. Always hard to add service, but follow up with my office off line if you want to pursue increasing the 86. We can check in with the T as to how they are looking at it in their service planning process.

  9. Yes, all for it, thank you for moving Mount Auburn Street bus lanes forward.

    Another opportunity is a bus lane into and out of the Alewife T Connecting to Route 2. Eight (8) MBTA bus routes connect. Many educational, corporate, medical, and TMA BUS and van services connect the Alewife T. The 1/3 mile access road is wider than the travel lanes of Concord Avenue near Hruon Avenue that carries buses in both directions along parked cars on one side.

    The Access Road has no parked cars, no bicycles, and few pedestrians on the sidewalk, and ONE jurisdiction.

    The Access Road is under MASSDOT. Is there a sense of urgency?

    The Acorn Park route change was a good start. Thank you.

  10. 1) Having buses stop for a light, then cross the intersection AND STOP AGAIN to take on and drop off passengers, adds to travel time, adds wear and tear on brakes and extra stop/start wastes fuel.
    2) Schedules should have departure, not arrival times. If one gets to a stop for a particular bus and it as arrived early and then also leaves earlier than scheduled, one has to wait for the next one. Particularly troubling in cold weather and on Sundays when there are fewer buses.

      1. It’s mostly historical. Stops should generally be moved to the far side of the light.

        But it isn’t easy to move a stop — people get exorcised about it. So, the T only does it every few years.

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