Bus is finally getting the respect it deserves

Collaboration, leadership yielding tremendous progress

A FEW YEARS AGO I started dating someone who joked that if she ever asked me to marry her it would have to be on the 111 bus because I talked about it so much. She knew I worked for the MBTA, and it didn’t take long for her to realize it was buses that I loved.

It makes sense that as I prepared to leave Boston I took the 111 to Chelsea. I wanted to experience the new bus lanes on North Washington, Broadway in Chelsea, and the Tobin Bridge for myself. When I moved to Boston seven years ago, priority for bus riders crossing three jurisdictions on a single bus route seemed impossible. Especially priority on a route like the 111, which serves majority Black and Brown, low-income, and immigrant riders who have to organize for political power. Similarly, free bus fares were far from the top of the political agenda. I want to take this moment to celebrate the progress the region has made on prioritizing bus and look forward to the remaining work.

I came to Boston from Santiago, Chile where I worked at an international research center on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). I went to South America because the Global South has led the world in prioritizing bus. BRT was born in Curitiba, Brazil and grew-up in Bogota, Colombia before being spread around the world.

Buses are responsive to changing needs, use infrastructure that is quicker and more affordable to build compared to rail, and they provide access to communities that society has not prioritized. Buses have an earned reputation for being slow and unreliable, and that is a policy choice. Decision-makers can make buses fast and reliable by giving bus riders their share of public street space. Democratizing allocation and management of streets is a matter of equity and efficiency.

When I arrived in Boston in 2014, Dr. Beverly Scott, the MBTA general manager, was pushing for an investment in bus infrastructure she called the Bus Marshall Plan. She often said “bus is the Rodney Dangerfield of transit” because buses don’t get the respect they deserve. One reason is that bus service requires collaboration across jurisdictions.  Former Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Pollack was fond of pointing out that bus service requires five components (drivers, buses, streets, stops and sidewalks, and signals) and the MBTA only controls two of them.

Over the past seven years, the Greater Boston area has seen amazing collaboration and leadership to prioritize buses and the riders who depend on them. Bus riders in Chelsea and other communities organized to demand better service. The Barr Foundation championed the conversation that BRT was possible in Boston and provided seed funding. The city of Everett led the way with their first bus lane in 2016. Staff members at the MBTA, MassDOT, regional agencies Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Central Transportation Planning Staff,  and various municipalities and advocate organizations spent countless hours pushing bus proposals up the proverbial hill and through all the complexities.  Members of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board put bus at the front of transforming the MBTA.

Through these efforts, the region has made progress on all five components of bus service. In 2015 there were 2.8 lane miles of bus lanes and as of spring 2021 there are over 14 lane miles built or under construction in nine cities and towns. Six cities give signal priority for buses at over 60 locations. Municipalities and the MBTA/MassDOT continue to advance new bus infrastructure projects.  The MBTA launched a new program to improve and increase the number of bus shelters, is installing real-time information signs at bus stops, and is systematically improving accessibility at bus stops.  In 2019, the MBTA increased the size of its bus fleet by 60 buses for the first time in years.  MBTA teams are rebuilding bus garages, planning for electric buses, and modernizing the IT systems that support workforce planning.

It took collaboration and political capital to get to this point. And there have been setbacks along the way, like the delay in implementing all-door boarding, and increases in MBTA dropped bus trips due to a lack of driver availability. To reduce dropped trips, which cause crowding and unreliability, the MBTA has announced plans to increase its on-call bus operators. They need to follow through on that plan.

There remains significant work to do, especially as the region recovers and responds to the overlapping crises of the pandemic, economic inequality, racial injustice, and climate change. The pandemic showed that bus riders are essential to our economy and bus is essential to mobility. Transforming bus requires even more collaboration, political will, and investment.

The MBTA is redesigning the bus network to meet current travel needs. A successful redesign will require leaders and riders to be open to change. Additional operating funds for bus are necessary to provide high frequency service. And the growing miles of bus lanes need to be protected from encroaching car traffic.

Meet the Author

Laurel Paget-Seekins

Leadership in government fellow, Open Society Foundations
Bus should be at the top of the list for new capital investment in order to modernize all of the garages and electrify the fleet. To increase the capacity of the fleet, these critical projects will require neighborhood support. The MBTA needs a fully staffed cross-department bus team to make sure all of the projects stay on track.

After seven years, I leave Boston proud of all the work that has been done and hopeful that the region will continue to prioritize the bus service that riders deserve. And one day last year I got engaged on a 111 bus.

Laurel Paget-Seekins spent six years at the MBTA and MassDOT working to improve bus service. Now she is a Leadership in Government fellow with Open Society Foundations.