Buses, not gondolas, are the answer

They are a quick and easy solution that doesn't cost $100m

Second of two parts

WHILE A GONDOLA WON’T FLY at South Station, there’s a simple solution to the mobility issues confronting the Seaport District and the basic infrastructure is already in place: buses.

A bus may not be as sexy as a gondola, but it also won’t require a hulking station shadowing Congress Street, Dewey Square, and South Station itself (there’s nothing sexy about that). The Silver Line already runs frequently from below Atlantic Avenue to the Seaport, but it is at or sometimes over capacity, with rush hour buses running every 90 seconds, transporting as many as 4,000 passengers per hour from South Station to the Seaport, Logan Airport, and, soon, Chelsea and East Boston as well.


Summer Street, on the other hand, is not at capacity. It’s just poorly managed. During rush hour, the roadway is crowded with cars—a symptom of the poor planning of the area in general—jockeying to get in to and out of the Seaport. However, this only occurs for an hour or two per day in each direction. At other times, traffic on the roadway is minimal. And in the peak direction, the roadway only carries 1,200 vehicles per hour, which is as many people as the No. 7 bus carries on the 20 buses which get to South Station between 8 and 9 a.m. Run more efficiently and more like bus rapid transit (with level boarding at all doors and fare prepayment), these buses could turn around downtown and run back out to South Boston, carrying as many people as the gondola could—and along the same path—but without a $100 million price tag. By reducing boarding and trip times, more trips could be run with the same number of buses, branching down the route to serve different pockets of demand in South Boston. It’s a quick, easy, and cost-effective solution.

But that’s only the first step. Summer Street, curb-to-curb, is 80 feet wide, and today that space is nearly completely devoted to cars. There are parking spaces on the side and 13-foot-wide lanes—wider than you’d find on an Interstate—which drives home the point: this was a roadway designed for cars to go too fast, with people walking, biking, and taking transit as collateral. But this width also provides an opportunity: a lot of space which could be reallocated to other users without negatively impacting vehicular throughput.

The use of Summer Street is peaky: when there’s a lot of traffic going east, there’s little going west, and vice-versa. Because of this demand pattern, the street could easily be rebuilt with three lanes, with the middle lane reversible based on the time of day. Think the “Zipper Lane” on the Southeast Expressway, but without the zipper machine, a practice used extensively in Washington, D.C. and other cities. We’d have room to keep parking and loading zones on one side of the roadway (which could switch from side to side) but also have room for dedicated bus lanes and protected bicycling facilities. This small, few-dozen reduction in parking spaces represents a tiny fraction of the impacted road users, and also a tiny fraction of the number of parking spaces available in the neighborhood. It would allow buses, whether filled with passengers or coming back for another load, to bypass traffic jams and load quickly at stations with level-boarding platforms like those currently in use in Chicago. And all this without losing any peak-direction vehicle capacity.

That’s just the start. Rather than clogging the current Silver Line tunnel and then running a time-consuming loop-the-loop pattern through the Seaport, additional buses serving Logan Airport could use these Summer Street bus lanes for a faster trip from South Station to the Convention Center, before using the Silver Line ramp beyond most of the congestion for a quicker trip to the airport. No more Silver Line buses stuck in rush hour traffic on the Haul Road, no more running west to run east: buses would reliably run from South Station to the airport in 10 minutes, and from the Convention Center to the airport in six.

These airport-bound buses could be interlined with the existing SL4 route from Dudley to South Station, allowing the promise of the billion-dollar-plus Silver Line Phase III tunnel—a traffic-free connection from Roxbury to Logan—to be fulfilled at minimal cost. The new SL3 “Gateway” service to Chelsea could use the bus lanes, too, freeing up capacity in the Silver Line tunnel to focus on running frequent local service to and from the Seaport. Travelers from Logan who desire to get to South Station will then have a more direct route to their destination, in contrast to the current experience on the meandering Silver Line 1 bus.

The flexibility and agility of a bus system to respond to multiple mobility needs is demonstrated by the final component of this bus transit vision. Bus lanes on Congress Street could be extended through downtown towards Haymarket and North Station. The 92 and 93 buses from Charlestown and express buses from further afield could stretch through the Financial District and on to the Seaport rather than terminating at Haymarket or Downtown Crossing. The myriad private, corporate shuttles, which today trundle slowly through downtown rush hour traffic, could instead make fast and reliable trips from North Station to the Seaport in bus lanes: a trip which today may take 30 minutes would, without traffic, take 10. Traveling from North Station to the World Trade Center, which currently requires a trip on the Orange or Green Line, then Red Line, and then Silver Line, would instead be a one-seat bus ride. With shuttle consolidation, the service could run like a privately-funded, open-to-the-public service between North Station and Kendall Square, with frequent bus trips during rush hour. The Seaport’s Summer Street bus rapid transit line would act as a spine, with a network of improved bus routes stretching from Dudley to the Black Falcon Terminal to North Station.

This bus rapid transit line wouldn’t be a perfect solution, but it would provide significant new transit capacity to a part of the city which sorely needs it. Consider the following:

  • The No. 7 bus runs 20 buses per hour
  • A new surface Silver Line system branches to the airport and Chelsea, with each running 8 buses per hour
  • A consolidated North Station-Seaport Shuttle would run 8 buses per hour

This is a total of 44 buses per hour. The Silver Line already runs 60-foot buses capable of handling 100 passengers, and the 7 Bus could be upgraded with a similar fleet. Thus, these 44 buses could carry 4,400 passengers per hour on Summer Street, matching the promised total of the gondola, but without the cost and complexity of superimposing an elevated structure in one of the most complex engineering sites in the city. The two busways, the one currently underground and this new proposed one on Summer Street, would double the capacity of the gondola with room to grow.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
Gondolas have their place: connecting people to transit in places with steep mountains and narrow, twisting roads (the Seaport has neither). But they’re a niche product, and we have a perfectly good alternative using buses. For a fraction of the cost of the proposed $100 million gondola, we can implement a Summer Street bus rapid transit corridor that is more scalable, more useful (by serving multiple key destinations), and seamlessly connected to our existing transit network, without worrying about how to levitate a station above Summer Street between South Station and the Federal Reserve. We can have a highly efficient and affordable bus transit system in the Seaport District if the T, MassDOT, Massport, the city of Boston and other stakeholders make relatively minimal upgrades that will allow buses to succeed in solving the congestion pain points on Summer Street. Serving the actual mobility needs of the largest number of people ought to be the goal, rather than cool-looking but not-particularly-feasible solutions which are unlikely to ever get off the ground.

Ari Ofsevit is an MIT graduate student and serves on the board of TransitMatters.