Coming T shutdowns present an opportunity

Use them to showcase bus rapid transit potential

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER recently announced several upcoming weekday shutdowns of MBTA lines, with the most dramatic shutdowns coming to the Green Line. This short-term pain, long-term gain approach – relying on replacement shuttle buses – streamlines repairs to bring better service to customers more quickly.

Ask any rider who has taken shuttle buses during other recent T shutdowns and they’ll tell you that it’s not the bus in and of itself that makes these shutdowns so painful; it’s the fact that the bus experience is so slow, cramped, and circuitous. For many people, the T shutdowns in the fall added 20 to 30 minutes to a trip. That adds up to hours of additional commuting time over the course of a few weeks. It doesn’t have to be this way.

MassDOT has a stated goal of moving more people in fewer vehicles, and this goal needs to be front-and-center during T shutdowns to minimize the impact of any disruption. When planned shuttle buses run, it’s an opportunity to implement bus lanes, transit priority, and other elements of bus rapid transit, or BRT, to keep passengers from experiencing undue delay, and to demonstrate how BRT can be used in other high-demand corridors in the region on a more-permanent basis.

While the Green Line effort is being posited as a novel means to expedite track repairs, it is by no means without precedent. The MBTA has undertaken weekday shutdowns on the Green Line for decades, replacing service with buses, in some cases for months on end. According to a compilation of route changes on the T since 1964, weekday shutdowns on the Green Line lasting up to six months at a time have occurred no fewer than a dozen times since 1980. In fact, in 2017 and 2018, the B Line was closed to accommodate construction of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge over the Turnpike. In that case, the project did provide bus priority for passengers.

As we look to the shutdowns over the course of 2020, what would be unprecedented is using each as a learning opportunity to demonstrate how replacement bus service can be more efficient for both the operator and the customer, and test options for places where elements of BRT can be made permanent.

The MBTA can theoretically close the Green Line branches more easily than other portions of the system because the lines generally follow streets (with the exception of the D Line) and bus replacement, while typically slower, does not result in long diversions.

However, at issue are the passenger volumes that the Green Line carries. The least-busy branch, the C Line, has 12,000 daily surface boardings, making it busier than any MBTA bus route; the E Line has 18,000 boardings; and the B and D lines carry approximately 25,000 passengers each. The heavy use results in a bus crunch: the MBTA doesn’t have a fleet of spare buses to cover multiple line shutdowns without affecting service elsewhere. Any replacement bus service should be operated as efficiently as possible to minimize the size of the bus fleet required to replace Green Line service, as well as the cost of bus replacements, which require far more labor than higher-capacity Green Line cars.

When planned shutdowns on the Green Line occur, the T needs to work closely with cities and towns to make sure that buses operate as efficiently as possible. This year’s shutdowns, of the C and E lines and the Lechmere viaduct, provide this opportunity. The T should also use this opportunity to implement transit signal priority to make sure that trains don’t get stuck at red lights when they’re back in service. Here’s how this could look along each stretch:

  • On the C Line, a lane of traffic should be reserved exclusively for buses at rush hour. If the T and Brookline were particularly creative, buses could use the left lane, pulling into the median-adjacent parking spaces (which could, in the long run, be converted to a pathway) to serve median-aligned stations, demonstrating elements of bus rapid transit. Temporary boarding platforms could be erected, similar to those in use in Everett, allowing passengers to easily board at all doors. Rather than buses stuck in traffic, this would allow buses to operate as quickly as the trains do today.
  • On the E Line, both train and bus service is frequently delayed by traffic on the portion of Huntington Avenue between Brigham Circle and Riverway. Not only does this affect the speed and reliability of the E Line, but two of the T’s most heavily-used bus lines – the the 39 (which would provide replacement service for the E Line) and the 66. During construction, parking spaces on this roadway could be reallocated to transit, allowing buses to bypass congestion. Once completed, the middle of the roadway should be retained as transit-only lanes, perhaps with stop consolidation, as has been proposed by Northeastern University Professor Peter Furth.
  • For the Lechmere viaduct, several local legislators published a letter pushing MassDOT to install a bus lane between Lechmere and North Station. Without this dedicated lane, replacement bus service will be mired in traffic. While MassDOT may be reticent to replace traffic lanes with bus lanes, it is antithetical to the mission to reduce congestion to prioritize cars over transit.
Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
To keep our transit system running, it is necessary to take actions which may result in disruptions for some commuters. While this may be a tough pill to swallow, it gives us the opportunity to show that the system can be resilient. It’s not unprecedented to shut down portions of the Green Line during the work week for repairs, but in the past, replacement bus service has been bare-bones, with slow buses stuck in rush hour traffic. We must use these shutdowns as an opportunity to show that when reallocated from cars to transit, parallel roadways can be much more efficient at carrying the thousands of MBTA riders who rely on the T every day.

Ari Ofsevit is the senior program associate for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy Boston and a board member of TransitMatters.