Simple T reforms could have big impact

Signal priority, bike lanes, fewer stops could help Green Line commute

IN 2017, the “Race the T” campaign illuminated what many commuters already know—outrunning the Green Line on foot is not only a feasible pursuit, but a relatively easy one. Sitting on the B line each morning, standing amongst dozens of other Allston-to-downtown riders, it becomes increasingly clear that the B line is not, as it currently runs, a particularly effective mode of transit for commuters. It is painfully slow (at an average speed of 7.1 mph, far below that of other lines) and stops far too frequently (18 stops in about 4 miles), yet it packs in riders like sardines as it remains an essential mode of Boston’s transit network.

In the last several months, CommonWealth and the Globe have dissected the T’s long-term plans and priorities in great depth; however, some of the simplest reforms can also be the most influential. Small-scale reform is a crucial piece of the broader narrative of T reform, as improving the usefulness of the T in the short term will only improve buy-in for larger projects in the long term. It will bring stakeholders together to allow the T, the city, and the state to better utilize shared resources as we weigh grander ideas. These reforms have great value to everyday riders like us, can occur in the short term, and cost little when compared to major changes such as the Green Line extension and the proposed Red-Blue line connector.

Some of the lowest-hanging fruit includes bolstering signal priority on Commonwealth Avenue, adding protected bike lanes down Commonwealth Avenue, and—most importantly—consolidating stops. Thus far, the T has piloted signal priority at several intersections on the Green Line, experimented with better bike lanes, and made long-term plans for B and E Line stop consolidation. But these changes need to be a higher priority—implementation of these reforms needs to be in the short term.  Of course, the T has limited resources, but that makes focusing on tested solutions to its problems even more important.

Signal priority has been tested by the T before on Commonwealth Avenue and elsewhere with promising results. Signal priority saves time for riders not only because the trains aren’t sitting at red lights as often, but because it removes the need to slow down and then speed up again every few blocks. For riders like us, improving the speed of the above-ground portions of the B line is one of the biggest time-savers. Signal priority will also help buses running on Commonwealth Avenue, including the 57, which is truly one of the backbones of the city.

Signal priority on its own will not magically solve the problems facing the B line (or the 57 bus), but it is a step that the T can take cheaply and quickly to improve every day commutes. The cost is $12,640 per traffic light to improve the morning commutes of tens of thousands of Green Line riders and thousands of bus riders every morning, and a large portion of the money will come from the city of Cambridge (as Cambridge’s portion of Mass Ave will also receive the technology). It is well worth its cost considering how expanding signal priority will speed up all public transit on Commonwealth Avenue.

Additionally, we have a great need to expand the existing bike lanes on Commonwealth Avenue. As it stands, more than a mile of protected bike lanes are being developed from Packard’s Corner to the BU bridge. The city, MassDOT, and BU have shared the cost of the project thus far, and we applaud the work being done. However, given the high volume of cyclists each day, we also need an extension of the protected bike lanes as far as possible down Commonwealth Avenue. As biking becomes a safer and a more appealing option, it will help to reduce overcrowding on the B line at peak hours and give commuters more flexibility.

Protected bike lanes are a win for everyone. Driving alongside cyclists is, to put it politely, less than ideal for drivers. As cyclists continue to lose their lives along Boston thoroughfares, the T and the city are obligated to respond meaningfully. While the cold weather inhibits some cyclists for the winter months, those who continue to ride in the cold enjoy a safer commute when a brush with ice won’t send you careening into a minivan. Throw in reducing congestion on the T and every major stakeholder on the Commonwealth Avenue morning commute stands to gain from protected bike lanes.

Finally, stop consolidation offers the cheapest and most promising improvement to B and E line commutes. Currently, the T does plan to consolidate four stops on the B line down to two (combining St. Paul with BU West and Babcock with Pleasant Street). This is certainly a step in the right direction, but when will it happen? The current plan calls for consolidation as part of a larger makeover of stations that will be done by 2021, but surely consolidation could happen more quickly.

The B line has an overwhelming 19 stops in its 4.1 mile route, which means that many stops are too close together. Warren and Allston Street, not even part of the T’s current consolidation plans, are less than one-tenth of a mile apart. Fixmbta.com has proposed cutting the total number of stops down to 11, which would certainly improve the experience of commuting on the B line. Frankly, any consolidations would be an incredible improvement.

Some are worried that closing stops will make the B line less accessible to those who are not able to walk longer distances, but most of these affected stops are little-used and not even handicap accessible. Merging Chiswick Road and Sutherland Road (which in 2014 had 615 and 856 weekday riders respectively) would affect few passengers—and with fewer stops it will be more feasible to quickly improve handicap accessibility in the future. To us, a B line that moves more quickly through fewer stops, which are all handicap accessible, is the transit network that Bostonians deserve.

Meet the Author

Rachel Adele Dec

Public Affairs Associate, MassINC
Meet the Author

Drew Latimer

Transit advocate, Allston
While we would love to see major reforms like a Red-Blue connector in Boston, transit advocates ought to be simultaneously pushing for smaller-scale reforms such as signal prioritization on major arteries, protected bike lanes on Commonwealth Avenue, and stop consolidation. Perhaps then, armed with these reforms, the B line might be faster than a jogger. And maybe, just maybe, it would let us commute four miles in under an hour.

Rachel Adele Dec is a public affairs associate at MassINC and Drew Latimer is a transit advocate based in Allston.