Time to step it up on bus rapid transit

MBTA making progress, but still has a way to go

NEW DATA RELEASED recently by the MassINC Polling Group demonstrates the toll that traffic congestion and long commutes are taking on Massachusetts residents. Sixty-six percent of poll respondents believe that urgent action is needed to address transportation issues, with many respondents indicating they have considered changing jobs or leaving the area altogether as a result of current conditions.

To turn the tide, Massachusetts needs to build on the bright spots where the transportation experience is getting better – and buses are a prime example. Bus priority pilots — largely focused on implementing bus priority lanes – in Everett, Boston, Arlington, Cambridge, and Watertown have improved the commutes of thousands of riders throughout the region. The pilots have been so successful that Gov. Charlie Baker at a press conference declared himself converted to “a big bus-lane guy.”

Improvements to bus corridors also advance racial and socioeconomic equity as buses often serve communities of color and communities with a higher share of low-income riders. These riders also face some of the longest commute times in the region. For example, the Go Boston 2030 Report pointed out that transit riders in Mattapan have the longest commute times in Boston. In fact, nearly a quarter of Mattapan residents have commutes of 60 minutes or more. And throughout the city of Boston black riders spend on average 17 percent more time on buses due to delay than their white counterparts.

Bus priority lanes are an important step in the right direction, and there are literally dozens more routes throughout the region where space on roadways could and should be reworked to prioritize buses. But with Greater Boston predicted to add 235,000 net new jobs and 430,000 new residents by 2030, we need to move a lot more people a lot more efficiently if we are going to make a dent in current congestion and commute times. Bus lanes alone are not enough. Truly transformative time savings and connectivity can only come with true bus rapid transit.

There is some confusion in the United States about what bus rapid transit means.  Some people understand bus rapid transit as meaning any of a variety of improvements in bus service or its supporting infrastructure, from a painted lane to upgraded shelters. The Silver Line in Boston, for example, was originally labeled as bus rapid transit although it lacked many of the features that are essential. To stem confusion, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in collaboration with a committee of global transportation experts developed a bus rapid transit standard to outline the set of key improvements that, when combined, make a bus rapid transit experience among the fastest, most comfortable ways to get around:

  • Dedicated lanes: Buses travel in a physically separated part of the street, marked by more than painted lines.
  • Median alignment: Buses travel in the center of the roadway, removing them from the conflicts of the curbside where cars are parking, stalling, and turning.
  • Pre-board fare collection: Riders pay their fares before boarding, allowing for fast, all-door boarding like on a subway.
  • Level boarding: Riders board via a level platform, creating ease of entry for riders with strollers or mobility challenges.
  • Intersection treatments: This includes giving buses a head start at green lights and prohibiting left turns for cars along the bus lane.

You can check out how elements of bus rapid transit works in our region by watching this cool video.

Beyond these basics, bus rapid transit works even better with good pedestrian and cyclist integration at stations. At this level of sophistication, which we see in cities with multiple bus rapid transit corridors, bus rapid transit becomes the catalyst for totally reimagining streets for people.

The recent Boston-area bus pilots tested four of these elements; no single pilot tested more than two.  These early successes raise the question: What would it look like for a corridor in Boston or Greater Boston to implement all five?

The answer, as demonstrated by 170 cities around the world that move millions of people each day via bus rapid transit, is that Greater Boston would unlock vast new potential around economic development, equity, and carbon emission reduction. And we could construct a full route within three to five years at a fraction of the cost of more complex infrastructure projects such as rail. For example, the price tag for Mexico City’s Metrobus bus rapid transit – which moves an astounding 1.5 million people per day, 70 percent of whom previously traveled by car, would have been 20 times higher had it been built as a subway. Bus rapid transit is a proven method of moving large numbers of people in a highly cost-effective manner.

Recognizing the spatial and design related specifics of the improvements listed above, bus rapid transit corridors need to be strategically placed and implementation requires robust public communication and political leadership. If reducing traffic and shaking our worst-in-nation title for rush hour congestion is our goal, we must keep asking how we can move more people in fewer vehicles and design our streets accordingly.

Meet the Author

Julia Wallerce

Boston program manager, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy
Meet the Author

Jarred Johnson

CEO and development director, TransitMatters
From a demand and design perspective, here are three routes worth serious consideration for bus rapid transit:

  • Everett to downtown Boston (via Sullivan Square) – The Broadway corridor in Everett already features a morning bus priority lane that has shaved seven minutes from the commutes of 7,500 riders per day. As a growing Gateway City, this corridor has the potential to carry over 10,000 people per day to jobs in the Boston core (based on our own analyses using 2016 MassDOT data) with far greater time savings.
  • Mattapan to downtown Boston (via Dudley Square) – The Mattapan corridor would potentially connect over 40,000 daily riders per average weekday, making it one of the highest ridership bus rapid transit corridors in the country, saving 10 minutes just between Mattapan and Dudley plus an additional 10 minutes from Dudley to downtown Boston
  • Harvard Square to Dudley (via Longwood Medical area) – The corridor from Harvard to Dudley Square would connect two important employment areas to neighborhoods in Boston that have been historically underserved by good transit in 24 minutes less time than it takes today.

Bus rapid transit can make a measurable improvement in the commutes and travel experiences of tens of thousands of people while building on progress made in rethinking our streets. Who will be the first to go all-in to bring this globally-tested solution to our region?

Julia Wallerce manages the Boston program for the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy, a global nonprofit dedicated to promoting equitable and sustainable transportation worldwide. She chairs the Winthrop Transportation Advisory Committee.  Jarred Johnson is the chief operating officer and development director for TransitMatters.