Getting Gateway Cities back on the bus

Poll shows challenges for regional transit systems 

MUCH OF THE FOCUS on public transportation in Massachusetts during COVID has been on service cuts at the MBTA, but the Regional Transit Authorities serving the state’s Gateway Cities and surrounding communities have also been struggling with declines in ridership since the start of the pandemic. A new poll (topline, crosstabs) highlights the challenges facing these RTAs in rebounding from the pandemic — but also suggests support for some pro-transit policies that could help entice riders back.

The MassINC Polling Group surveyed 1,262 residents of Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities between October 17 and December 22, 2020. Surveys were conducted in English and Spanish, online and via live landline and cellphone interviews. The survey was conducted with the MassINC Gateway Cities Innovation Institute and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and sponsored by The Barr Foundation.

Most Gateway Cities residents were not transit riders even before the pandemic. About half (52 percent) report driving or riding in a car daily before COVID, a figure that dropped only slightly to 45 percent during the pandemic. Fewer than 10 percent reported riding any transit mode that often before COVID. That largely tracks with other surveys and commuting data, which show that the state’s transit usage is concentrated in Boston and the MBTA service area. Several of the Gateway Cities surveyed are within the MBTA bus network, although most are not.

Those Gateway Cities residents who are riding transit with any frequency during the pandemic tend to be younger, more diverse, with lower levels of income and education. They are less likely to be employed, and more likely to be part time if they are working, and less likely to own a car. For many of these riders, transit may be their only option for getting where they need to go.

Overall, the Gateway City residents who are riding transit to any degree during COVID are doing so with some trepidation. A majority of them are either not very (30 percent) or not at all comfortable (29 percent) using transit. They also report risky situations on transit, most commonly other riders not wearing masks (44 percent) and vehicles too crowded to allow for safe social distancing (40 percent). Majorities of the most frequent riders (54 percent) report seeing these two situations, but they seem to have adapted to them, reporting higher levels of comfort riding than those who rode less often. 

It’s clear from these and several other several findings in the survey that COVID has been weighing heavily on would-be transit riders as well. Among those who said they would prefer to be riding any transit mode more than they are now, 61 percent cited their fear of getting COVID-19 as an obstacle to doing so. COVID is also the top barrier (58 percent) to increased use of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, another shared mode. Among all respondents 72 percent think that driving is safer than public transit, suggesting residents are thinking more about the pandemic than car accidents. This basic dynamic has shown up in all of our transportation polling since the beginning of the pandemic, with residents describing less group mode use and more individual travel.

Majorities also think that driving costs less than transit, is more reliable and convenient, and that it better “gets me where I need to go on time.” Transit was seen as “better for the environment,” but only barely (42 percent to 36 percent), despite mountains of evidence of large differences in impact. Driving is seen as superior on all but two of these (cost and environment) even by frequent transit riders and those without access to cars. 

Gateway residents may not be eager to get on transit themselves, but they’re supportive of pro-transit policies. Over 80 percent support giving lower-income residents a discount on public transportation fares and passes, while a smaller majority (58 percent) support making public transit free for all riders. The former policy was among the policy items vetoed from the transportation bond bill by Gov. Baker last week, while the latter has been proposed for the MBTA by Boston City Councilor (and mayoral candidate) Michelle Wu. (An MPG statewide voter poll released last week found 58 percent support for making public buses free to all riders, and 50 percent support for making all public transit free.)

Residents also support various elements of “bus rapid transit,” or BRT, which would remake bus service to more resemble what riders experience on a subway or light rail like the T’s Green Line. Even though residents were largely unfamiliar with BRT, majorities were in favor of seeing each of the features of a BRT system implemented on the busiest routes in their local bus systems. 

Most popular was building enclosed bus stops level with the doors on buses, a fairly infrastructure-intensive project. But nearly as popular were policy changes like running buses more frequently, having riders pay before boarding, and changing routes to allow for more direct service with fewer transfers. Just below those four was perhaps the most crucial element of BRT: giving buses their own dedicated lanes apart from other traffic. 

Given residents’ concerns about COVID, it’s likely that rolling out a vaccine will make a bigger difference to bus ridership than implementing any of these features. But the support for these policies, even among drivers who would have to share the streets with these enhanced bus routes, suggests that Gateway Cities residents understand and value transit, even if they are not planning to use it themselves.

 Richard Parr is research director at the MassINC Polling Group.