T shows a willingness to experiment

The MBTA tried something new on Saturday.

When the MBTA shuts down a subway or commuter rail line for repairs, standard operating procedure is to run replacement bus service along the exact same route. It’s a policy that has been in place at the T for a long time. It is also a practice that is being used more and more as the agency tries to tackle its backlog of repairs.

But is it the right policy in all situations?

With the T preparing to shut down the Red Line between Harvard and Alewife on weekends from November 10 through December 2, Jim Aloisi of TransitMatters sent Jeffrey Gonneville, the deputy general manager of the T, a proposal developed by his TransitMatters colleague Ari Ofsevit. Ofsevit and his TransitMatters colleagues have a fairly good track record when it comes to developing new approaches for the T.

Ofsevit suggested an alternative approach with the replacement buses. Instead of running buses from Harvard to Porter to Davis to Alewife – all the regular subway stops – Ofsevit suggested running replacement buses along two routes. He proposed one route running from Harvard to Porter to Davis, returning along the same route. The other route would run from Harvard to Davis to Alewife, with the return trip going straight from Alewife to Harvard.

Under Ofsevit’s proposal, three of the buses picking up passengers at Harvard would ply the Harvard-Porter-Davis route and one would run the route to Alewife. Ofsevit estimated his shorter, simpler routes would cut travel time in half and require half as many buses to carry the same number of passengers.

For passengers, Ofsevit estimated most would see no change or only a slight change, except those traveling from Alewife to Harvard, who would save 10 to 12 minutes of travel time. The only passengers facing longer trips would be those traveling from Alewife to Davis or Porter, but Ofsevit estimated there weren’t many of them.

The key assumption in Ofsevit’s proposal was that few people use the commuter-focused Alewife on weekends, which means most buses running between Davis and Alewife under the T’s standard approach were running near-empty most of the time.

Ofsevit said he initially pitched his idea in a blog post in 2016, but it didn’t go anywhere. Gonneville says he received Ofsevit’s pitch this year – via Aloisi — around the time of the Red Sox World Series victory parade. Gonneville says he never got a chance to talk to Aloisi, but he shared the idea with his team at the MBTA. Hearing nothing from Gonneville, Aloisi passed Ofsevit’s proposal along to CommonWealth, which published it on November 5.

Ultimately, the T decided to give Ofsevit’s idea a try on Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., but instead of two routes the agency decided to run three routes. One route ran express from Harvard to Alewife. A second ran from Harvard to Alewife making all stops. A third ran to Davis Square only.

“We did it with no fanfare,” Gonneville said, which he acknowledged created some consumer confusion.

Gonneville said the T is still sifting through the data it gathered, but it sounds like the new approach may be tried again. Gonneville said the operational logistics were complicated and his head of bus operations recommended two routes, not three, next time.

Ofsevit heard about the T experiment on Saturday from a TransitMatters colleague and raced over to Harvard to see for himself. By the time he arrived, the experiment was over. He was disappointed he didn’t get to see it in action, but he was excited the T gave it a try. On Sunday, he published a follow-up on his blog that praised the transit agency for trying something new and offered some suggestions for similar experiments during upcoming subway repair shutdowns.

“To everyone involved in the planning and operations staff at the MBTA: kudos and thank you,” he wrote. “It’s always a risk to try something new, and to listen to some guy ranting on the internet. You did both. I hope it worked. I hope that it will work in the future, and that the T uses these sorts of situations to try new things to continue to provide the best possible service to its customers.”



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