Buses in Lawrence moving to 30-minute frequency

Follows decision to go fare free in March

BUSES IN LAWRENCE will operate every 30 minutes all day long on weekdays starting September 6 in a bid to provide more consistency for riders and reflect changing usage patterns.

The greater frequency comes on the heels of a decision in March by the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority to go fare free across the system for two years.

Noah Berger, the authority’s administrator, said buses have been operating hourly since July because of a shortage of drivers. Previously, buses had operated every 30 minutes at peak periods and every hour off-peak.

The authority said a recruitment effort over the summer attracted eight new drivers, bringing the total to 80, enough to boost frequency to every 30 minutes. Buses in Lawrence run from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. weekends.

The new service levels apply to Lawrence-based routes serving Methuen, Andover, North Andover, and Haverhill. A press release issued by the authority said the greater frequency “reflects the reality that riders need the bus throughout the day and are not likely operating on a banker’s 9-5 schedule.”

Berger said the key to providing more frequency was adding more drivers at a time when shortages are surfacing across the country. He said the authority has done traditional outreach for drivers through job fairs, but word of mouth is also helping, spurred by efforts to improve workplace conditions and increase salaries to a high of $27.61 an hour.

Berger said the authority purchased a massage chair and a high-end coffee machine, both of which are popular. “Little things like that have really made a difference,” he said.

The authority is also doing a bit of image building, giving its fairly drab buses a colorful overhaul and changing the system’s logo from MVRTA to MEVA, for Merrimack Valley. On the top side of the buses is the tagline: “Let’s go Vamanos,” a nod to the Spanish-speaking population in Lawrence.

Lawrence began experimenting with fare free buses in 2019, when former mayor Dan Rivera paid for three routes to dispense with collections.

All buses went fare free in March at a projected cost of $950,000 over two years. The cost  will be covered by federal funding. Berger said eliminating fares speeded up service and reduced expenses significantly for such things as a money counting room, fare boxes, and security for transportation cash.

Ridership on fixed bus routes hit 126,343 in June, a 71 percent increase since February, the last month the system collected fares. Paratransit ridership grew more modestly, rising from 4,646 riders in February to 5,946 in June, an increase of 28 percent.