DiCara is wrong about Boston buses

Don't ban them, let's find ways to help them work better

IN A RECENT  CommonWealth piece, Larry DiCara decried the routing of MBTA buses through downtown Boston, which he said was clogging its already congested streets.

If you look at downtown Boston at rush hour, you’ll see a lot of congestion. Pedestrians zigzag across intersections. Bicyclists pedal along shoulders, or, when they’re lucky enough, in a bike lane. Over-capacity subways rumble underground. Above all, cars clog up most of the real estate, congesting the roadways as they slowly shuffle towards highway entrance ramps and bridges heading out of town.

One thing you won’t see much of, unless you look in a few places, are a lot of buses. As Boston’s transit system developed, it was built around subway-surface transfer stations (think Harvard, Ashmont, Maverick, Forest Hills, and Lechmere, among others) where passengers changed from streetcars (now buses) to a rapid transit line to downtown. While a few bus lines do go downtown, none traverse it.

In fact, Boston is the only American city where you cannot get across downtown by bus. Go anywhere else and main downtown streets are lined with buses (Minneapolis, for example, built double-width bus lanes to handle suburban bus traffic). In Boston, only a few streets have any bus traffic at all.

Where they do ply the streets, transit buses are not a scourge in downtown Boston, but an efficient means of passenger transportation. Buses in Boston may not carry the same portion of transit users that they do in Seattle, Philadelphia, or even Chicago (even there, buses carry more passengers than the “L” train system), but they are an important and necessary part of downtown transit. Instead of kicking them to the curb, we should build better facilities to let buses move more quickly and more safely, even if it might mean some inconvenience for the real cause of congestion: single occupancy automobiles.

Every day, MBTA buses serving downtown Boston make about 1,200 trips (less than 1 percent of the overall traffic downtown), and, according to MBTA ridership data, carry more than 60,000 passengers. That figure doesn’t include Silver Line buses that terminate below grade at South Station. (Private carrier commuter buses add 200 more trips, although many of these end at the South Station bus terminal.) This ridership is more than the Blue Line carries, and nearly as many as the entirety of the commuter rail network. This makes the buses almost a fifth “line” of the transit system serving downtown, not a group of riders which should be dumped off in to the already-overburdened subway stops from their destination. We should view T bus service downtown not as a menace but as a vital asset in the transportation ecosystem.

This 60,000 figure (which doesn’t include the subterranean SL1 and SL2 Silver Line routes) can be divided somewhat evenly between the Silver Line’s Dudley Square branches (SL4 and SL5), other urban routes (including the 111, the only “Key” bus route to serve downtown) and express buses from the north (I-93 and Route 1) and west (Mass Pike). They mostly feed into three main route termini (buses need a place to easily loop back for their outbound run):

  • Silver Line buses use either the Essex-Surface Artery-Kneeland loop to South Station (SL4) or the Washington-Temple-Tremont loop near Downtown Crossing (SL5)
  • Buses from the south, west and east use the Franklin-Federal-Otis loop in the Financial District.
  • Buses from the north serve the Haymarket bus station, with a few continuing to Milk Street.

While these buses carry tens of thousands of passengers, with the exception of a few portions of the downtown Silver Line route, they have no lane or signal priority. So passengers sit in traffic—traffic caused by cars—for this portion of their trip downtown. To actually plan for the future, we could certainly do so in ways more productive than somehow banishing buses to the periphery of downtown and requiring passengers to transfer to our already-over capacity subway system. Real thinking ahead would entail a network of priority lanes to allow buses to skip queues of cars and quickly bring commuters in and out of the city:

  •  The SL4 and SL5 combine on Washington Street as the busiest bus route in the city, with nearly 20,000 daily passengers. Bus lanes along their downtown routes, especially wider roads like the Surface Artery, Kneeland Street and Tremont Street, would help speed buses and leave plenty of room for cars.
  • Summer, Lincoln, Federal, Franklin and Otis streets, and the Surface Artery (which would also serve the SL4), could easily accommodate bus lanes—albeit at the expense of some street parking or travel lanes—to help move buses in and out of the city. Faster bus trips would encourage suburbanites to leave their cars at home, further reducing congestion.
  • Bus lanes on North Washington Street from Haymarket across the soon-to-be-rebuilt Charlestown Bridge would shorten trips for the 20,000 riders of the 111 to Chelsea and other routes to Charlestown and Lynn, all economic justice communities with relatively poor transit service, where buses are lifeline, yet one unnecessarily hamstrung by traffic gridlock.

These three corridors encompass a tiny portion of the streets downtown. Improving them would help the commute for tens of thousands commuters; provide safer conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians by keeping large vehicles in specific, predictable lanes; and streamline MBTA operations, saving the T money. In the longer term, we could enhance express routes by converting highway capacity to high-occupancy vehicle lanes (especially on 93 North and the Mass Pike, which each see upwards of 20 buses per hour at rush hours). Buses are far more efficient at moving passengers than single-occupancy cars.

And most of this could be done quite cheaply. There’s no need to spend $2 billion on a mile-long, serpentine, relatively low-capacity Silver Line tunnel. The corridors noted here could utilize existing traffic and parking lanes to the same effect and be converted for little more than the cost of new signals and road paint. Considering how much it would save the T in operating costs by avoiding congestion, it would likely pay for itself. These ideas are not new or novel. Most of the world’s great cities are embracing bus lanes as a better way to move people.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
Real planning is most certainly not the removal of bus routes and stops, most of which would likely be converted for more parking, anyway. This sort of backwards, cars-first thinking is what led us to the current state of congestion in the first place. (An example: Plans in the 1940s included a  rail line similar to today’s Green Line D branch to run alongside the current Worcester Line—then four tracks wide—and into the Park Street station via a now abandoned portal on Tremont Street. Instead, we built the Turnpike over two of the tracks with promised “express bus” service. Instead of speedy service, 500-series express buses sit in traffic there on a daily basis.)

There are a lot of things to blame for downtown congestion. But buses certainly are not on that list.

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner with the Charles River TMA in Cambridge, which runs the EZRide Shuttle. He has won hackathons examining data from Hubway, late night MBTA service, and MassDOT real time highway traffic.