Driving, transit ridership show a slight uptick

T officials struggle with how to provide social distancing

EVEN THOUGH GOV. CHARLIE BAKER still has the economy under wraps, traffic on the state’s roadways and at the MBTA picked up slightly last week, adding to confusion about what a reopening is going to mean for the state’s transportation system.

At a virtual joint meeting of the boards overseeing the Department of Transportation and the MBTA, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack pointed to data indicating vehicle miles traveled are down down 70 to 80 percent from pre-COVID levels, but there was a bounce back between April 27 and May 4 of 41.6 million miles, up 53 percent from the previous week.

MBTA subway and bus ridership overall is about 15 percent of pre-COVID levels, but Pollack said tyher number of bus riders increased 10 percent last week while subway traffic went up 7 percent.

State transportation officials are trying to figure out what the uptick in travel means. Pollack chalked the higher driving levels up to “quarantine fatigue.” She and her colleagues are pursuing what they are calling a Goldilocks strategy as the economy reopens – trying to figure the “just right” mix of MBTA service needed to avoid roadway congestion while simultaneously allowing passengers to practice some level of social distancing on buses and subways.

T officials seem focused for now on balancing supply and demand – relying on work-from-home initiatives and staggered work shifts to reduce demand and calibrating service levels accordingly. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said on the Codcast that he is not inclined to set a hard cap on how many passengers can safely board a bus or a subway car and unwilling to ask a bus or subway driver to enforce such a cap.

He took a similar stance at the board meeting. “What is the appropriate level of enforcement, and who should be doing that enforcement, that is something we’re grappling with,” he said.

Poftak indicated riders will influence T policy with how they practice social distancing on the subway system.

Brian Lang, a member of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, took exception to the idea of letting riders decide how many people should be on a bus or a subway car. He said that should be a decision of public health officials.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“I feel pretty strongly that if the Commonwealth takes the attitude of let’s just see what the riders want, it may not be in the best interest of public safety and it would be a shirking of responsibility,” he said. “It’s not a wait-and-see game. If it’s a wait-and-see game, that’s irresponsible.”

Pollack said transit systems across the country are struggling with the best approach. “I don’t think anyone has actually figured out how to logistically and equitably run a socially distant transit system,” she said.