How far apart should riders be on the MBTA?

CDC, state say 6 feet, but T’s crowding standard uses 3 feet

THE STATE’S GUIDANCE on social distancing recommends people stay 6 feet apart, but the MBTA’s new standard for crowding on its buses and subways is 3 feet.

That distance hasn’t come into play much yet because ridership on the T is so low, often leaving more than 6 feet of space between riders. But as the economy reopens, the standards for crowding may play a bigger and bigger role.

At a press conference Wednesday to showcase ongoing repairs at the Blue Line’s Maverick Station, Gov. Charlie Baker and MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak were quizzed about how they will carry off the delicate balancing act of equalizing supply and demand for T service and allow for social distancing.

The T is currently operating at about 60 percent of its normal capacity. Service levels will ramp up slightly in the coming weeks but the T doesn’t plan to return to pre-COVID levels of service until July at the earliest. T officials don’t expect passengers to flock to the T as the economy reopens, but to make sure the system isn’t overrun, the state is encouraging employers to continue having employees work from home and have those employees coming to the office work staggered shifts.

Poftak said the T will adjust service levels in response to crowding, and to gauge crowding he intends to rely on new standards patterned after social distancing protocols developed by the World Health Organization. The T’s crowding standard calls for 3 feet of separation between passengers, rather than the 6 feet recommended for transit passengers by the US Centers for Disease Control.

Gov. Charlie Baker at the T’s Maverick Station, with at left, Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, House Speaker Robert DeLeo (head only), Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Under the MBTA’s new standard, a 40-foot bus would be crowded with 20 passengers, instead of the 56 pre-COVID. For a Green Line trolley, crowding would occur with 31 passengers instead of 80; for a Red Line car, 66 instead of 161; Orange Line, 62 instead of 141; and Blue Line, 42 instead of 86.

Three-foot social distancing obviously allows a lot more passengers on board than 6-foot social distancing. The passenger numbers with 6-foot distancing would be 10 on a 40-foot bus, 18 on a Green Line car, and 21 on a Red Line car, according to an analysis by the business group A Better City.

Poftak, who rode a T shuttle bus to the press conference, said he went with the 3-foot standard because it dovetails with the governor’s face-covering requirement. “Part of it is the face covering requirement. Face coverings are intended for use where social distancing isn’t possible,” he said.

Poftak also said the T’s standard tracks closely with what transit systems in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chicago are doing, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Philadelphia’s system does limit the number of passengers on a 40-foot bus to 20, suggesting 3 feet of social distancing. But Chicago and Washington, DC, go with 6 feet. In Chicago, 40-foot buses carry 10 to 15 passengers (the higher number includes family members who don’t mind sitting close together). In Washington, the transit system says social distancing cuts capacity by 80 percent, which is what 6 feet of distancing does.

Baker, who regularly preaches social distancing of 6 feet, said he hadn’t read the guidance of the World Health Organization and would have no detailed comment until he does. He said, however, that people wearing masks can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission by 80 percent.

Poftak is trying to walk a fine line on enforcement of mask-wearing and social distancing. The T is requiring passengers to wear masks but not refusing them service if they don’t or policing their use.

Poftak is also not policing the crowding standards. The T intends to react to crowding when it occurs and prevent crowding from occurring by reducing the number of riders. He said the T is exploring ways to communicate to riders when a bus or subway is crowded so they can find an alternative means of travel (possibly taking commuter rail rather than riding a bus) or wait for a later bus or subway.

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak gets off a shuttle bus at the Maverick T Station. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Meet the Author

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.

Poftak has said bus and subway operators should not be asked to police mask-wearing and social distancing. He also said the whole idea of enforcement raises equity issues. “How do you determine who gets pulled off a bus and who doesn’t get pulled off?” he asked.

The problem hasn’t materialized in a major way yet. But Poftak estimates that if the T’s bus ridership rises to 75 percent of its pre-COVID level (it’s in the 25 percent range now), 9 percent of all weekday trips would exceed his crowding capacity levels and more than half of those trips would be on key bus routes. (Note: This paragraph was changed to reflect a clarification from the T that the ridership level needs to rise to 75 percent of pre-COVID levels instead of 50 percent.)