Taking the bus to a whole new level

Challenges but urgency for BRT in Boston

The service disruptions caused by the MBTA’s more aggressive maintenance schedule could provide a catalyst for better bus service, according to some of the chief proponents of bus rapid transit.

More common in other countries than the United States, bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a strategy that uses buses so they mimic the conveniences of a rail line. That should include a dedicated right-of-way in the center of roads to avoid turning traffic; bus stations with seating, shelter, platform-level boarding, a fare system that enables passengers to board at all doors; and priority given to the buses at traffic signals, according to Julia Wallerce, Boston program manager for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.

Wallerce found a lot of common ground with Jim Aloisi and Jarred Johnson of TransitMatters on this week’s episode of The Codcast, where the three discussed the benefits of BRT and some of the challenges of implementing it in metro Boston.

Some communities – namely Everett, Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, and Arlington – have incorporated elements of BRT, such as dedicated bus lanes, and Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria has gone the furthest, calling for a complete BRT system in his city, Wallerce said.

The T’s new maintenance schedule, spurred by Gov. Charlie Baker’s visit to the site of the June 11 Red Line crash, will mean more weekend shutdowns along rail lines. That could create the impetus for improvements to the T’s bus system, and incorporating elements of BRT, according to Wallerce.

“It cannot be that we’re just going to have shuttle buses as we have been doing in the past. That doesn’t work,” said Aloisi, who was the state’s transportation secretary during the Patrick administration.

There are also impediments to contorting Boston area roads to accommodate speedier service for bus riders, including a patchwork of sometimes disagreeing municipal jurisdictions, a general aversion to change, and a historic street layout that presents geometric challenges.

But other cities – including Mexico City and Eugene, Oregon – overcame the challenges of narrow thoroughfares, Wallerce said.

“You can be creative about how you use your street space in just about every way,” said Wallerce. There are no examples of true BRT in Massachusetts, but Hartford, Connecticut, has created such a system along an old rail line, she said.  

The Barr Foundation (which provides funding to CommonWealth) gave grants to Arlington, Everett, Cambridge, and Watertown to work with the T on creating speedier and more comfortable bus travel, and the transit agency appreciated the municipalities taking ownership of the service on their streets, Wallerce said.

“The T was such a critical partner and was, quite frankly, thrilled to see these communities stepping up rather than waiting for the T to take the lead,” Wallerce said. The recent Silver Line extension to Chelsea also showcased the ways that buses using a dedicated corridor can accelerate commutes.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Given the Boston area’s traffic congestion problems and a global warming crisis exacerbated by gas-powered cars and trucks, the time is ripe to reconfigure streets and make bus travel more efficient, Wallerce contended.

“We’re at the point now where we’re thinking maybe it’s time to press play. Let’s do this,” Wallerce said.