The lowly bus deserves a lot more attention

It’s an underappreciated, neglected part of our transportation system

EACH WEEKDAY in Greater Boston, more than 400,000 workers, students, shoppers, seniors, and visitors board an MBTA bus. Buses serve three times as many riders as the commuter rail. But despite their importance, buses remain an underappreciated and often neglected component of our region’s transportation system. The T’s own performance dashboard sets a meager on-time performance expectation for bus service of just 75 percent. And even that bar has been met on only nine days so far in 2019. On not a single day so far in 2019 have buses achieved even an 80 percent on-time standard.

If the commuter rail were performing that poorly, it would be the leading news story each and every day, and our elected officials would be calling it a crisis. The historical race and class context for this reality cannot be ignored. Urban bus riders deserve the same urgency and attention as suburban commuter rail riders. While rail is an important part of our transportation system, it is the bus that has been, and will be, our region’s public transit workhorse.

Fortunately, fixing the bus system is one of the cheapest and most efficient ways we can improve the MBTA. It doesn’t require billions of dollars and decades-long construction. In fact, some bus system changes, like modernizing routes, will actually produce cost savings to the MBTA that can be plowed back into improved service.

The MBTA took a major first step last month, when the Baker administration and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation proposed a slate of changes to 63 bus routes that will make bus service faster, more efficient, and more responsive to rider needs. We strongly support this process, and call on riders, communities, and elected officials to embrace experimentation and changes to routes that haven’t been updated in decades, if ever. This effort will hopefully lay the groundwork for a more robust overhaul of the system, including adding new routes system-wide and expanding the MBTA’s fleet of buses.

But improving routes and adding news buses to the fleet will only get us so far. To truly revolutionize our bus system we need to look at how we allocate precious road space. This work has started, with bus-lane pilots in communities such as Everett, Cambridge, and Roslindale. But the process needs to be accelerated, particularly in neighborhoods that depend on bus service as their main transit option.

The four bus lines that serve the Dimock Community Health Center carry more than 16,000 riders per weekday. Three quarters of those riders are people of color, and the majority of riders live in a household that does not own a vehicle. For the most part, cities and towns can control how well buses run — or don’t — on their streets, by creating bus lanes and other transit priority amenities. These simple fixes have already proven effective in the region. In Boston, a bus lane pilot on Washington Street in Roslindale produced a travel time reduction that averaged 25 percent for nearly 20,000 daily bus riders. All that with just some orange cones and red paint.

MassDOT could build on this success by improving bus service on roads it controls. This will require a combination of creating bus lanes on more state-owned highways, and using smarter tolling to get key bus corridors like the Tobin Bridge, the Ted Williams Tunnel, and the Massachusetts Turnpike moving faster (both for bus riders and drivers). In Seattle, these two tools have helped increased ridership to the point that almost one in five workers commutes by bus. Seattle’s downtown has gained about 60,000 jobs since 2010, but there are approximately 4,500 fewer single-occupancy vehicle commuters.

Meet the Author

Myechia Minter-Jordan

President and CEO, Dimock Center
Meet the Author

Chris Dempsey

Guest Contributor, Transportation for Mass.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation made prioritizing public transit its first recommendation for creating a robust, reliable, clean, and efficient transportation system. Let’s elevate the bus – low cost, efficient, flexible – as the once, current, and future workhorse of that system.

Dr. Myechia Minter-Jordan is the president and CEO of the Dimock Center and Chris Dempsey is the director of Transportation for Massachusetts