MBTA’s Better Bus Project could boost low-income communities


Photo courtesy Creative Commons

The 101 bus makes its way to Malden Station.

George Barker, news correspondent

Boston commuters spend an average of 164 hours stuck in traffic per year, making Boston the most congested city in the country, according to the INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard. Now ranked as the seventh most congested city in the world, Boston is exploring a variety of options to relieve its rush hour crawl. The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, or MBTA, hopes its bus system will contribute to improvements.

But before buses can begin to solve Boston’s heightening traffic problem, they will need major adjustments. The MBTA is beginning the Better Bus Project, meant to solve some of the largest issues facing the bus service. Those in charge of the project have their work cut out for them as currently, buses are the weakest wing of the MBTA.

Despite the fact that 30 percent of MBTA users utilize the bus service, the reliability of buses lags far behind both the commuter rail and subway lines, where trains arrive on schedule at a rate approaching 90 percent, not including stops affected by bus shuttles in place of train stations under construction.

Buses meet the MBTA’s own reliability targets of 75 percent just 14 percent of the time, with “non-key” routes meeting targets only 9 percent of the time. The MBTA aims to improve this rate, but not all issues slowing down buses are within its control.

“One of the biggest challenges we’ve seen with buses is the challenge of them being held back by highly congested streets. Approximately seven miles of streets are holding back about 90,000 riders,” said Kristiana Lachiusa, who works for the LivableStreets Alliance, a Cambridge-based transportation advocacy group. Roughly 355,000 people ride the bus on an average weekday.

The Better Bus Project aims to limit the negative effects of high traffic on buses through multiple bus priority initiatives. The MBTA is still exploring dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority systems in surrounding commuter towns and cities to alleviate the effects of rush hour traffic on the timeliness of key bus routes. The hope is that by improving buses’ efficiency, more commuters will turn to the bus and subsequently lower traffic congestion.

Bus lanes were found to be quite effective in Arlington, where the 77 bus route carried an average of 3,635 riders down Massachusetts Avenue per day in 2014.

“If I take the bus after 7:30, there’s a ton of rush hour traffic, so I’ll usually be late,” said Maren Larkin, a resident of Arlington who regularly takes the 77 bus to school. “If there wasn’t such a significant amount of rush hour traffic, then I wouldn’t have to leave my house 30 or 45 minutes before I have to be at school. Because of the traffic, my commute takes almost twice as long as it does during less busy times of day.”

Larkin is far from the only bus user adversely affected by traffic. Nearly 85 percent of commuters found their trip to be completed faster with the lane in place, and just under 95 percent wanted the lane to be made permanent. One of the busiest corridors of the 77 bus route, which was in the 90th percentile for delays, found a travel time reduction of more than 10 minutes while reducing variability of travel times by 40 percent. Dedicated bus lanes can greatly improve the service of key routes that thousands of Boston area residents rely on for their daily commutes.

There are also internal factors the MBTA hopes to address to improve service. The MBTA’s State of the Bus System says that absent bus operators lead to cancelled routes and also cites outdated schedules as reasons buses fail to remain on schedule.

Part of the Better Bus Project is aimed at resolving outdated and repetitive bus routes, hoping to consolidate routes to improve service. Currently, there are 47 proposals to alter existing bus routes, with many of these proposals coming directly from the community that uses them. Unlike major infrastructure updates, changing the bus schedule may allow the MBTA to quickly improve service to some of its weakest routes. Additionally, the MBTA aims to hire more bus operators in the coming years.

Despite the effectiveness of dedicated bus lanes in surrounding communities, Boston is lagging behind in fully implementing the program within the city. Although the lanes are beginning to emerge, the majority of the city does not yet have any dedicated lanes. With the MBTA experiencing another large budget deficit, the Boston city government is engaging in a funding battle with the state government, attempting to secure $140,000 to create the lanes throughout the city rather than moving forward with the project immediately.

While Boston fights for additional state support, its low-income residents are suffering. As the MBTA’s cheapest transit option, buses often serve residents who have no other viable method of commuting to their jobs. The MBTA found that 78 percent of bus users use the bus service to commute to work or school, while 39 percent of bus users do not have any cars in their household, while another 21 percent have less than one car for every two people in a household.

“When you’re looking at the equity perspective, and you couple that with the neighborhoods such as Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, which really have limited access to rapid transit, so a lot of them are really reliant on bus and trolleys,” Lachiusa said. “We have some neighborhoods which are forced to take bus trips, and our buses are held back by congestion and can not get riders where they need to go when they need to get there.”

Despite a clear reliance on bus service for the low-income working population in Boston, more than 50 percent of jobs within the MBTA service area are not accessible via a bus route offering all-day service. For those who work irregular hours, like cashiers, security guards and workers in the food service industry, this lack of all-day coverage can significantly limit the mobility of bus commuters.

“The frequency and reliability of buses is really the strong theme that comes up when we speak with bus riders and really needs to be addressed in order for people to have access to opportunity, get to affordable housing and do whatever they need to do,” Lachiusa said.

Regardless of income, inconsistent service can be extremely frustrating to all commuters who rely on the T. But given that 42 percent of bus users were found to be low-income, significantly higher than the subway’s rate of 26 percent and the commuter rail’s 7 percent, poor bus service is more limiting to low-income Boston residents. However, the Better Bus Project may be able to increase income and job opportunities for the service’s regular commuters.

“Increased ridership for residential users is usually generated because you’re taking people to their places of employment and therefore enabling otherwise isolated neighborhoods to generate more revenue within the neighborhood because people are employed at better jobs and have more access and opportunity to be employed in higher paying jobs,” said Professor Ted Landsmark, director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and a former member of the MBTA Board of Directors who oversaw the expansion of the Red Line.

Although buses have been more frequently used as an “interim way” of transporting commuters toward the subway, the Better Bus Project could improve buses to the point where they will be as swift as Boston’s subways, which would hopefully bring forth the same level of economic development seen in areas like Davis Square following the extension of the Red Line through Somerville.

“The extension of [any subway lines], both historically and more recently, has always encouraged some kind of economic development,” Landsmark said. “There is an assumption that when you put faster service into place, economic development will take place.”

With Boston and the surrounding area ranking inside the top 10 for income inequality in 2016, improving bus service may allow for the city to address not just issues with traffic, but also inequality within both the city limits and the metropolitan area. Given that the Better Bus Project is still far from over, with most of the proposed changes not expected to come into effect until the end of 2019 or even 2020, riders can continue to expect unreliable service. But with more than $8 billion dedicated to revamping the MBTA, riders can hope that the long-neglected bus service will soon more efficiently serve its users and provide an economic boost to neighborhoods reliant on the bus service.