The breakdown of the T has resulted in many calls for reform. I wrote this piece two years ago, and it seems worthwhile to reintroduce some of these points into the current discussion.
Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed consolidating 240 local housing authorities into six regional agencies. I don’t know what kind of impact will be felt by tenants in public housing, but I doubt it matters if the plumber comes from next door or the next town.
Transit, on the other hand, is another story. Boundaries matter. While people tend to live in one apartment at once, people who travel tend to travel across town lines. They also tend to travel across the boundaries and limits of the MBTA and the 15 regional transit authorities. Yet, in the governor’s plan for improving transportation, there was no proposal to consolidate the RTAs with the MBTA, not to mention all the little suburban bus services that don’t transcend municipal limits.
Shouldn’t we be consolidating transit systems, instead?
Fixed rail is fixed, but those buses can go almost anywhere. When they scrapped the extensive streetcar network, the argument was that buses were far more flexible. Routes could be adjusted to meet demand. Mostly, instead of offering flexibility, they offered an easy, quiet way for our transit infrastructure to disappear.
Private bus lines disappeared, replaced by regional transportation authorities. The biggest is the MBTA, but there are 14 others around the state. Two (Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) make perfect sense, as an island transportation authority doesn’t have a need for expanding its network into adjacent towns. But the other twelve?
Alewife to Lowell
Let’s look at one example of boundaries defining bus routes. Consider a trip from Alewife Station in Cambridge to the Robert B. Kennedy Bus Transfer Center at the Charles A. Gallagher Transit Terminal (also known as the Lowell MBTA station) in Lowell. You can make the 25 mile drive in about a half hour (except in rush hour). Want to travel by bus? It wil take a bit longer.
MBTA buses will take you from Alewife to Burlington, where you will need to change to a Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA) bus to go the rest of the way. If the bus gods are with you, you can make the trip in 1:28, but it can also take you 2:16. If you get to Alewife later than 6:20 p.m., forget about it, because you won’t make it any farther than Chestnut Street in Burlington.
The fastest trip is the 350 that leaves Alewife at 6:20 a.m. It doesn’t make the loop to the Burlington Mall, instead it proceeds up Cambridge Street to Chestnut Street, where the route ends. This is also the south end of the LRTA Route 13, which runs through Billerica to the Kennedy Center. The 350 is scheduled to reach Chestnut Street at 7:04, and the LRTA 13 leaves at 7:10, a six minute scheduled layover.
Normally, the layover at Chestnut Street is significantly longer. Get on the 6:42 or the 6:58 leaving Alewife, you will have a 44 or 24 minute layover at Chestnut Street before the 8:10 bus leaves for Lowell.
If you leave Alewife at 8:15, the optimal strategy is to get off the bus at the Burlington Mall, where you have a 12 minute wait before LRTA Route 14 is scheduled to leave for Lowell (arriving at 9:45). Continue on to the end of the 350 at Chestnut Street, you have a 51 minute wait for the connection to LRTA Route 13, and you won’t get to Lowell until 10:38.
You get the picture? You need to get off the MBTA bus at the end of the MBTA service area, then board the LRTA bus for the journey through its towns. Oh, and you will pay two fares, though the LTRA will allow you to pay its fares with a Charlie Card.
What happens if we turn two separate lines into one line? The trip that takes from 1:28 to 2:16 is reduced to a trip of 1:06 to 1:17, eliminating layovers of up to 49 minutes. It can’t happen with two agencies with two territories, but a unified system could do it.
How do you get out of Lexington?
Note: On July 1, 2014, Lexington’s LExpress bus service was extended into Arlington Heights, and now connects with the 77 bus at its western terminus.
The Town of Lexington (with partial MBTA funding) operates LExpress, a suburban bus system that revolves around Depot Square in the center of town. The bus service does cross the line to reach the Burlington Mall, but other than that it doesn’t leave Lexington. You can make a connection to MBTA bus routes 62 or 76 in Lexington Center (two lines, both run hourly mid-day, for a 30-minute headway in Lexington Center). The LExpress buses are timed to leave Lexington Center on the hour and half-hour, and 67/76 buses are scheduled to leave for Alewife about three minutes later. Outbound buses tend to arrive in Lexington Center between 10 and 13 minutes before the LExpress buses leave Depot Square.
However, the LExpress does make its way as far east as Massachusetts Avenue and Taft Avenue, about a half-mile from the Arlington Heights terminal of the 77 (Arlington Heights – Harvard Station) and 79 (Arlington Heights – Alewife) bus lines. The LExpress doesn’t cross into Arlington, doesn’t make the connection, and doesn’t provide an option for a rider looking to travel from Arlington Center into Lexington.
Out of sync?
The Red Line runs every 12 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 12 minutes between Alewife and Briantree, after 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every six minutes.
On Saturdays, the Red Line runs every 14 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 14 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every seven minutes.
On Sundays, the Red Line runs every 16 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 16 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every eight minutes.
One of the major Red LIne connections is the 77 bus from Harvard Station to Alewife. Many of the people on the 77 bus connect from the Red Line. Let’s see how it works:
On weekday evenings, when the Red Line is running on six minute intervals, the 77 runs on intervals of 10 minutes, 11 minutes, and 13 minutes.
On Saturdays, when the Red Line is running on seven minute intervals, the 77 runs on 12 and 15 minute intervals.
On Sundays, when the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals, the 77 runs on 20 minute, 17 minute, 14 minute, and 15 minute intervals.
It’s all so close, but it’s all so far away. You can walk off the Red Line train and find good fortune and a 77 bus will come a minute later. However, you can walk off the Red Line and watch the taillights of the bus vanish and face a 10, 13, 15, or 17 minute wait. What sense does that make?
If the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals on Sunday, why not run the buses on 16 minute intervals? Why not set it up so that the bus is timed to arrive just behind every other train, reducing the wait time on the Harvard Station bus platform? How hard is it to run the buses every 16 minutes instead of every 14 minutes or every 17 minutes?
Anyone with a smart phone can download a bus app that lets us know where the buses are. If we have this technology, why can’t the MBTA use this technology to sync trains to connecting buses? Why can’t we reduce unnecessary waits for buses? Why can’t buses be timed to meet commuter rail trains in places like West Medford?
As long as we have all these separate bus systems, separate from the subway trains, separate from commuter rail, intermodal transit becomes slow and inconvenient. If we put it all under one operating agency, we can sync the schedules in one easy to use system. You can have different operating agencies (LRTA can run one set of buses between Lowell and Alewife, MBTA can run another), but all the buses will be the same color, have the same fare structure, and will have unified schedules.
Let’s make it one unified system. Call it MassTransit. Make it easy to get around the state using the existing resources. Make the connections, let’s reform these little agencies and transform them to a statewide transit system.