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Inside Boston's Bus Revamp

Unlike Houston, which completely redrew bus routes across its sprawling grid all at once, the T will take a piece-by-piece approach on the city’s winding roads.

Josh Reynolds/AP

The hottest trend in public transportation isn’t autonomous vehicles or aerial trams. Increasingly, transit advocates and operators are focused on the bread-and-butter basics of running fast, frequent, and reliable bus service. Now, Boston is poised to become the latest city to revamp its bus network, using modeling from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to both improve trips for existing passengers and bring new riders on board.

“If you were to look at a 1920s streetcar map of Boston, the [bus] route network doesn’t look too different today,” says Scott Hamwey, manager of long range planning at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “We haven’t really updated our service plan in seven or eight years now, so this will be an opportunity to determine where demand has shifted.”

But tracking exactly where people are taking the bus, and where they want to take the bus, is no easy task. While ride-hail companies like Uber know exactly where and when its customers travel, transit operators like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, known as the T, have to piece together information from different internal data sets.

It’s easiest to tell where transit riders are boarding, since most swipe a fare card on the bus or at the train station. But while this data is linked to vehicles and routes, it’s not always connected to actual locations. Tracking where people are going is much harder, since the T doesn’t require that Bostonians tap their fare cards when they get off the bus or train. The MBTA uses automated counters to see where people are getting on and off the bus, but they’re not installed on every vehicle and can offer only a glimpse of what’s really happening.

Using a ridership model that MIT’s Transit Lab first developed in London, called Origin Destination Transfer, or ODX,  MIT and the MBTA have begun breaking down the barriers between different fare payment and ridership data sets to estimate when people are traveling, where they are getting on trains and buses, where they are transferring and, using the origin of their subsequent trip, inferring where they are ending their journeys.

“We’ve been developing it for years,” says Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of strategic initiatives at the MBTA. “We’ve just gotten to the point where we feel comfortable using it.”

Instead of following the lead of Houston, which completely redrew bus routes across its sprawling grid all at once, the T will be using ODX data as part of a piece-by-piece approach on Boston’s winding roads. Last month, the MBTA’s fiscal management control board considered plans to tweak bus schedules by looking six of its garages around Greater Boston, adjusting route alignment, stop spacing, frequency and hours of service.

“In the short term, we’re just trying to improve the routes that we have, one garage at a time, to make sure they’re scheduled appropriately,” says Paget-Seekins. “It’ll take us between two and three years to get to all the garages. And while that’s happening, we’re going to be looking at the bigger changes.”

Big changes to the bus network could improve commutes for large swaths of Greater Boston, according to research by both MassDOT and MIT students.

As property values have soared close to the T’s subway and light rail lines, residents in poorer minority neighborhoods between the rail lines have been stuck with longer commutes than the region’s whiter, wealthier residents.

Most transit riders in the Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods south of downtown Boston, for example, lack access to high-frequency rail service, leaving them with slower buses and forcing them to make additional transfers, according to an analysis by former MIT graduate student Raphael Dumas, who used an earlier version of ODX. “The network is not currently configured to serve trips from Black or African American [census] tracts very well,” he wrote in his thesis. “Shorter distances should not require more transfers.” Dumas recommended merging some routes to eliminate the need for transfers and establishing more consistent schedules to facilitate easy transfers.

During off-peak hours, low-income bus riders are sometimes forced to make a costly choice. Everett is a working class city just a few miles north of downtown Boston, beyond the reach of the subway. As part of a study last year to improve buses in Everett, the state DOT partnered with a local Latino services organization to survey riders. “They wanted more frequent buses, particularly in the off-peak,” says MassDOT transportation planner Jennifer Slesinger. “If you missed the last bus, you might have no options, or you might have to take a taxi, which is expensive.”

Last November, MassDOT and the City of Everett released the Everett Transit Action Plan, which within weeks resulted in a pop-up bus lane during morning rush hours. Longer-term, the report recommends redesigning Everett’s bus routes to be more efficient and, eventually, offer direct service to downtown Boston.

Another group that stands to benefit from a revamped bus network: employees in high growth job centers just beyond downtown Boston, like Kendall Square, the Longwood medical area and the Seaport District. “A lot of the areas that are experiencing a lot of growth economically weren’t always a part of the bus planning process,” says Andrew McFarland, community engagement manager for the LivableStreets Alliance and its Better Buses initiative.

Former MIT student Catherine Vanderwaart used ODX data to show how to target small route extensions and more service on existing routes to attract additional bus riders to these job centers. “At the time there didn't seem to be much appetite for the kind of large scale redesign that Houston and other cities have done,” Vanderwaart says. “Wholesale redesigns can only happen pretty rarely, while changes like adding a route can happen much more frequently.”

The MBTA is also looking at getting a handle on its high bus maintenance costs, which a recent report by a conservative think tank ranked among the highest in the nation. Fixes on the table include garage upgrades and moving to a hybrid bus maintenance model, where private contractors maintain buses using union labor, instead of having the agency do it all in-house.

While tweaking around the margins is worthwhile, ultimately, better bus service involves offering more of it, something the MBTA has so far failed to provide. “The annual number of bus revenue miles and bus revenue hours directly operated by the MBTA has more or less flatlined in the last two decades,” wrote Michael Gordon, a former MIT student, in his thesis. “The MBTA has limited resources available to allow for system growth.”

Boston isn’t alone in beginning to examine its long neglected buses. Advocates and transit operators in other cities have acknowledged that since big rail expansion projects can take years or decades to deliver, a fast, frequent and reliable bus network is critical to any functioning transit system.

Following Houston’s lead, Austin is beginning to plan a dramatic overhaul of its bus network. Columbus, Ohio, is set to implement its redesigned bus network on May 1. Seattle has been pursuing a more piecemeal strategy akin to the approach in Boston, revising its overnight services and changing its bus routes to more of a crosstown network as new light rail expansions take over more downtown-bound trips.

Using the right metrics, there’s a lot that agencies can do to ensure their bus service is cost-effective, frequent, and equitable, says Marc Ebuña of TransitMatters, a Boston-area advocacy group. “If we’re doing service planning based on that type of thorough data analysis,” Ebuña says, “I have a lot of hope for the future.”

About the Author

  • Stephen Miller
    Stephen Miller, a Rhode Island native, is a journalist living in New York.