Bus rapid transit is no longer a pipe dream in the Boston area
As long as you’re not in a place where you can get hit by a car, bus, or train, close your eyes and imagine a “gold standard” bus rapid transit (BRT) line: prepaid fares, all-door boarding, dedicated lanes, and level boarding platforms.
These services get drivers off the roads, and for just a fraction of the cost of building a new train line. It’s a worthy goal; currently, even the best American BRT doesn’t rank as highly as those in South America, for example, where it has grown to be reliable in several cities. Which is why Boston’s Barr Foundation has been working with the MBTA in seeking more and improved rapid routes around here.
In determining where BRT would be most beneficial, Barr selected corridors with typically low speeds and high ridership rates. These include Harvard-to-Dudley and Haymarket-to-Dudley—places where an easy pass through traffic would shorten the most commute times, and where there is already a strong ridership. Researchers also considered the width of roads, eliminating routes that are too narrow for BRT.
Though it didn’t make Barr’s list of Greater Boston corridors that are perfect fits for BRT, as a result of a Mass Department of Transportation action plan for Everett, that city auditioned a BRT lane on congested Broadway during morning rush hours in late 2016, then made it permanent after it was found that more than 10,000 daily riders had their commute times significantly shortened.
It’s a similar scene up in Arlington. Thanks to a push from Barr, there will be a BRT lane on the eastbound side of Mass Ave in that town this fall from 6 to 9 am on weekdays, from Arlington Center to Alewife Brook Parkway. The pilot was designed to minimize disruptions for other commuters, though that hasn’t stopped a petition against it. The opposition has drafted an alternative proposal that would exclude the bus-only lane and implement smarter traffic signals. Their main concern: a loss of parking.
Back in Everett, Dempsey’s Restaurant was worried about losing business due to fewer spaces from a BRT lane. Asked about how things have panned out, owners say their business in the morning hours has suffered only a minor blow. In Arlington, Quebrada Bakery remains concerned about losing parking, while Barismo, a coffee shop a block away, is less scared, citing spots available on side streets.
Hollers of petition signers reflect just how difficult it is to please the masses when designing infrastructure. In this case, BRT advocates remind their haters that parking with this pilot will only be removed from one side of Mass Ave, and that an anticipated increase in bus ridership will bring more customers to some of the concerned businesses.
Transit advocates generally take the stance that if BRT is to be implemented, it should be an all-or-nothing operation. Just imagine, they say, how fast the Silver Line to Dudley would be if it didn’t have to share the road with traffic. A major reason to have a bus-only lane on Mass Ave is to prevent buses from having to weave through traffic. That would obviously be nice, but should and will trigger debate about how this will work for cyclists. It is possible that fast buses will make it harder for cars turning onto the main drag to see cyclists.
These community reactions to bus-only developments are common for the inevitable feedback loop that develops when parking spots are removed to support noncar forms of transit. To make sure that public deliberation is as positive as possible, Barr has vowed to be transparent in connecting with communities. In the process, they will hear from people who say they cannot afford to lose the current infrastructure they depend on daily and from others who believe that bicycles are a far better gateway to mobility than BRT.
Regardless of the results from the upcoming Mass Ave trial, one major milestone in Greater Boston is that funding is now coming from both the public and private sectors for new BRT. With so much worsening congestion and pollution, Barr has plans to partner with Everett, Cambridge, and Watertown for upcoming rapid endeavors, all as part of a much larger mission to help spur an overall rethinking of our transit system.
Sorry bro, Uber’s not the equitable answer to our prayers.