BostonBRT aims to transform bus travel in Greater Boston

Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism / Flickr A silver line bus (MBTA) running on the road in Downtown Crossing, Boston, MA.

The bus might not be Boston commuters’ first choice for transit, but future plans for dedicated travel lanes, off-board fare collection and priority at traffic signals might change that.

Bus rapid transit (BRT), incorporating those features and more, is a system that according to some transportation planners, could offer subway-level performance for a fraction of the cost. BostonBRT, an initiative backed by the Barr Foundation, has been advocating for BRT across Greater Boston since September 2013.

Part of Barr’s work is to explore new transit solutions with the larger goal of reducing transport-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to Lisa Jacobson, program officer for mobility at the Massachusetts-based private foundation.

“We know that transportation projects take quite a long time,” Jacobson said. “We help to support leaders to make [transport planning] decisions through grant-making and partnerships. We bring people together for best practice learning sessions.”

Improvements to Boston’s transit system became especially urgent after record-breaking snowstorms in 2015 crippled many Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) services.

Tufts Lecturer in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Mark Chase shared that BRT’s potential to improve a city’s connectivity, congestion and livability makes it an attractive solution to Boston’s transport woes.

“Policymakers want to attract intelligent, innovative people to live and work in a city. To do that, we have to create beautiful cities that work well, and part of that [includes] BRT,” Chase said.

Senior Susan Hassan frequently uses buses to commute between West Medford and Tufts. Her preferred bus service sees high levels of ridership during the morning and evening rush hours, so she often has to squeeze into a packed bus on her commute.

“By the time [the 94 bus] comes to Tufts, I’m the last one on,” Hassan said. “I have one foot in front of the yellow line at the beginning of the bus, and one on the other side. There have been a lot of times where I am even at the rail that is directly in front of the windshield.”

Hassan noted that introducing BRT or elements of BRT in public transit may improve the experience of commuter students like her.

“There have been times where I get to class — especially during the snow — in an hour rather than 15 minutes, and you cannot really foresee that,” Hassan said. “It would be very cool to have buses that are more reliable and come more often, so [commuters] do not run late or get stressed out.”

BostonBRT lists five standard elements of BRT that make buses more effective: a dedicated right-of-way separated from regular traffic, proper busway alignment, off-board fare collection, efficient intersections and boarding platforms.

In particular, to demonstrate how off-board fare collection can create a better bus experience, BostonBRT, along with the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), launched a pilot of all-door boarding on the Silver Line routes SL4 and SL5 for two weeks this summer.

According to Jacobson, these routes often face delays caused by the time taken for riders to board and pay their fares through the front door.

“Some may say that the Silver Line is the closest we have to BRT in Boston or Massachusetts,” Jacobson said. “Instead of everybody lining up at the front of the bus to pay their fares one by one through the front door, what if people were able to board the bus through all three doors?”

The success of the Silver Line demonstration has given the team momentum to continue collaborating with other municipalities on similar BRT pilots, which are in the works.

“We are figuring out now where those [demonstrations] will be, what we are going to test, and when we are going to do it — which frankly will not be until next year,” Jacobson said.

BostonBRT’s philosophy of collaborative advocacy extends into its cross-sector advisory committee, a station design competition that received submissions from the architecture and design community, as well as a ‘Beauty and the Bus’ contest that asked commuters to share photos of their daily commute, as described in its website.

Beyond pushing for improvements to bus services, Jacobson describes her work as giving commuters a choice between different modes of transit.

“We are providing a variety of options so each individual can make their own choices depending on their needs, as well as making every transportation option attractive,” she said.

Second-year School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA) dual-degree student Colin Murphy appreciates having the option to take a bus into the SMFA campus when the subway is under maintenance or when there is a long wait for the SMFA/New England Conservatory (NEC) shuttle.

However, he notes that many gaps still exist in the MBTA bus system, making it a less appealing choice for his commute.

“From where I get off the bus, it’s about a 15 to 20-minute walk to SMFA,” Murphy said. “In contrast, the New York City bus system has more opportunities to take buses, more buses available and more bus stops.”

When completed, the Green Line Extension (GLX) will give students a one-seat ride between the Medford/Somerville and SMFA campuses. Chase thinks that, even with the high costs of the GLX project, it is unlikely for the MBTA to consider BRT as an alternative along the GLX corridor.

“No one in Boston has seen a good BRT system,” Chase said. “Until we get a good BRT system up and running, the people in Boston are going to be skeptical about accepting BRT when they could have a light rail, like the Green Line.”

Jacobson shared that BostonBRT has led multiple visits to Mexico City, to study how its Metrobús BRT operates in real life as part of its larger, citywide transit system.

“It’s one thing to watch a video or read about it in a report, but we brought elected officials, decision makers, transportation planners and advocates on three different trips to Mexico City to ride its bus rapid transit there and talk about how the city really relies on BRT to move a lot of its people,” she said.

Jacobson added that it is up to municipal planners to consider what mode of transit is most appropriate to implement in any given transportation project. The planners take many issues into consideration, including efficiency, maximizing the number of riders and serving the community’s needs.

“There are some thresholds in terms of density, ridership demand, land-use conditions, street conditions, and level of funding available — all of these things are factored in when planners decide what mode it should be in, where it should be running and who it’s going to serve,” Jacobson said.

With growing competing demands for road space from cyclists, drivers and curbside services like Uber, Lyft and AmazonFresh, one of BostonBRT’s roles is to continue building close partnerships with municipal agencies to make public transit improvements a priority.

“The cities and towns own and operate the streets, sidewalks and traffic signals — they have a lot of the levers that are needed to make our bus system a lot better and see BRT become a reality here,” Jacobson said. “The challenge is hard decision-making in terms of trade-offs and how municipalities prioritize the use of space on their streets.”

Any BRT project in Boston will have to make a convincing case for a dedicated bus lane at the expense of car travel or street parking in the city’s narrow streets, but Chase thinks that this is not an insurmountable obstacle.

“We are not just looking at traffic congestion, but we are looking at how people move … The advantage of BRT is you can move many more people in a travel lane,” Chase said. “As long as we measure moving people over moving vehicles, we can make some smart decisions.”