March 19, 2018

Momentum Grows for Bus Improvements, BRT in Boston

The Boston area is preparing for exciting new improvements to its bus service in 2018, so much that #YearoftheBus has become popular on social media and local television has taken an interest in covering the progress. In addition to the three local bus pilots that ITDP is supporting, the local transit authority (the MBTA) and MassDOT have recently initiated efforts to conduct a Network Redesign for its bus system and several other communities have also announced plans to pursue bus improvements like dedicated lanes, Transit Signal Priority (TSP), and platform level boarding.

ITDP has been working in Boston for the past six years, and has seized this opportunity to engage local transit practitioners, advocates and thought leaders in a day of capacity building and learning about bus network redesign and how it can be leveraged as a platform to create Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Last month, ITDP organized the “Greater Boston Bus Network Redesign & BRT Workshop” at our office in the Community Innovation Center (CIC) in downtown Boston. Featured presentations included international bus network design experts Jarrett Walker of Jarrett Walker + Associates and Christof Spieler of Houston METRO Board of Directors. The goal of the workshop was to give a comprehensive understanding of the bus network redesign process planned for greater Boston, including opportunities for buses to better respond to the region’s changing travel patterns and how a bus network revamp connects with potential corridors of high capacity bus service. ITDP presented the steps that could lead from bus network redesign to Gold Standard BRT, showing case studies of BRT service options from around the world.

Over 40 representatives from the MBTA, MassDOT, the regional planning agency (MAPC), transit advocacy organizations, and municipal planning departments – including from jurisdictions such as Worcester, MA –  participated in the workshop. Presentations were also given by the MBTA and MassDOT. Participants were welcomed with an inspiring presentation about the successful bus network redesign in Houston, TX that has lead to a ridership increase by 11-30%.  MassDOT and the MBTA shared some of the strategies under consideration for a network redesign in Boston which includes a focus on improving accessibility, moving away from “one-size-fits all” metrics, and identification of service gaps.

The MBTA Network Redesign will explore a variety of strategies for maximizing transit accessibility in the Boston area:

  • Pursuing a Network of Priority Bus Corridors – Build off of the Bus Service Plan pursuit of speed and reliability improvements (bus lanes, TSP, etc) to envision a system that sacrifices coverage in favor of a near-rapid transit experience in major corridors
  • Rethinking a Bus Network’s Relationship to Rapid Transit – Address capacity constraints on rapid transit and provide more one-seat ride access to employment opportunities
  • Better Crosstown Service to Meet New Travel Needs – Introduction of relatively short, high demand transit links that can respond to changing travel patterns that are not always focused on downtown Boston.

Participants got to experience an  interactive group exercise led by Jarrett Walker that challenged them to devise a bus system using wax ropes color-coded by service frequency and intended to- as sufficiently as possible- serve the imaginary city of “Prairieville”, complete with a downtown, hospitals, shopping malls, universities and an industrial flood plain.

Mr. Walker reflected on the uniqueness of the opportunity to lead his exercise in a room full of professional transit planners, and participants noted the value of being able to work creatively with colleagues from outside their particular department or agency. Each group posted their final maps on the wall and observed the variations in service planning decisions made across the room.

The challenge was to provide the best service possible for the greatest number of people, taking into consideration … residential density, income disparities, employment centers and shopping destinations–all while functioning within the limits of their resources and budget. 

It was fascinating to see the variations in service maps across the room and to observe the very real trade-offs that are often faced by transit planners when designing bus routes driven by the dual yet often counteractive goals of ridership versus coverage.  

Is it possible to achieve both high ridership and high coverage in bus network design? As workshop participants learned through this exercise and through the examples shared by both Walker and Spieler, the answer is often no. For instance, the recent network redesign of Houston’s bus network saw route coverage actually decrease while ridership increased because the buses were now able to serve the heavier ridership routes at higher frequencies. Planners can expect to receive an outpouring of public opposition when a bus route is changed or removed all together, but if the goal of the system is to maximize ridership, then these are often difficult decisions that must be made. If the goal, however, is to maximize coverage then the trade-off usually comes at the expense of frequency (a common characteristic of American bus systems). To this end, it is important for transit agencies to be clear on what their ultimate goals is when pursuing network redesign, and to be prepared to handle the consequences of compromise.

As Boston moves towards its Summer 2018 launch of its Network Redesign, and municipalities from Everett to Arlington to Cambridge to Boston prepare to demonstrate bus improvements that have never been seen across the region (or most parts of the country for that matter), we hope to see a lively continuation of the discussions had during this workshop across an even broader contingency of practitioners and hopefully in concert with real changes to the region’s bus service.  ITDP looks forward to continuing our work with partners on the Boston BRT local pilots and to further identify opportunities to channel this momentum towards a full scale Gold Standard BRT corridor.

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