Tuesday, January 16, 2007

there was a time you could get there from here

Have you ever asked yourself why can't I get a bus to someplace in the Boston area? Chances are at one time you could but local bus service in the suburbs has deteriorated or vanished completely since the T took control of things over 40 years ago.

Changes to Transit Service in the MBTA District 1964-Present (PDF) by Jonathan Belcher details everything that has happened with transit in the Boston area since the MBTA took control and historical data from before. Any question you may have about Boston transit routes can be found in its 317 pages and is updated as of the end of 2006. It is important to note that is was not the MBTA that abolished 24 hour service on the system, that had been done in 1960 by the MTA. Until then you could go to Haymarket Station and catch buses all night to all sections of the city and as far away as Arlington and Belmont. The MTA was scrapped for money in those days and the owners of Boston's taxi companies had great influence. New England Telephone alone used to send hundreds of operators and other employees home by cab each night and many other companies did so as well. Not having all night public transportation made it impossible for the companies to abandon the practice and the cab companies made huge profits. Today, because of the current contract with the T's drivers union it would nearly impossible to run all night service at a manageable cost as the ill fated Night Owl experiment that ended in 2005 proved. Drivers were paid double time for trips starting after 2 AM which meant it was costing the T $7.53 on average to transport a Night Owl customer, compared with only $1.37 for a daytime bus rider. Late night service will not happen unless the wording in the contract with the drivers is changed. We can only hope.

When the MBTA was created in 1964 it merged the operations of several transit companies and railroads into one authority that was designed to move people in and out of Boston. It's creation was spawned by the fear that the railroads of the time, the Boston & Maine, New York Central and the New Haven would abolish all commuter rail service in and out of Boston. There was good reason to worry as the New Haven had shut down the Old Colony Lines in 1959 the day after the Southeast Expressway opened and the Boston & Albany division of the New York Central had closed the Highland Branch to Newton in 1958. The MBTA's predecessor the Metropolitan Transit Authority acted quickly and converted the Highland Branch into a streetcar line (D-Riverside) and reopened it one year later. The MTA itself had been formed in 1947 to take over the assets and debts of the Boston Elevated Railway which had been a public-private operation since 1917 when the Massachusetts Legislature passed the "Public Control Act" which guaranteed public transportation to the citizens of Boston. The MTA was limited to serving the citizens fo the original 14 cities and towns in Metropolitan Boston: Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown. Under this system the commuter rail could not be saved unless the authority was expanded to include more cities and towns. The legislature went to work to solve the problem....

It was decided that the Greater Boston urban core mass transportation system be greatly expanded to reach out and to intergrate its mass transit services with those existing throughout the Greater Boston Massachusetts metropolitan area. The new MBTA or "T" would now serve 78 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts. The T would quickly enter into compacts with the railroads that would subsidize commuter rail operations and also absorbed 2 major surburban bus companies, the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway and the Middlesex and Boston Street Railway. The MBTA did not aquire the Boston & Worcester Street Railway which was taken over by a Boston sightseeing company Gray Line and today there is limited bus service along Route 9 because of this.

It didn't take long for the T to start slashing bus routes it took over and Mr. Belcher looks at this in great detail. Some cities (Lowell, Lawrence and Brockton) rebelled at the fees demanded to supply service and simply told the T they could do better themselves. One town Maynard demanded to be removed from the MBTA territory and was allowed to do so and the town has had virtually no public transportation since. Maynard had lost its direct bus service to Harvard Square in 1970 when the Town of Lincoln no longer wanted service by bus being content with commuter rail.
The T was able to abolish many bus lines it had taken over claiming low ridership but they had made the schedules on these lines so unreasonable that people stopped using them. One prime example had been the Commonwealth Avenue bus in Newton that connected Norumbega Park in Auburndale with the B Line at Boston College which the T took over in 1972 and abolished 4 years later. The T doomed the line by refusing to extend it to Riverside Station thus not providing an easy connection for Newton riders. There are many other examples of this slash and burn approach the T took 30 years ago towards buses as it strived to keep commuter rail afloat.

The T continues to look at bus service today as a necessary evil and does little to try and improve routing that could enhance service. A prime example of the T's attitude towards bus service can be found in the Town of Woburn. In 2001 the T opened the Anderson Regional Transportation Center just off Interstate-93 as an intermodal bus and commuter rail transfer station. Anderson provides rail service to Boston, Lowell and to New Hampshire and Maine on Amtrak's Downeaster service. From Anderson you can board buses that will take you to both Logan and the Manchester-Boston airports. In fact the Manchester Airport shuttle is FREE for ticketed passengers and also runs to the Sullivan T station in Charlestown and runs 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. (novel concept). So how do I get to Anderson by T bus?

You can't.

A quick glance at the T system map shows 3 routes that could have been extended to Anderson, the 134,136 and 137. It also may have been possible to adjust the 350 route from Alewife to connect with LRTA at Anderson instead of the Burlington/Billerica line. By routing buses to terminate at Anderson it would allow riders from Woburn, Reading, Stoneham, Winchester and other towns easy access to other transportation services. But no that makes too much sense. If you live in Woburn where the station is the only way you can get there is by cab or walk.

The problem is the T simply isn't flexible when it comes to adjusting bus routes some of which haven't changed from the streetcar lines they were 100 years ago. A prime example of this is the 99 route which runs from Wellington Station to the Boston Regional Medical Center in Stoneham. The hospital closed in 1999 yet the T continues to run buses 7 days a week to the front door where the line ends. While there are plans to develop the property it has been tied up for years but meanwhile the shuttered building gets bus service 7 days a week from 6AM to Midnight. Has it ever dawned on the T to perhaps terminate the line elsewhere in Stoneham or Melrose?

One more example on how the T just won't change to reflect changing patterns in commuter movement.15 years ago the Cambrigeside Galleria opened and ridership to Lechmere increased dramaticly but the T only routed one Green Line route to Lechmere, terminating another at North Station and 2 at Government Center. In 1997 the North Station turnaround was closed because of construction of the new Green Line station underground and the T then routed 2 lines to Lechmere. However when the new underground station opened the T went back to the way things were before the mall opened after riders were used to more frequent service. I suspect the reason they did so was to justify the expensive underground turnaround that they built under Causeway Street which was designed before the mall opened. Trains running to Lechmere now are usually overcrowded nights and especially weekends when the Science Museum gets heavy traffic. Routing 2 lines there is a no brainer but the T does as it pleases.

People change, the city changes but the T just doesn't adapt. We will never see bus service like it was in 1964 but we certainly can improve on what is offered now. The bus should come to the people, not the other way around. The taxpayers of Massachusetts have paid a huge price in restoring Commuter Rail to the South Shore (Greenbush alone is close to $500 million) for a service the T estimates will have 4200 passengers per weekday in 2010. I fully agree that Commuter Rail is needed but we need to see more funding for the unsexy bus too. The T has never understood that to take the train you have to get to the station. Parking lots fill up quickly and that forces many commuters to drive instead defeating the entire purpose. We need more feeder bus routes to the rail stations something that is done well by New Jersey Transit and Connecticut Transit.

Would love your comments on this.


Kristine said...

This is a great article and now I understand some of the idiosyncracies of the MBTA buses. I live in West Newton and have been very disappointed with the public transportation in this neighborhood. When I lived near Watertown Square, it was great because I could take Express Buses from Watertown Yard, the 71 to Harvard Square, or the 70 to Central Square. There were always lots of ways for me to get to Boston. But now, if I want to take public transit to Boston, I have to time it JUST SO, otherwise I either have to wait in South Station (for the commuter rail) for what could be hours, or take a long, rickety ride on the D line and then walk a mile to my house. There are buses that run down Washington Street, but they are Express Buses. If I want to take it just to Watertown Square to connect with the 71 just to get to Harvard Square, it's a bit expensive (can't remember what the Express Buses cost now). Those buses also run infrequently and they don't run at all on Sundays. I live so close to Boston and prefer to take public transit whenever possible, but it's impossible to depend on it. I'd love to see some reliable and frequent bus lines running across Washington Street in Newton.

Fenway said...

Kristine said...live so close to Boston and prefer to take public transit whenever possible, but it's impossible to depend on it. I'd love to see some reliable and frequent bus lines running across Washington Street in Newton.

Washington Street had decent service when Middlesex and Boston ran things.
20/27/31 Riverside Station Service
-Following the opening of the MTA Riverside-Highland Branch in 1959, the M&B began operation of several routes to Riverside Station, including: an extension of their Route 20 Roberts-Newton Corner service, an extension of Route 27 Auburndale-Newton Corner service, and late-night diversions of Route 31 Framingham-Newton Corner service.
-Route 27 service to Riverside was reduced in December 1969.
-All Riverside service was discontinued when the MBTA took-over in 1972, with Route 20 cut-back to Roberts and Route 27 cut-back to Auburndale. Buses had run from Waltham to Riverside via highway Route 128. The elimination of Riverside service reduced considerable mileage, but only eliminated one stop (Riverside).
-In January 2005, the MBTA re-extended the Auburndale route to Riverside Station.

Washington St was served by both the Auburndale and Framingham buses into the evening. Newton service fell apart with the opening of the Mass Turnpike in 1964 and the mindset that we must get people into downtown and not caring about people staying in Newton or Waltham.

Anonymous said...

One thing on the 99 route-- while the hospital itself is closed, there is a medical services building next door that is still full of doctors' offices, labs, etc. Doesn't diminish your overall point, though. Also- the T has a split personality on this. They're neglecting the bus lines but on things like the Silver Line, where rapid transit would be superior, they're going for buses.

Edward said...

Two immediate points from a rider licensed to drive in name only.

1. Conditions around Woburn are even worse than you reported. I had to travel there last night. 134 got me there about 7:00 PM--but the last bus running anywhere in Woburn leaves c. 8PM (134 service after that time runs only as far as Medford Square). Even a shuttle to Anderson at night would have been better. I was able to hitch a ride with a friend back to Medford Square (where I started)--otherwise, some cab company would have been well enriched as I tried to start home. The absence of night service even in suburbs adjoining 128 (Lexington has similar problems) is a real bummer.

2. Want an example of T communication expertise--look at the extension in daytime headways from 40 to 48 minutes on the 96 as of the start of January. The flyer nobody got spoke of "improved reliability". Does a reduction in service improve reliability? I can accept that low ridership might have justified a cut. Why not tell the truth? On the other hand, if the redundant Davis/Porter/Harvard leg of the 96 were abolished and 96 and 94 were merged into a loop running through West Medford, Davis and Medford Square, the T might actually improve cash flow. I'm not holding my breath . . .

Some Assembly Required said...

Edward said:

"...if the redundant Davis/Porter/Harvard leg of the 96 were abolished and 96 and 94 were merged into a loop running through West Medford, Davis and Medford Square, the T might actually improve cash flow."

Excellent idea -- how about taking it a step further and having the loop also serve Arlington Center (perhaps incorporating part of the 87 route)? There is currently no way to get directly from AC to Medford Square. You have to take an 80 bus and switch to either the 94 or 96 along Boston Ave., but at night the buses run so infrequently it can take as long as an hour, if you're unlucky in your connections.

Ron Newman said...

If Newton was not part of the MTA, why was the MTA able to serve it with the "A" branch (and later the "D" branch) ?

Anonymous said...

The problem with the Anderson station is that it's in the middle of a huge industrial area. There's no easy way to send buses there, since it's so far from established bus routes. (Send the 350 there? Are you kidding? That could add 45 minutes of round-trip running time at rush hour.)

The 128 Business Council (128bc.org) briefly ran a shuttle from Anderson through Woburn to Burlington and Lexington, but it was discontinued last summer. It took a looong time to get anywhere, and I doubt I'd have wanted to rely on it to catch an infrequent commuter train.

Is the Anderston station really any better than the Mishawum station was? Did Mishawum parking fill up? Are there any workplaces within walking distance of Anderson?

To Kristine: On Washington Street in West Newton, you only have to pay the Inner Express fare ($2.80 CharlieCard, $3.50 cash or CharlieTicket, $89 monthly) if you ride on the express Mass Pike segment. Otherwise it's a regular local fare. Of course if you're going to Watertown Square, you'll have to transfer at Newton Corner.

How exactly do you want to be able to get to Boston? It would be nice if the commuter rail ran at decent frequencies, but it's not going to happen. Maybe you could lobby your town officials to remove some parking restrictions on Newton streets near the Boston College station so you could drive there and take the B line, but the trolley trip would take forever.

To Edward: The T is attempting to have bus schedules reflect actual slow running times. If each trip takes longer, they can either spend more money (or cut service elsewhere) to put more buses on the route, or decrease frequencies. Or they can attempt to improve trip times by improving fare collection and working with local traffic planners. Could you let us know if the 96 was often late, and if it was due to the new fareboxes?

Edward said...

To Anon:

In my experience (going back to 1987!), weekday 96's ran more or less on time. If there were any schedule problems, I imagine they cropped up on the Mass. Ave. leg of the ride--where 96 is duplicating service already provided more frequently by the 77. Now that a single fare for most passholders includes a subway/bus transfer, I see little justification (other than providing Tufts students with a direct link to Harvard Square) for continuing the 96 route past either Davis (or, perhaps, Porter). It amazes me that the MBTA has not changed the route in the 20+ years since the Red Line came into Davis Square.

Ron Newman said...

Changing bus routes in response to Charlie is a good idea, but not immediately. People are still getting used to Charlie and its transfers, which have only been in effect for two weeks. After a few months, it may become more evident what changes should be made to the #96 and other bus routes.

Fenway said...

Ron Newman said...
If Newton was not part of the MTA, why was the MTA able to serve it with the "A" branch (and later the "D" branch) ?

Newton was one of the 14 cities in the MTA district but before the Highland Branch opened it was only getting service on the old "A" Watertown streetcar line at Newton Corner. The Middlesex-Boston ran local bus service in Newton and connected with the MTA at Lake St (B-Line) and Newton Corner (A-Line)

Anonymous said...
Could you let us know if the 96 was often late, and if it was due to the new fareboxes?

I am making the assumption that you work for the T. Who at the T can people call that they know somebody will take the information and investigate it.

Is the Anderston station really any better than the Mishawum station was? Did Mishawum parking fill up? Are there any workplaces within walking distance of Anderson?

Unless I am mistaken Anderson was actually built by Massport and not the T ( the T website indicates this ) It was a major project when it was built with the ramps leading to I-93. The T decided to continue the express buses from Mishawum instead of Anderson so you can question why Anderson was ever built to begin with. However it is there and yes it is isolated. I can understand why the #350 wouldn't work but that still leaves the #134, #135 or #137 to consider or even a new stand alone route as an experiment. There has to be a way to connect people who live in Woburn with the train line that runs thru the city.

Ron Newman said...

In your list of cities and towns that were part of MTA, Newton is not included.

Fenway said...

Ron Newman said...
In your list of cities and towns that were part of MTA, Newton is not included.

picture of M&B bus

David Moisan said...

The T can refactor the bus routes when they want to! Several years ago, virtually all of the North Shore bus routes were reorganized (Saturday, June 22nd, 2002). Many routes were rerouted and some consolidated.

In Salem, the private carrier ABC Bus line to the shopping center was retaken by the T and became the 465 and combined with the 451 North Beverly bus. The 450 and 455 run to Wonderland no weekends, etc. and a new route 456 was run down Highland Ave to Central Square.

Before this, the routes had literally not changed in 20 years prior. Ridership seems to be improved on the new routes, so I don't see why the T doesn't do this elsewhere.

Take care,

Fenway said...

The South Shore edition of Starts and Stops in Thursday's (1/18) Globe is showing parking is a big problem at commuter rail stations.

As lane changes go, T's is sharp

First, a quick primer about parking spaces on the commuter rail: There aren't enough of them south of Boston. If you ride, say, the Kingston branch of the Old Colony Line and need to drive to the railroad station and leave your car there, you'll want to find your spot early because, as Michael of Hanover will tell you, the parking lots fill up fast -- and seemingly faster each year.

"Over the past year, it has reached a point where Whitman usually fills by 7:30, Abington often by 7:30, and South Weymouth by 8 a.m.," Michael says of the three stations he uses, depending on what time he leaves for work and the parking availability.

So what's the result? First, some people who want to take the commuter rail cannot do so because they cannot find a place to leave their car. "This happens to some extent on the trains that come through at about 8 a.m., but most dramatically on the trains at about 9 a.m. The latter are rarely more than about 20 percent filled -- obviously losing money for the system," Michael said in an e-mail last week.

Now if there were shuttle buses to the commuter rail parking perhaps would not be as tight and everybody who wanted to take a train to Boston could. A feeder bus system needs to be implemented to justify the cost of building the railroad in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Fenway said:
>Anonymous said...
>>Could you let us know if the 96 was
>>often late, and if it was due to
>>new fareboxes?
>I am making the assumption that you
>work for the T. Who at the T can
>people call that they know somebody
>will take the information and
>investigate it.

No, I don't work for the T. I'm just an interested passenger.

Re: running the 96 just to Davis, it's a tradeoff. Harvard is a big destination, so a 1-seat ride helps those people, but the extra running time makes things unreliable for people who just need to get to and from the Red Line at Davis.

One win-win improvement would be to get Cambridge to fix those awful traffic lights on Mass Ave between Harvard and Porter, as well as the brand new mess at Porter itself. The last time I took the 77, it took a good 5 or 6 minutes to get through Porter, and it wasn't even a busy time of day. Car drivers have the option of avoiding the area, but Mass Ave buses have no way of getting around all that traffic.