Systems thinking – transit reform

Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed consolidating 240 local housing authorities into six regional agencies. I don’t know what kind of impact will be felt by tenants in public housing, but I doubt it matters if the plumber comes from next door or the next town.

Transit, on the other hand, is another story. Boundaries matter. While people tend to live in one apartment at once, people who travel tend to travel across town lines. They also tend to travel across the boundaries and limits of the MBTA and the 15 regional transit authorities. Yet, in the governor’s plan for improving transportation, there was no proposal to consolidate the RTAs with the MBTA, not to mention all the little suburban bus services that don’t transcend municipal limits.

Shouldn’t we be consolidating transit systems, instead?

Fixed rail is fixed, but those buses can go almost anywhere. When they scrapped the extensive streetcar network, the argument was that buses were far more flexible. Routes could be adjusted to meet demand. Mostly, instead of offering flexibility, they offered an easy, quiet way for our transit infrastructure to disappear.

Private bus lines disappeared, replaced by regional transportation authorities. The biggest is the MBTA, but there are 14 others around the state. Two (Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) make perfect sense, as an island transportation authority doesn’t have a need for expanding its network into adjacent towns. But the other twelve?

Alewife to Lowell
Let’s look at one example of boundaries defining bus routes. Consider a trip from Alewife Station in Cambridge to the Robert B. Kennedy Bus Transfer Center at the Charles A. Gallagher Transit Terminal (also known as the Lowell MBTA station) in Lowell. You can make the 25 mile drive in about a half hour (except in rush hour). Want to travel by bus? It wil take a bit longer.

MBTA buses will take you from Alewife to Burlington, where you will need to change to a Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA) bus to go the rest of the way. If the bus gods are with you, you can make the trip in 1:28, but it can also take you 2:16. If you get to Alewife later than 6:20 p.m., forget about it, because you won’t make it any farther than Chestnut Street in Burlington.

The fastest trip is the 350 that leaves Alewife at 6:20 a.m. It doesn’t make the loop to the Burlington Mall, instead it proceeds up Cambridge Street to Chestnut Street, where the route ends. This is also the south end of the LRTA Route 13, which runs through Billerica to the Kennedy Center. The 350 is scheduled to reach Chestnut Street at 7:04, and the LRTA 13 leaves at 7:10, a six minute scheduled layover.

Normally, the layover at Chestnut Street is significantly longer. Get on the 6:42 or the 6:58 leaving Alewife, you will have a 44 or 24 minute layover at Chestnut Street before the 8:10 bus leaves for Lowell.

If you leave Alewife at 8:15, the optimal strategy is to get off the bus at the Burlington Mall, where you have a 12 minute wait before LRTA Route 14 is scheduled to leave for Lowell (arriving at 9:45). Continue on to the end of the 350 at Chestnut Street, you have a 51 minute wait for the connection to LRTA Route 13, and you won’t get to Lowell until 10:38.

You get the picture? You need to get off the MBTA bus at the end of the MBTA service area, then board the LRTA bus for the journey through its towns. Oh, and you will pay two fares, though the LTRA will allow you to pay its fares with a Charlie Card.

What happens if we turn two separate lines into one line? The trip that takes from 1:28 to 2:16 is reduced to a trip of 1:06 to 1:17, eliminating layovers of up to 49 minutes. It can’t happen with two agencies with two territories, but a unified system could do it.

How do you get out of Lexington?
The Town of Lexington (with partial MBTA funding) operates LExpress, a suburban bus system that revolves around Depot Square in the center of town. The bus service does cross the line to reach the Burlington Mall, but other than that it doesn’t leave Lexington. You can make a connection to MBTA bus routes 62 or 76 in Lexington Center (two lines, both run hourly mid-day, for a 30-minute headway in Lexington Center). The LExpress buses are timed to leave Lexington Center on the hour and half-hour, and 67/76 buses are scheduled to leave for Alewife about three minutes later. Outbound buses tend to arrive in Lexington Center between 10 and 13 minutes before the LExpress buses leave Depot Square.

However, the LExpress does make its way as far east as Massachusetts Avenue and Taft Avenue, about a half-mile from the Arlington Heights terminal of the 77 (Arlington Heights – Harvard Station) and 79 (Arlington Heights – Alewife) bus lines. The LExpress doesn’t cross into Arlington, doesn’t make the connection, and doesn’t provide an option for a rider looking to travel from Arlington Center into Lexington.

Out of sync?
The Red Line runs every 12 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 12 minutes between Alewife and Briantree, after 6:30 p.m. on weekdays. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every six minutes.

On Saturdays, the Red Line runs every 14 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 14 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every seven minutes.

On Sundays, the Red Line runs every 16 minutes between Alewife and Ashmont, and every 16 minutes between Alewife and Briantree. This means the trains between Alewife and JFK-UMass runs every eight minutes.

One of the major Red LIne connections is the 77 bus from Harvard Station to Alewife. Many of the people on the 77 bus connect from the Red Line. Let’s see how it works:

On weekday evenings, when the Red Line is running on six minute intervals, the 77 runs on intervals of 10 minutes, 11 minutes, and 13 minutes.

On Saturdays, when the Red Line is running on seven minute intervals, the 77 runs on 12 and 15 minute intervals.

On Sundays, when the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals, the 77 runs on 20 minute, 17 minute, 14 minute, and 15 minute intervals.

It’s all so close, but it’s all so far away. You can walk off the Red Line train and find good fortune and a 77 bus will come a minute later. However, you can walk off the Red Line and watch the taillights of the bus vanish and face a 10, 13, 15, or 17 minute wait. What sense does that make?

If the Red Line is running on eight minute intervals on Sunday, why not run the buses on 16 minute intervals? Why not set it up so that the bus is timed to arrive just behind every other train, reducing the wait time on the Harvard Station bus platform? How hard is it to run the buses every 16 minutes instead of every 14 minutes or every 17 minutes?

Anyone with a smart phone can download a bus app that lets us know where the buses are. If we have this technology, why can’t the MBTA use this technology to sync trains to connecting buses? Why can’t we reduce unnecessary waits for buses? Why can’t buses be timed to meet commuter rail trains in places like West Medford?

As long as we have all these separate bus systems, separate from the subway trains, separate from commuter rail, intermodal transit becomes slow and inconvenient. If we put it all under one operating agency, we can sync the schedules in one easy to use system. You can have different operating agencies (LRTA can run one set of buses between Lowell and Alewife, MBTA can run another), but all the buses will be the same color, have the same fare structure, and will have unified schedules.

Let’s make it one unified system. Call it MassTransit. Make it easy to get around the state using the existing resources. Make the connections, let’s reform these little agencies and transform them to a statewide transit system.

Recommended by jasongwb, somervilletom, jasiu.


29 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Alewife to Lowell

    In the best-case scenario you offer, your bus trips between Alewife and Lowell take 1:06-1:17 — more than twice as long as the equivalent automobile ride.

    That’s NEVER going to be enough. Because those buses have to share the road with automobiles and make more stops, they will ALWAYS be slower.

    I note that the current timetable trip time by commuter rail between North Station and Lowell is 45 minutes — and covers a longer distance. Sadly, the trains leave only once per hour in non-peak hours and every half hour during rush-hour.

    I enthusiastically agree with you about “systems thinking” for transit. I suggest that building a light-rail network (that does NOT have to compete with vehicles on existing highways), especially if it includes “circumferential” routes that join existing radial commuter lines, is the only approach that can outperform, or even compete with, automobiles on highways.

    • You may not want to go from Alewife to Lowell

      However, people may want to make intermediate trips, like Billerica Center to Burlington Mall, which requires the change from LRTA to MBTA at Chestnut Street in Burlington.

      People will tolerate a slower ride. What people won’t tolerate is standing on a street corner on the outskirts of Burlington, waiting 48 minutes for the connecting bus. People will tolerate a train to bus transfer, but they will abandon transit when the transfers are timed to maximize the wait at the transfer point.

      • Actually, no

        The LRTA #14 bus stops in Billerica center, then proceeds to the Burlington Mall.

        I do agree that it’s the waiting that prevents most people from using the buses. I could take the bus to within a mile of my work, but it would take an hour forty minutes, as opposed to driving for twenty. Going home would be much worse, because of an almost hour-long wait at the Kennedy Center.

  2. I think Tom,

    …you finally nailed why I’ve been harping on convenience. Given your stats above about the time it takes, guess which mode of transit I’m likely to use on that basis. We need to reactivate rails as you suggest above and pointed out exist on the Pan-Am map on a previous post and get away from this all-roads-lead-to-Boston mentality.

    • Let's employ a core "systems thinking" concept...

      A core concept of “system’s thinking” is to quantify and express measurable benchmarks of performance.

      Here are some examples I’ve been contemplating over the years, that I offer as a starting point:

      1) For short trips (less than a mile), the station-to-station transit time should be less than typical walking time. This applies to many or most MBTA stations. For example, while I lived in Brookline, I could frequently walk from Washington Square to Coolidge corner along the C line (passing THREE Green Line stops) without being passed by ONE train. Similarly, I routinely walked from St. Mary’s to Coolidge Corner (again passing three stops) without being passed by a train.

      2) For medium trips (Lowell to Boston, Worcester to Lowell, etc), the station-to-station transit time should be less than typical driving time — especially during commutes.

      3) I should never have to wait more than twenty minutes to get from any destination to any within the region served, and never more than ten minutes during peak travel times.

      4) The above criteria are especially important in bad weather.

      The final criteria is among the most important. The recent MBTA trend towards reducing or cancelling service during snow events is totally unacceptable — snowstorms are when the service is most needed. Railroads have successfully operated passenger trains through snowstorms for most of the history of railroads. This trend is clear sign of a mortally wounded system — we must reverse it.

      • A bit more about first-world train service

        In Austria and Germany, commuter trains run pretty much every ten minutes. Intercity trains leave less frequently (Vienna to Innsbruck is one per hour).

        At the station, trains are scheduled to arrive at a specific time, on a specific platform, and with each car at a specific place on the platform. Connecting trains are scheduled to be across the platform, and are scheduled to be waiting as the incoming train arrives. Connecting passengers literally walk across the platform from their car to their connecting train. When boarding a train, passengers are directed from the station to a particular spot on the platform well ahead of time — contrast this with current US practice where arrival tracks are intentionally suppressed until the very last minute. Most trains leave from the same spot on the same platform every day — commuters know exactly where to be and when, day after day. A train is considered “late” when it arrives more than two minutes after its scheduled time.

        My wife, who grew up in Bavaria, tells me that this has always been the case — I experienced it first-hand during a two-week vacation in 2008.

        We have tolerated a third-world transportation system for generations. As a state and nation who claims and desires first-world status, we must do better. Germany, Austria, Japan, and England show that first-world public transportation systems exist — we must decide that we want one.

  3. I appreciate the sentiment

    pablo, you put a lot of work in the post, and I appreciate the sentiment. I’m just going to barf a few comments to push back — not because I’m opposed, but because the consolidation idea just isn’t obvious to me.

    But seriously — how many public transit users transfer MBTA and XXX agency in a trip? As a percentage of MBTA riders, I’d bet that it is remarkably small.

    Do you really think that the Lowell folks want to be gobbled up by the MBTA? I’m not talking about the employees — I’m talking about the users and the politicians? Would you trust an agency in downtown Boston to get the details of the bus routes in Lowell correct? At which corner should the bus stop? Should we consolidate stops here or no?

    Heck, the MBTA itself isn’t CharlieCard comprehensive. You can’t user your CharlieCard on commuter rail, for example*. I think that it would be totally reasonable for the non-MBTA agencies to upgrade their fare collection to use the same technology as the MBTA — and then work with the MBTA to allow users of one system to pay for the other**.

    You opined that the Vineyard and Nantucket made sense with island-only transit agencies, but those are the two which IMO least make sense to be island only. After all, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are the only two places in Massachusetts where the vast majority of people go to and from via mass transit!

    I do think you’re on to something with the local muni buses. Those are just nonsense. For example, Winthrop. Served by Paul Revere. Why on Earth doesn’t the governor exert some political capital to serve the Orient Heights MBTA station in Eastie with an MBTA bus to go to Winthrop — thereby allowing Winthrop folks to use the bus and the Blue Line on the same card. That’s two measly bus lines in one small community directly adjacent to Boston. It’s an easy one.

    My town adjacent to Boston has MBTA buses, MASCO buses, a senior center
    bus, a public school bus, and one or more private school buses. Multiple sets of private buses are remarkably inefficient, and it could be improved upon.

    I also think that the governor should split paratransit off of the MBTA. Separate budget, separate leadership, separate assets. Paratransit is important, but it isn’t mass transit. It’s door-to-door taxi service. Why muddle it with the T? Instead, pay for it separately, and work hard at reducing its need by improving accessibility for the T itself.

    * at least that was the case a few years ago. Sill? I think so…
    ** even if it’s just using the “free cash” portion on your card to pay a single issue fare — daily/weekly/monthly passes might be more complex.

    • Love this post

      As an urban policy junkie I live posts like this. I think it’s important to look at merging these authorities for a variety of reasons and good to look at other models. One of the few areas where Illinois beats Massachusetts is public transit. We were smart enough to put a major subway line in the middle of a highway, you can take subways from one airport to the other in under an hour and both connect downtown. All the bus lines link to regional transit hubs.

      Most importantly the RTA (regional transit authority) is a board were Metra (commuter line), the CTA (Chicago and some suburban subway and bus lines), NIRTA (northern Indiana regional transit authority) and PACE (exclusively suburban and exurban busses) is a method by which the different systems maintain autonomy but can together lobby Springfield and Indianapolis for funding and coordinate together. It’s not perfect,still resistance to a universal system of fares and a single fare card for all systems (MA is lucky that the commuter rail is within the MBTA) but its a way for regional and in the case of NIRTA interstate and inter urban rail travel to work. We could definitely adopt it here.

    • Arlington Center to Lowell

      It would be even better if there was a Red Line station here, but there are many transit options outside by door. I am within a block or two of bus stops for six bus routes, one (the 77) has some of the best scheduled headways in the MBTA system.

      I commute to Lowell, within a couple of blocks of the Kennedy Center – Gallagher Terminal – MBTA station. It’s the hub of transit in greater Lowell.

      Why do I drive 50 miles each day, and spend about $200 per month in commuting gasoline, to go from one transit hub to another? Simple. The wait in the middle of nowhere (Chestnut Street, Burlington) to change buses is longer than the time it makes to drive from Arlington to Lowell. The walk from Arlington Center to the West Medford MBTA station (with a few minutes to spare so I don’t miss the train) would be roughly equivalent to the time it takes to drive to Lowell. There’s no parking available at West Medford or Wedgemere, and there’s no bus timed to meet the commuter rail.

      So I drive. We have the trains. We have the buses. They’re just not synced. The system is just not designed to make the trip remotely reasonable in terms of cost or time. If I were playing Sim City, the Red Line would go through Arlington Center and Lexington to a big park-and-ride – transit hub station at the foot of Route 3 in Burlington, and the train would then run up the Route 3 median to Lowell. In reality, I can’t lay new track, dig new subways, but we can use existing resources more systemically and strategically. We can, and we should.

    • Arlington Center to Boston

      If I want to go into Boston, I have three options.
      1. Drive.
      2. Drive to the Red Line or Orange Line, then take the train.
      3. Walk a block, hop the 77 bus, then change to the Red Line at Porter or Harvard.

      On a weekend, Option 3 is a great inbound option. Break out my MBTA app, I can time my walk to the bus stop so there’s not much of a wait, and once I get to the Red Line I know I only have a 7 or 8 minute maximum wait for a train.

      Option 3 becomes an ugly option on the way home. Because the buses don’t sync to the trains, the probability of walking up the ramp to the Harvard Station busway and watching the taillights of the 77 bus leave the station are just too high. It’s those 15, 17 minute waits for the 77 bus that make this trip so unappealing, especially when the weekend drive from downton Boston to Arlington Center takes only about 15 minutes.

      I mean, if the trains run every eight minutes (two trains every 16 minutes), why would run the buses every 15 minutes or every 17 minutes? How hard would it be to align those resources so that you walk up the ramp from every other train and arrive about a minute before the bus arrives? If the bus meets every other train, the maximum wait for a Red Line – bus transfer will be about eight minutes, the headway between trains.

      Would that systemic approach make a difference for me? Would I choose to ride the bus instead of hunting for parking at Porter or Davis, or paying for parking at Wellington? Yes it would. If I had a predictable and reliable transfer from train to bus at Harvard Station, I would leave the car at home.

      Again, this is a question of building a user-friendly system. We have the trains. We have the buses. Why not make them work together in a coherent system?

      • What happens when the train is late?

        There’s about a 50% probability of waiting 15 minutes for the bus under your proposal.

        • It depends on how late is late?

          Core principle: Make the system work for transfers. If the train is 2 minutes late, it’s better to send the buses out 2 minutes late than to send them out empty. This becomes even more important for a bus that doesn’t run very often. I was on a Red Line train that had a sticky door, and was delayed a few minutes at Wollaston; just enough time to miss a connection with a bus to Hingham that operates with a 30-minute headway.

          The next time I made the morning trip to Hingham? I sat in traffic on I-93 instead of spending a half hour waiting for a connection in Quincy Center.

      • Not so easy

        The trip time for a bus to get from “start” to “Red line T stop” varies widely depending on motor vehicle traffic. The trip time for the Red Line varies slightly depending on number of passengers.

        As a result, timing buses to leave 3 minutes after the Red Line vehicle arrives from downtown is difficult because it presumes that a bus has arrived just before the Red Line vehicle arrives. The problem is that the time it takes the bus to travel to the Red Line stop varies by maybe 30 minutes. Therefore, if you are going to link bus departures to Red Line vehicle arrivals, you either have to:
        * have a few buses and drivers waiting around so that if the inbound bus is slow to get there, the outbound bus is ready anyway, or
        * eliminate the outbound bus schedule, and every time an incoming bus arrives at the Red Line terminal it just waits until 3 minutes after the next Red Line train arrives to depart. Sometimes that’s every 2 trains, but sometimes it will be every 1, 3, or 4 depending largely on surface vehicle traffic but also Red Line scheduling.

        Any of these systems would be better for folks like you, who want to (a) use an app to choose departure time for the bus, and (b) are using the bus-Red Line connection. But for folks who don’t use the app, or who just want to go bus stop to bus stop without the Red Line, this system is worse. It’s a trade off.

        As a side note, one thing that the MBTA could do, in conjunction with each city and town, is work to make the bus route have less variance. That means bus rapid transit (BRT) — things like exclusive or semi-exclusive bus lanes, queue jumping, and traffic signal prioritization (TSP) so that buses are less likely to get stuck at a red light. Not only does this make the bus trip time shorter, but it reduces the frequency and extent of buses running late, which really gums up the system especially for folks who are going to transfer to another mass transit vehicle. This takes real work though — lots of consulting time, lots of public hearings, lots of time for municipal civic servants, money, and political willpower to eliminate some parallel parking, etc. The fact of the matter is that there just isn’t the political willpower to do it, even in Boston proper and Cambridge, two communities where people who ride the bus actually have some political power.

        • I don't think it is so hard...

          At most T transfer points, the buses start their runs at the train station. Trains, particularly evenings and weekends, do run on fairly reliable intervals, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to coordinate if that is the goal.

          What happens when it isn’t coordinated? Here’s an example -f what I described above. If the trains run at 8 minute intervals, and the bus runs at 15 minute intervals, here’s what happens:

          Buses leave at :00, :15, :30, :45

          Train arrives at (time until bus departure)
          12:58 – 2 minutes
          1:06 – 9 minutes
          1:14 – 1 minute (if you run, you might catch the bus – next bus in 16 minutes)
          1:22 – 8 minutes
          1:30 – 15 minutes (bus leaves just as train arrives)
          1:38 – 7 minutes
          1:46 – 14 minutes
          1:54 – 6 minutes
          2:02 – 13 minutes
          2:10 – 5 minutes
          2:18 – 12 minutes
          2:26 – 4 minutes
          2:34 – 11 minutes
          2:42 – 3 minutes
          2:50 – 10 minutes
          2:58 – 2 minutes

          WHen the bus leaves every 16 minutes instead of every 15 minutes, look what happens to the wait time:

          12:58 – bus leaves at 1:00 – 2 minutes
          1:06 – 10 minutes
          1:14 – bus leaves at 1:16 – 2 minutes
          1:22 – 10 minutes
          1:30 – bus leaves at 1:32 – 2 minutes

          Assuming a two minute walk from the train to the bus platform, a regular Red Line rider has a 0.5 probability of an eight minute wait, and a 0.5 probability of no wait for the bus, with an average wait of four minutes.

          When the buses run every 15 minutes, and the trains run every eight minutes, the probabilities are equally distributed among the fifteen outcomes (no wait – 14 minute wait). While the average wait time increases from four to seven minutes, this means that half the time you arrive at the bus stop you will have a wait of more than seven minutes. With a synced schedule, the wait is no more than eight minutes, but when the schedules don’t sync, the probability of a 14 minute wait is equal to the probability of no wait at all.

          It’s those 14 minute waits that discourage transit ridership.

          Can it be done? We have apps that communicate bus locations to riders. I am sure we can find ways to communicate train arrival times that will signal drivers to move to the bus platform at Harvard Station.

          • I'm with you in spirit

            With the idea of bus interarrival time being 2X subway interarrival time and coordinating departures.

            The problems are these:
            1. Subway arrival times need to be solid. They’re not. If the Red Line arrives on its interval +/- 3 minutes, you’ve got what ends up being a pretty big swing… 6 minutes out of the 16 minute bus interarrival. When the subway arrives “early”, its no biggie. When it arrives late, either folks are waiting 14 minutes for the bus or you hold the bus up, making it 3 minutes behind schedule for its entire route — including 3 minutes behind schedule arriving back at the Red Line station next time.
            2. Subway schedule needs to be solid, ie interarrivals every 7 minutes on M-F 5:30-7am, 7pm-midnight. It’s not. The MBTA will adjust the interarrivals throughout the day as need requires it. Disabled train, lack of enough operators, or other “internal” issue. Special events in Boston like sporting events, weather events, holidays, etc. Each of those items might be rare, but the odds that *one* of those events occur on a given day are much higher.

            There’s no question that for the small percentage of MBTA riders who both (a) will ride a subway outbound, and (b) connect with a bus, that this change would, when “it works” benefit substantially. But, the chances of it “working” for any given connection really aren’t that high, the “cost” of failure is an assured 14 minute wait, and it really doesn’t a very high percentage of riders, actual or potential. I’m not arguing that the T shouldn’t do inexpensive, relatively easy things that benefit a small number of riders at no expense to the others — the MBTA should of course do those things. I do think that, in this particular case (and with absolutely no actual data or analysis!!!) that it’s a whole lot harder to successfully pull off than it first appears, in no small part because both parts [subway, bus] have a remarkably hard time staying on schedule with a resolution of +/-2 minutes, and this plan requires both (a) a subway to arrive on time, and (b) a bus to be there waiting, which means it needs to be on time too.

            I will say, as a former resident of Dublin Ireland where buses are king, that I’m a big believer in the potential for buses to be highly efficient. Dublin did it by creating oodles of bus only lanes, and to hell with the automotive congestion that results. The buses run on time, have low fares, and are *faster* than driving because of the semi-exclusive bus lanes. That took lots of political mojo, and its something that no community in Massachusetts (no less all of them) have demonstrated a willingness to do. Building infrastructure that gives buses the priority over autos — even if that means the average auto trip is slower as a result — is a necessary condition to getting bus ridership from people who could otherwise drive. Without that, you always have buses which are late or early, preventing synchronization and preventing enough ridership to get buses scheduled with a convenient level of frequency.

            • Spirit is okay, but why can't we make this happen?

              We are being asked to contribute more in taxes, and I think we need to strive for something more than new equipment to preserve the status quo. The Japanese seem to be able to pull off precision, and if you are standing on a platform and a train is 30 seconds late, you get a profound apology.

              Let’s come at this with a commitment to excellence, a commitment to customer service, a commitment to meeting the needs of the riders and taxpayers who are funding the system.

              It may not be easy, but we must make the effort. We must do better.

              Shrugging our shoulders and saying it can’t be done? Not acceptable.

              • I'm not opposed to working for better

                Heck, I attended the Boston Public Library community event last week to work on Green Line issues. With my infant because mom was out of town. We spoke about traffic signal prioritization, which is a necessary component of getting the Green Line trains (and any bus) to have any chance at staying on schedule.

                My point is that the very thing for which you are asking can’t be done *today* because there are other things which are necessary to be done first in order to get the thing for which you are asking. On the subway side, near-perfect track and signals are required, as are subway cars which (nearly) never break down. We don’t have either of those things. On the bus side, you need bus routes with substantially reduced schedule variance. That requires BRT (bus rapid transit). That requires — for every single bus route in question — pulling out the specs for the route. Moving as many “near-side” stops to the far side of the intersection, even if it means the bus no longer stops in front of a fire plug and instead we have to lose a few parallel parking spaces (per bus stop). That means setting up bus queue jumping where it makes sense, and even taking a two lane (in one direction) road or a one lane plus parking lane and converting it to one auto lane and one bus (plus taxi plus bike perhaps) lane… a substantial loss of public parking or private automobile carrying capacity. It means installing new controllers, and often new signals (about $100k per) to allow buses to “get the green light”. Doing all of this for a single bus route takes years even if the MBTA, the DOT, and each local community wants it to happen and is willing to help pay for it. Once you’ve done all that, then and only then do you have the minimal schedule variance necessary to try and pull off a scheme like you describe.

                I think we should go for it. I’m all for it. The most important part — and the hardest — is getting the local community to buy in to losing parking spaces and private auto carrying capacity so that the bus can have lower trip time and (more importantly!) less variance on its trip time. This very activity is being worked on for a few “key” bus routes (read: a few of the most heavily used routes in the city) including the 66, and I think (!) the 1 and another bus out of Dudley. I’ve been working on the 66 route with my community — for years — and I think, when said and done, it will reduce trip time by 3 or 4 minutes and reduce “worst case” by about the same, maybe more. That’s once we install and configure the new lights, a phase of the project for which we haven’t even started planning.

                So clearly I agree, we must make the effort. I’m *personally* making the effort — showing up at meetings, working with town staff and MBTA consultants, and, when the time comes, I’ll rally my community to help pay for the lights if necessary. I just want you (and others) to understand that the concept behind what you ask is simple, but actual implementation, when the stars are aligned, still takes years. And, the stars aren’t aligned, and that’s not the MBTA’s fault.

                • We must make the effort

                  We need to rethink this thing as a system, not as a series of totally independent units. Can we run trains precisely on schedule? No. But it’s insane to run trains on an eight minute interval when you run buses on a 15 or 17 minute interval. At least we should design the system to work, and then work on the implementation.

    • Um...

      “Do you really think that the Lowell folks want to be gobbled up by the MBTA?”

      Yes, please. The LRTA is fucking annoying. They won’t change, they refuse to address the issues people have been bringing up for AGES to make the system better, eff ‘em.

  4. Details aside

    an excellent concept.

    Given the death-grip on their autonomy, how do you get 351 towns and cities to consolidate their systems?

    • Who's got the money?

      And why would we spend state funds to perpetuate this mess?

    • Death grip?

      The ONLY reason the towns have their own transit buses is because of the death of the old regional transit companies. It was not a natural death. In the case of Lexington, there was a gap of several years between the demise of the Middlesex and Boston Street Railway (which had long before been converted to buses) and the establishment of the town’s minibus system. In the interim, people who wanted to get anywhere had to take taxis if they had no car. I assume that was the case elsewhere.

      In short, I assume the towns would be happy to give up their bus systems if a regional system reappeared.

  5. It makes complete sense to coordinate the different segments

    of mass transit. Employers are not very flexible about start times, and expect you to be there when you are supposed to be. Transit issues, I’m sure, is not a valid excuse for being late. It is time to coordinate, update and modernize our transit systems. After seeing how monorails work, it makes sense and seems less costly to do any expansions in that way. Much easier to direct trains over existing infrastructure. A much more interesting ride too.

    • Ever hang out around North Station 10 years ago?

      It ain’t pretty now, but it was downright horrible then. Running infrastructure over the road results in lots of ugly underneath the tracks. I’m not just talking aesthetics. I’m talking urban decay ugly — homeless, litter, graffiti, crummy buildings and businesses, etc.


      • I don't watch garbage television so I missed that episode

        If I did watch it, I certainly wouldn’t let it sway my opinion. Unfortunately, way too many people do watch garbage television, and with that over-consumption, form their opinions. Yes, cities can be ugly. A monorail will not necessarily contribute to that any more than bridges, overpasses, or large bouncy buses that spew smelly diesel fumes. Monorails could be sleek, efficient and quieter I’m sure, perhaps running on steel supports instead of concrete rail bases.

        • Oh please

          Don’t throw me under the bus for a Simpson’s reference.

          Bridges and overpasses run roughly perpendicular to the road, covering up something like 100′ at a time. Running parallel to the road below means covering up all of it — as much as miles at a time. That’s what the elevated highway [and rail] near North Station was, and it was horrible. Far worse than a bridge or an overpass or a bus.

          The supports for the elevated Green Line were, if memory serves, made from metal. Didn’t change the fact that they made the area horrible. Covering the length of the road is the problem, not the material of the structural support.

          P.S. MBTA buses no longer spew diesel fumes — they all run on natural gas. No soot, point’s moot.

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