I recently had the pleasure of riding the entire route of the 34E, one of the MBTA's longest bus routes. The route starts in Walpole Center, makes a beeline to Washington Street (which extends from Boston to Providence) and runs in a straight line to Forest Hill Station. A straight line, that is, except, for a bizarre figure-eight loop through the Dedham Mall. The loop-the-loop to access the mall unnecessarily lengthens the route, costs the T money, costs passengers time, and subsidizes private development, all to service the front door of an auto-centered development.
Instead of continuing on Washington Street, the mall loop takes 8 or 10 minutes as the bus leaves the street, navigates no fewer than eight stop signs and traffic signals, makes two separate looped turn-arounds and traverses the same intersection three times. The route is scheduled for a full hour for the 14 mile trip from Walpole to Forest Hills, so the detour through the mall accounts for 13 to 16% of the total run time, all to serve two stops (out of more than 80 total on the route) which would otherwise require a 2 to 5 minute walk.
In other words, for riders wishing to get to the Dedham Mall, it would likely be faster if the bus ran straight on Washington Street and they got off and walked in to the mall, rather than taking a circuitous route to be dropped near the door. And for everyone else, it would save 8 to 10 minutes each way of not riding through the mall parking lot.
I rode the route on a weekday evening a few days before Christmas. This should have been a high water mark for people using the 34E to get to the mall. While my bus was full—there were probably between 45 and 50 passengers on board at any given time (and probably 70 or more served along the route)—only two or three got on or off at the mall. So, in order to serve this small number of passengers, the rest of the bus had to loop in and out and in and out of endless parking lots and driveways, because front-door service to the mall is apparently required.
In addition, running service via the mall requires several hidden subsidies which degrade service and provide a perverse incentive for people to drive instead of use transit. This one, in turn, further subsidizes the car-centric mall over pedestrian-oriented business districts, several of which are served by this route. There is also the direct subsidy to businesses at the mall. If I open a store on a street near an existing transit line, I would not (and should not) expect the transit agency to reroute the transit line to provide a stop at my front door. Yet we provide this service to the mall.
This subsidy can be quantified, in fact. The T doesn't break down service between the 34E and the 34, but let's assume that slightly more than half the passengers on the route are carried by the 34E (looking at the total number of vehicles on the route at different times of day)—or about 2500 passengers. The route costs $3.09 per passenger to operate (66¢ average bus fare paid plus $2.43 subsidy), or a total cost per day of about $7725. If we calculate 15% of this approximately $1150, meaning that over the course of a year—even given lower service levels on weekends—the cost to serve the mall is well north of $300,000 per year. [Update: these numbers may be somewhat lower given that morning service—before the mall opens—and some peak evening rush hour trips do skip the mall.]
Here's another way to look at this: currently, the 20 minute evening headways on the 34E requires 6 buses running the route in about (or just under), each bus makes a round trip in two hours. If the run time were reduced to 51 minutes by omitting the mall, the same six buses could make seven round trips, reducing headways and, thus increasing capacity on the route. If you could get it to 50 minutes, the same headways could be maintained with 5 buses, which would save 1/6 of the route's operating cost while providing the same service. But, instead, we provide service to the mall, at the expense of everyone who isn't the mall.
What to do? Make the mall subsidize the route—yes, to the tune of $350,000 per year—or have them build an ADA facility from Washington Street to the mall. The extra cost of running this route in to the mall for 10 years could buy a very nice set of bus shelters, crosswalks and a ramp from Washington Street to the mall's front door. Another option would be to run the 34—which ends its route nearby—to the mall, instead of putting this joggle in the middle of the 34E. While it might not have the same cost savings, it would at least not have the effect of costing thousands of passenger hours each day. Or, abandon service to the mall all together. Malls are dying, anyway, and it should not be the business of public transit agencies to help prop them up.