Thursday, August 25, 2016

The odd history of the 66 Bus Wiggle

One frequently-mentioned (and usually fallacious) argument is that we need to rework our bus routes because they follow the same routes as they did in the days of the streetcars. (This is a fallacy because, in most cases, the streetcars followed the path of least resistance: straight, wide roads with mixed uses and density. In Houston the uses had changed so drastically since the streetcars it made some sense, in older, denser cities, it doesn't.) Then there's the case of the 66 bus in Boston, Brookline, Boston again, and then Cambridge, particularly the two-sides-of-a-triangle "wiggle" to Union Square in Allston. (Here's a visual primer on the 66)

This isn't entirely true. There are a lot of reasons why the
66 bus sucks. But this shows the wiggle well.
Via here.
The wiggle stems from a route realignment in 1989, where several routes were rejiggered, which is the type of route realignment I think the T should do more of. Before 1989, there were several routes which terminated in Union Square in Allston, not because it is a major activity locus, or a major transfer point, but because back in the day, there was a car barn there and BERy decided to start and end routes there. Back then, the following routes served Union Square Allston:

  • 57 Kenmore to Watertown Yard
  • 63 Cleveland Circle to Central Square via Western
  • 64 Oak Square to Central Square
  • 66 Allston to Dudley (note that there was never a streetcar line across the Anderson Bridge; this was always a bus line)
  • 86 Union Square Allston to Union Square Somerville via Harvard

After the changes, except for the 57 and 64, the routes were split apart and recombined at Union to better serve the needs of the traveling public (what a thought!). The 63 was combined with the 86 to form the current 86 bus (which was extended to Sullivan in 1981 a few years after the Orange Line was realigned). The 66 was then extended to Harvard Square to cover the section in Lower Allston the 86 bus missed. This better focused service towards Harvard (where subway connections were, since 1985, available in both directions, and which has more terminal capacity than Central) and provided a one-seat ride between Brookline and Harvard for the first time, leaving us with the current routes:
  • 57 Kenmore to Watertown Yard
  • 64 Oak Square to Central Square
  • 66 Harvard to Dudley 
  • 86 Cleveland Circle to Sullivan
Initially, the 66 was routed straight through on Harvard Ave. Apparently there were protests (not sure by whom) and that the route no longer served Union Square and it was realigned, and since then has cost through-riding passengers (the vast majority) several minutes of travel time. The gist of the protest, as far as I can tell, is that you couldn't get to Union Square on the 66. But this is not a valid argument. The 66 intersects the 57, another high-frequency bus route, which serves Union Square. If you are unable to make the (short) walk to Union, you can instead utilize the transfer feature of the bus network. Most users can walk the 1200 feet (a 4 minute walk) to Harvard Ave; others can use the every-ten-minutes 57 bus and transfer. Apparently, planners at the time kowtowed to these complaints. It probably costs the T tens of thousands of dollars in operating costs every year, and likely reduces ridership as potential riders choose other modes because of the length of the route.

A straightened route would consolidate several stops at Harvard and Commonwealth, which could be rebuilt as a high-amenity stop (larger shelter, higher curb, real-time arrival display, signal priority, etc). The few passengers who need to get to Union Square and can not make the walk could, instead, ride the 57 (or even the 64). No stop would lose service (the entirety of the wiggle duplicates other routes) and it would make the 66 faster and more reliable. We hear that the T should replicate Houston's bus realignment program (it shouldn't). But small changes like this would pay dividends.


  1. It's a bit more complicated.

    Union Square has a fair amount of affordable housing and an an environmental justice community. That grew up around the idea that Union Square was a good spot to reach jobs/opportunities/etc in both Cambridge (MA) and Dudley Square. Because classically, Union Square was the connection point between those two routes, for historical reasons. But you know how it goes: path dependency.

    Anyway, dropping Union Square from the 66 looks a lot like skipping over an environmental justice, low-income, majority-minority community in favor of hastening the rides between Brookline and Cambridge. Not to mention the public school. Very, very bad optics. Maybe a lawsuit. And quite possibly bad transit, despite the route kink, if only because Union Square remains a major source of ridership (and I think that will only grow, going forward).

    It's frustrating to be sure.

  2. Writing from abord a 66...

    I think any long term solution will require creativity and flexibility from the neighborhood, btd, and MBTA. Huge numbers of outbound riders (including lost 14 year olds who missed the 66 school run) transfer to the 57 at quint street. Keeping their transfer simple will be necessary. The lack of a single good point to transfer between all these useful (if infrequent) routes also confounds the desire for obvious solutions.

    I have also always suspected the turn between Harvard Ave and Cambridge Street may not be simple for buses either given the angle of the intersection, poor sight lines, and number of trucks that have hit Stingray Tattoo.

    Adding service on the 64 and 86 would obviously mitigate some of the transfer problems though I suppose they're coming from our mythical bus depot with spare capacity.

    That said, the wiggle would be more tolerable with more bus lanes, tsp, and a few key queue jumps.

  3. Matthew: Understandable, but the point of a transit network is to be a network. If the 66 were straightened, I would assume that 90% of the people who currently board in Union would walk to Harvard Ave (a 5 minute walk). The remaining would either take the 57 and transfer, make a different transit trip, or choose a different mode. But as I've pointed out many times here (and Jarrett Walker has pointed out as well) the point of transit is to serve as many people as efficiently as possible, and these sorts of joggles don't do that. If Union Square didn't already have two bus lines (one of them very frequent), or if it was a transfer point to other lines, or if it had a huge housing or commercial node akin to Harvard, the joggle would make much more sense. But it's not.

    As for the transfer, Lee, it could definitely be improved. I keep citing Loop Link in Chicago since I was there all summer, but building more of a station to allow better boarding makes a lot of sense. This could be built at the corners with better pedestrian access, transit signal priority and the like for easy transferring. Not rocket science.

  4. Straightening the route is such a no-brainer. It would be faster but also much easier for the bus driver, who currently has to make multiple very tight or awkward turns in heavy traffic.

    There have been times when I've gotten off the 66 at Cambridge St and Harvard Ave and walked down Harvard Ave to Brighton Ave, and BEAT the bus there.