Sunday, December 2, 2018

Kudos, MBTA, on a job well done.

It's not particularly frequent that I write (or anyone else writes) a blog post praising the MBTA (although it's probably less frequent than it should be; the agency does a lot of good work with an old system and all-too-often inadequate funding and support) but today that is exactly what I am going to do regarding the Harvard-to-Alewife shuttle.

Some background: in 2016 I wrote a blog post about how the Harvard-Alewife shuttles could be improved. I noticed it mostly because I was on a training run for Boston (two weeks before my brush with death/fame, but I digress) and ran along Alewife Brook Parkway before taking a bus back to Harvard from Alewife. That was also for the floating slab project which has been with us since, well, at least 2011, and it sounds like the infrastructure will require continued maintenance forever, or at least until the MBTA installs a signal system which allows single-track operation (a regular occurrence for maintenance in Chicago and Washington, D.C.).

My advice went unheeded at the time. When the project came up again this fall, we (TransitMatters; if you haven't already, become a TM member or apply for our first ever staff position) went all in. We contacted the T, city officials in Somerville and Cambridge, and wrote about it in Commonwealth. The idea is mostly sound. The pushback from the T—which we heard through intermediaries—was twofold, although any problems seemed easily solved:

  • First, they argued that it would adversely affect Alewife-Davis passengers (a valid concern, although I had someone who works with the MBTA looking at how shutdowns affect ridership look at some numbers, and these passengers account for a very small number of overall ridership, as would be expected), which could be mitigated by a single shuttle from Alewife to Davis. 
  • Second, that having buses going to multiple destinations would confuse passengers. Less valid, in my opinion. Apparently a train stopping three stops short of is normal terminal isn't confusing, but buses with different destinations is? Or as a friend put it: "people can figure out the difference between Alewife and Braintree, right?"

In any case, on Saturday, December 1, the last day of the floating slab project, I got a message from a TransitMatters member: the T was sending buses out to different termini. Some were going to Davis. Some all the way to Alewife. I had been out of Cambridge, but once home I jumped at the opportunity to Hubway (or BlueBike) over to the Harvard Station to check it out. I wanted to see for myself. I wanted the rumor to be true. Alas, when I got there, the buses were operating "normally."

But I noticed a peculiar difference: rather than being signed for Alewife Sta one of the buses was signed for Alewife Sta via Porter and Davis. If nothing else, this was an improvement in customer information: rather than just the terminal, it showed all of the bypassed stations. By the time I arrived, ridership was relatively low: only about 100 passengers per train, which were handled by two buses, which would be called in to the busway by inspectors as trains arrived. I was somewhat disappointed: I wouldn't get to see the new system in practice, and that it would only live on as a rumor from a busier time of day. Nor would I be able to commend the T on trying something new. Again, just a rumor on the Internet.

So I walked down the ramp towards the pit, when I noticed a stack of papers sitting on the edge of a trash can (it was above the rim, and, no, I didn't eat it). My curiosity piqued, I picked one up and read it. What had I'd stumbled upon?
Operator Guide: Harvard – Alewife
Saturday, December 1: 12 PM to 3 PM
We are testing a new Harvard – Alewife shuttle to use buses more efficiently and to provide a better service to our customers. There are a total of 3 different shuttle routes during this time period. A station official will let you know which route to begin when you are arrive at Harvard or Alewife.
The document went on to describe the three routes in detail, the head signs to use (this described the signage I'd seen earlier) and the fact that it had been observed earlier, but not when I was there. The details are that the T rather ingeniously came up with three routes to provide customers routes without sending all of the buses to Alewife. One route ran express from Harvard to Alewife. A second ran from Harvard to Alewife making all stops. A third ran to Davis Square only. While not as efficient as what I had proposed, it was a good balance of customer service and efficiency. I was very impressed, and I hope the test went well.

The skeptic will say "so why didn't they try this earlier?" I'll cut the T a lot of slack here. Transit agencies are large bureaucracies, and like ocean liners, they take some time to change course. In this case, they not only had to create this document, they had to vet the route, change the buses sign codes, and communicate with the various officials involved. Could it have happened faster? Maybe. Could it have not happened at all? Most certainly: that's the easiest thing to do.

Maintenance shutdowns happen. They're a necessary evil, but they're an opportunity to experiment. ( (* see below for some brief suggestions) Unfortunately, experimentation is often something anathema to organizations like the MBTA. It takes extra effort for an often overworked staff, and even if the potential payoff is high, the willingness to fail is often low. But in this case, the MBTA tried. I would hope that it was successful, and that it will be the basis for better shuttle services for future floating Slab work, and elsewhere on the system going forwards.

So o everyone involved in the planning and operations staff at the MBTA: kudos and thank you. It's always a risk to try something new. And to listen to some guy ranting on the Internet. You did both. I hope it worked. I hope that it will work in the future, and that the T use these sorts of situations to try new things to continue to provide the best possible service to its customers.

* Some suggestions for future experiments …
  • When the D Line is shut down from Kenmore to Reservoir, run a local shuttle bus along the route, but encourage through passengers to use the C Line from Cleveland Circle and allow fares (easiest would be to collect no fares west of Reservoir).
  • When the Orange Line is shut down past Ruggles, run every bus terminating at Forest Hills through to the start of Orange Line service, reducing the number of bus-shuttle-subway transfers by allowing passengers on buses to Forest Hills a one-seat ride to the Orange Line trains.
  • When the Green Line is shut next summer from Newton Highlands to Riverside, run alternating buses to Woodland and Riverside, instead of making every Riverside passenger make the tedious loop in and out of the Woodland station.) 
  • If the Lowell Line is shut down on weekends in the future, immediately fire anyone who proposes whatever the bus route used this fall was. Instead run buses from Lowell to Anderson/Woburn and then express to Boston, and serve the rest of the line with the adjacent 134 bus, with a couple of trips added as necessary to supplement service.


  1. For a Kenmore-Reservoir shutdown, they can even try to run the C one stop past Cleveland Circle and continue to the extra platforms at Reservoir. Then it's a cross-platform transfer to the outbound D, and a relatively easy transfer from the inbound D to the C, certainly rather easier than having people walk to Cleveland Circle.

    1. Yes! That would be an excellent idea.

      In the 1970s they actually ran through-routed service through the yard, but that required major track work (this was for a summer-long track rebuild). But having a transfer there and running a shuttle for intermediate stations would be much easier than what they do.