the T

MBTA Readies for More Riders, But How Do You Keep Social Distance on a Bus?

The NBC10 Boston Investigators have found it's been easy to socially distance on some buses and impossible on others

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With so many people working from home, ridership has plummeted on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

But as the state continues to reopen, and more of us take public transit to work, is the T ready for more riders?

Some advocates worry the answer is no.

“I’m very sad and disappointed and concerned,” said Richard Dimino, president and CEO of A Better City, a business-focused nonprofit that works to shape public policy in the region.

The NBC10 Investigators showed Dimino video we took on a crowded MBTA bus in Chelsea last month. We found it was easy to socially distance on some buses and impossible on others.

Social distancing is hard to do on a bus full of people.

An essential worker who rides the Silver Line bus to work shared photos of a similar scene days earlier, catching the attention of transportation advocates and the MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, who said the T increased bus service on the route soon after.

Dimino said the T needs to show reticent riders it can get them back to work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, or it risks losing riders who opt to drive to work instead.

“We’re going to undermine the T and undermine our economy,” he said.

Discussing the transit agency’s preparations, Poftak said the T will ease overcrowding by adding service where it sees spikes. Planners hope riders won’t get on a crowded bus or train if they know another one is right behind it.

Advocacy groups will meet with a member of the MBTA’s Fiscal Control Board today to go over what services will look like as the state begins to reopen amid the coronavirus crisis.

To measure crowding, the T is adopting the World Health Organization’s social distancing guideline, which calls for riders to be 3 feet apart. Where buses were once deemed crowded with 56 passengers, they’ll now hit their peak at 20.

Subway cars and trolleys will max out carrying less than 50 percent of the passengers they were tasked to carry pre-pandemic.

“Obviously we’re going to be giving guidance on good social distancing guidelines,” Poftak said.

Elsewhere, some transit agencies are marking where riders can sit or stand, and allowing drivers to enforce passenger limits.

Poftak said he sees too many pitfalls in policing passenger limits. The T is instead exploring technology that would alert riders to crowding issues before they get on – a work still in progress.

Dimino and some others want the agency to act more decisively. His group is calling for the T to resume full service, use federal aid to recruit more drivers and keep service up, maintain cleaning and disinfecting protocols and require everyone to wear a mask.

“I don't want to see the T be the reason why there's a resurgence” in COVID-19 cases, he said.

While we were out observing the transit system, most riders and drivers covered their faces, though we noticed some drivers interacting with the public who did not.

An MBTA Orange Line train was taken out of service Friday after the agency was told a passenger licked several parts of it.

That’s of concern to Dr. David Hamer, of the Boston University School of Public Health, who rides the bus to work.

“Drivers should be wearing masks for two reasons,” he said. “One, for their own protection … and the second is if they’re infected and they’re shedding virus, then there’s the risk for all the passengers behind them.”

The T says unless they have a medical exemption, all bus and train operators should be wearing a mask, and it will continue to monitor compliance.

The Boston Carmen’s Union, the group that represents T employees, said in a statement this week that everyone should wear masks on the MBTA and that it pushed for the T to supply protective gear to front-line workers.

"The MBTA has made clear that it will not or cannot enforce the wearing of masks," Jim Evers, the group's president, said in the statement. "We continue to strongly encourage anyone who will be in situations that do not allow for social distancing to wear a mask."

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