Are Buses the Solution to Boston’s Transportation Gridlock?

Everett is leading the charge among communities in greater Boston on creating Bus Rapid Transit, a term for bus service that's as speedy and reliable as other modes of transportation such as light rail and subway systems

Boston's been ranked as having the worst commute in the country. Some workers say they'd rather move out of state than deal with the slow crawl anymore.

But for some bus riders, there's a silver lining — a simple, cheap solution that could get you moving faster. Communities around greater Boston are experimenting with new dedicated bus lanes, which allow MBTA buses to cruise past the morning and evening gridlock.

Everett, the only city bordering Boston that doesn't have a train or subway running through it, was among the first to take the plunge. And bus lanes produced a marked improvement in travel time for commuters like Carrie Sullivan. She takes two buses to get from her home in Everett to work a few miles away at the Gateway Center mall.

That journey can take as long as 90 minutes. But the arrival of dedicated bus lanes through Everett's busy downtown in 2016 shaved about 10 minutes off her commute, Sullivan said.

"If we didn't have [bus lanes], I probably would have to leave at 6:30 a.m. just to be here at my work at 8 o'clock," she said.

Everett is one of the area's fastest-growing cities, a haven for people pushed out of Boston by soaring housing prices. Mayor Carlo DeMaria says the community has enough land to handle the growth, but the streets can't take any more congestion.

Moving the most people, not the most cars, became the priority, and Everett couldn't wait for a big state project. So three years ago, city officials got some paint and buy-in from the T and made the area's first dedicated bus lanes down Broadway, the only road from Everett into Boston.

"If you really want to build serious housing — veterans housing, affordable housing, low income housing, luxury housing — we can't afford any more cars coming to the area," the mayor said. "You gotta put a reliable transit system in place."

To that end, Everett is leading the charge among communities in greater Boston on creating Bus Rapid Transit, a term for bus service that's as speedy and reliable as other modes of transportation such as light rail and subway systems, which have dedicated travel corridors.

In cities with the best bus service, the gold standard is putting buses in protected lanes in the middle of the road, allowing them to travel between point A and point B with no interruptions.

"We're not gold" standard, DeMaria said. "We may be silver. I'll take bronze."

To go for the gold, Everett is making other enhancements, such as giving buses priority at traffic signals and speeding up the boarding process with elevated platforms, which make it easier to get a wheelchair or stroller on board.

"Twenty seconds for a stroller doesn't sound like a lot, but do that five or six or seven times, you've lost almost five minutes on your bus trip," Everett Transportation Planner Jay Monty said.

Some factors are beyond Everett's control, including the reliability of MBTA buses. Roughly one out of every three buses shows up late, according to the T's data. The agency is in the midst of redesigning its bus system to improve service, promising more buses, more drivers and better routes.

But traffic remains one of the most significant hurdles.

That's pushed Boston, Somerville, Arlington, Cambridge and Watertown to try their own bus lanes. The early results are good; new numbers from the T show bus lanes have shaved up to ten minutes off the commute in some spots. And where there's a bus lane, ridership is up.

The data shows when you make the bus comfortable, fast and reliable, people choose to ride it instead of hopping in a car, said transportation advocate Julia Wallerce, who manages programs in Boston for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy.

"It really just becomes a challenge, honestly, of political will," Wallerce said. "For who are we prioritizing our streets? Are we trying to move people or are we trying to move cars?"

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