THE MBTA CONUNDRUM

111 bus

Today’s Boston Globe spotlights the enormous ridership demand that has made the Chelsea to Haymarket “111 bus” a nightmare for all. Reading the long report on the MBTA’s inability rapidly to accommodate a bus route that runs through the worst of city traffic, this thought occurred to me: MBTA bus routes were set forth long ago, well before downtown Boston and its next door neighborhoods became the places to be, the locations of everything.

Although the T suffers chiefly from being run on equipment and infrastructure that’s 50 years old , the scheduling, too, dates from decades ago. We like to think of transit as reliably the same, but it isn’t. If ridership declines, the T generates big losses and inattention from the legislature. That’s how it was back when we still looked to highways to get most commuters from home to job. The complete reversal of Boston’s situation has required a similarly total reversal of the T: but an infrastructure as everywhere as the T can’t, be turned on a dime or even on five hundred dimes. It takes plenty of time, to reconstruct everything and to find ways to d o bus routes appropriately, and it takes money and workers to see it through. And then what / What if Boston ceases to be the Great Attractor and reverts, once again, to being a place to get out of ? What do we do with a rebuilt T, a T built for a Great Attractor ?

That’s an argument for later. Right now, the T faces a ton of redeployment. One thinks of what General Hellmuth von Moltke said in the 1860s —

“an initial mistake in the deployment of an army can hardly be made good in the whole course of a war.” 

— and realizes that all large systems are the same: elephants that move with the slow elephantine oomphs. In this case the “mistake” wasn’t actually a mistake. T decisions made in the 1970s and 1960s were made according to conditions at the time and most likely expectations. that these expectations became the opposite of what actually happened, in the 1990s and since, is no fault of those who made them. The fault, if any,k would be if today’s T overseers did not work to correct the situation.

Governor baker and the legislature enacted reforms across the board, in 2015, to make the T work. All manner of improvements have been put in place since. The issue now facing Baker and the legislature is, how to adjust the entire system to a downtown-obsesssed ridership ? As the Boston Globe points out, there’s no easy answer. The T can hire 55 new bus drivers; it can deploy more frequent buses; it can stop cannablizing other bus routes for buses and drivers to met the route 11 demand. And these, the T is doing.

Governor baker is vividly aware of how greatly his attention to T challenges affects his popularity with the voters.

Thus the T will also introduce smaller buses on the 111 Route (and other heavily used buses) and build a Red Line to Blue Line connector, even as it has opened a Silver Line route from Chelsea to the Seaport — a line that has helped accommodate Chelsea commuters. I would like, in addition, to see the T adopt some method of flexibility in the 111 Route, or even to create 111A and 111B routes,m so as to minimize the size of crowds now waiting on the 111 Route. Perhaps a Chelsea to Boston water taxi might help. Given the dogged attention that baker and his Transportation aides, Stephanie Pollock and Joe Gulliver, bring to this constant crisis, I fully expect to see the T meet these challenges.

But then what ?

Even if by 2023 — the T’s stated re-purpose date — the T adjusts its operations to a downtown-centered Boston, what measures might it think of taking if Boston after 2023 begins once again to be a place people want to move out of, back to the suburbs and exurbs where houses have picket fences, lawns, and driveways ? Such a change means commuter-rail: but the current commuter=rail is managed by a contracted, outside company, not by the T itself, which means that failure cannot be rapidly corrected, because contracts are for a term of years.

Oh well. Meanwhile, the redeployment of today;’s T goes on, on the march, under the warning spoken by General von Moltke 150 years ago.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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