Elderly woman holding up a BRT t-shirt and smiling.

Phase II: Piloting Progress

Testing BRT features on the ground

Transportation experts around the world have identified a handful of consistent challenges that create a worse experience for bus riders, such as buses getting stuck in traffic and riders needing to wait in line to pay their fares as they get on.

Tackling all these challenges at once, as true BRT systems do, creates the best benefits, but even solving one or two can get riders where they need to go faster and more reliably.

In meeting with elected, civic, and community leaders over the course of the first phase of the project, the BostonBRT team heard broad agreement that the next step of the effort should be testing BRT improvements on current bus routes.

BostonBRT’s First Test Project: Silver Line All-Door Boarding

What if Riders Could Board Using Three Doors Instead of One?

BostonBRT first sought to tackle the slowdowns riders face in getting on the bus. In typical American bus systems, riders must line up at the front of the bus and pay one at a time as they enter. This is an inefficient process, and the wait to get on the bus can often feel longer than it actually is.

In BRT systems, bus riders get on and off the bus quickly and through all doors. This is because – like a subway system – riders pay their fare in advance at the station.

In 2017, BostonBRT partnered with the MBTA to test whether allowing riders to enter and exit through all doors of the bus would make their trips faster and more reliable. For two weeks on two branches of the Silver Line (among the MBTA’s heaviest traveled bus routes), the Barr Foundation covered the cost of fares as a proxy for off-board fare collection.

Rider surveys and on-board sensors provided information which was then crunched and interpreted by MBTA data scientists. The results showed that all-door boarding improved the rider experience and even encouraged future bus use.

Soliciting Pilot Projects

Piloting bus improvements in four cities and towns

The all-door boarding pilot was a success, and we wanted more bus riders across the region to experience what improvements felt like on their trips. In 2018, BostonBRT partnered with four communities and the MBTA to test more elements of BRT to provide a better experience on the bus.

BostonBRT solicited pilot project ideas through a Request for Proposals issued to Massachusetts cities and towns. A selection committee determined final projects, each of which was awarded a $100,000 grant as well as technical and communications support.

The pilots were structured through non-legally-binding memoranda of agreement signed by the local communities and the MBTA, ensuring all partners agreed on the scope, timeframe, and various responsibilities associated with each project. This was critical, as bus improvements involve changes to service and stations (governed by the state agency) and streets (maintained by the municipality).

Over the course of a year, BostonBRT worked with planners in Everett, Arlington, Cambridge, and Watertown to test improvements, including: dedicated bus lanes to keep buses out of traffic; platforms to make buses level with bus stops (not a step up) and more accessible to people; and traffic signal changes to give buses more green lights.

BostonBRT Pilot Projects

Data collected during the pilots showed that riders:

  • saved time on their trips,
  • gained more certainty about the length of their daily trip and bus arrival time, and
  • supported the changes, with many wanting to see the pilots made permanent or expanded.

Just as important, the pilots strengthened the muscles of agencies working together on complex bus projects for the future. They also illuminated municipal and transit agencies’ limited capacity.

Many talented public agency staff worked on these pilot projects, but often the work was outside of their roles and responsibilities. For example, there was no staff person at the MBTA dedicated to interfacing with municipalities on bus improvements. This noticeable gap led to Barr to supporting a small start-up team at the MBTA, the Transit Priority Group, whose sole charge was to speed up the bus. This team did incredible work – so much that it was fully funded by MassDOT via operational and capital dollars to continue operating after the Barr grant period.

Showing the Beauty of the Bus

Each pilot project paired the technical bus improvements with creativity and joy, such as making bus stops beautiful, dignified places to wait.

BostonBRT also launched a social media campaign: Beauty and the Bus, inviting bus riders to share everyday moments of beauty on their bus trips in Greater Boston. To enter, participants were asked to have fun and be creative by submitting photos or short videos of something beautiful along their bus route – at the bus stop, inside a bus looking out, or of buses or other riders.

Participants shared more than 600 beautiful bus photos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #BosBRT.

Beauty and the Bus

Visit @BosBRT Instagram feed for more photos

2017 Backdrop

An MBTA bus heading to Wellington Station in Medford has a lane to itself on Broadway in Everett. JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Everett, Massachusetts launched one of the country’s first “pop-up” bus lanes, placing cones along a stretch of a main road during peak hours. The one-mile strip cut bus trip times by nearly 30%, inspiring similar actions by cities around the country. Everett “rolled out the red carpet” for bus riders via a permanent red painted lane soon after.

Bloomberg: When Street Parking Becomes a Pop-Up Bus Lane

As BostonBRT became part of a larger movement of bus advocacy, more pilot projects began emerging across the region. Then, when the world was hit with the COVID pandemic, buses became more important than ever before.