Bus Network Redesign hosts public meeting, discusses changes to proposal

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Route 89 Bus Interior

By Maeve Lawler, Deputy Enterprise News Editor

The MBTA hosted a virtual public meeting on Monday to discuss revisions to the Bus Network Redesign project after receiving over 20,000 comments on the initial proposal released in May. The project aims to reimagine the MBTA’s bus network to better serve different communities as it’s part of the larger Better Bus Project—a five-year capital investment plan to improve Boston’s buses through initiatives like bus electrification. 

Nearly 200 participants tuned in on Monday to hear about changes to their bus routes. On Thursday, the MBTA Board of Directors will vote on the proposed plan. 

“We were not able to make every change that was asked of us,” said Doug Johnson, the project manager for the Bus Network Redesign. “But we have designed a new network that is responsive to that feedback.” 

Monday’s meeting opened with a presentation of the project, followed by breakout rooms to discuss bus network changes by area and a Q&A session. 

“Especially post-pandemic, MBTA buses showed that they serve our most transit-dependent populations,” said Justin Antos, senior director of bus transportation for the MBTA. “But our region has changed over the past few years and decades and we need a bus service that changes with it. It’s essential the MBTA’s bus network adapts to how, where, and when people are traveling now because it is different [from] what it was in the past.” 

To address the “mismatch” between the current bus network and the region’s needs, the project’s team considered equity, reliability, and accessibility in the re-routing process, Johnson said. 

The process prioritizes those who rely on bus service most, such as low-income populations, communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and people who live in households with few or no vehicles, he said.  

Like the initial proposal, the new bus network would increase service by 25%, with buses coming at least every 15 minutes between the hours of 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. every day. 

“The routes are frequent enough that you don’t even have to check a schedule,” Johnson said. 

Changes were made to 85 of the 133 proposed routes in the initial proposal, some as minor route changes through neighborhoods, and others being switched back to their current functioning, like the 55 and the 354. Routes were also added to the plan that were not in the initial proposal, including the 113, a new route from Chelsea to Somerville. 

Johnson said these changes reflect five considerations: responding to public feedback, improving access to hospitals and senior centers, reducing walk distances over challenging topography—especially for seniors and people with disabilities—preserving some existing one-seat rides, and balancing resources concerning peak hours and budgeting. 

Implementation of the new network will take an estimated five years and will start in 2023. Changes to routes will be made incrementally each year until 2028. To address the shortage of bus drivers, the MBTA plans to gradually increase the number of bus operators over these five years. 

After a rundown of revisions and project logistics, attendees could join one of seven groups to discuss route changes in specific areas, such as Boston and Brookline. 

Rep. Mike Connolly of the 26th Middlesex District in Cambridge commented on the revisions after the breakout room discussions ended. Although he recognized improvements from the revision, he also raised concerns regarding the accessibility of information. He pointed out that many people were unable to join the Nov. 2 meeting due to capacity limitations. 

“For me, as someone who is treating this as my full-time job, it is challenging to keep up with,” Connolly said. “So I can only imagine as a member of the public, who may be doing this in their free time, how difficult it would be to engage.” 

He suggested having a 90-day public comment period after a proposed bus route cut to elevate the public’s involvement.  

During the Q&A, some Boston residents expressed concerns about their regular bus routes being changed. 

Robin Forrest, a regular rider of the 441 route from Marblehead via Central Square to Paradise Road, worried about this route being replaced by the 442 route, as it’s a further walk up a hill from her home.

“You’re giving some people the bus lottery and you’re giving them service,” she said. “And you’re taking away service and creating extreme hardship for other people.” 

Anita Liftbough, a Newton resident was concerned about cuts to express buses in the area, like the 553 and 545. She said these cuts limit people’s ability to get from Newton to downtown Boston, which leads to more people driving instead of using buses. 

“The state just passed a millionaire’s tax where the money is supposed to go toward public transportation,” she said. “We have a climate crisis where we want to decrease the amount of carbon emissions. [These cuts] just makes no sense to me whatsoever.”

In response to public concerns, Antos acknowledged that he understands the difficulties of route changes and bus cuts. 

“This network is a big change, and change is hard,” Antos said. “We’re laying the groundwork for a communication strategy right now… to understand how folks get information about their bus changing now, how they would like to get it if it’s different from what it is now, and what the MBTA is doing well and not doing so well about communicating bus service changes now.” 

Johnson later addressed a question about future public comment opportunities from Medford City Councilor Isaac Bears. Johnson said the current revised plan will be presented to the Board on Thursday. However, he acknowledged the possible need for adjustment throughout the five-year implementation period. 

On Dec. 8, the MBTA will host a public meeting to present the results of an equity analysis of the redesigned bus network.