Proposed Somerville bus changes: the good, the bad, the ugly

  • Post category:Buses

In its recent proposal, the MBTA put forward big potential changes to bus routes in Somerville as a result of the Better Bus Project. Their goal of the Bus Network Redesign (BNR) is to create a more equitable network with more frequent service, better connections, and more all-day service every day. While there are some changes that benefit Somerville, there’s also a lot of bad news.

Keep reading for STEP’s take on the details. But more important, make your voice heard! The MBTA is hosting several events to hear feedback on the proposal or you can share your thoughts with them using a form.

The good news

If this BNR proposal is implemented, Somerville will get more frequent service on four key bus routes, with buses on these routes coming every 15 minutes, seven days a week. We appreciate the critical intercity routes 96, 101, and 86 becoming the high-frequency routes T96, T101, and T109. The new T39 route connecting Porter, Union, and Central Squares will be a huge benefit.

We celebrate that progress, given how long many of us wait for buses now. Depending on where you live and travel, some neighborhoods see increased connections, but others see reduced service, so let’s dive into the bad news.

Overarching concerns

STEP’s take is that Somerville residents and businesses lose more than we gain from this proposal. The proposed redesign simply doesn’t take into account the city’s land use and underserves the current and near-term planned commercial districts which have vital employment opportunities.The proposal also underserves the neighborhoods of residents who need bus service the most. Although the proposed redesign makes it easier for riders in surrounding communities to travel in and out of Somerville, the bus network residents currently use for traveling within the city for daily essential services has been gutted in the proposal. Let’s dive into the broader problems and risks.

  • Surprisingly few bus routes would connect to the new Green Line stations (or the Assembly station). The whole point of multi-modal transportation is to increase these inter-city connections to provide flexibility in travel options. Feeding riders to the rail stations is a key part of a working system. We didn’t want parking lots or garages at the new Green Line stations because people should be able to walk, bike, and take a bus to the stations.The lack of routes intersecting with new stations is mystifying. We are pleased that the Tufts GLX station will have two bus connections, And we appreciate the two high-frequency routes that will connect at Union Square. (Will the T109 connect with East Somerville GLX station as well?) But many bus connections that currently fan out across the city will be removed, such as the 89 which would be a useful connection to Ball Square station. What about Gilman Square GLX station behind City Hall, SHS, and the Central Library? The 80 route, slated for removal, would be a useful connection. In addition, all the Somerville bus connections to Lechmere station are removed in the proposal. The brand new Lechmere station was built with several berths for bus connections, but in the proposed plan four of the bus routes have been removed; it will only have two bus connections (neither of which go through Somerville).
  • The lack of north-south routes is even worse under this plan. Somerville has long suffered from not enough north-south connections between the major bus routes (and now the Green Line) that fan out from Boston like spokes on a wheel. We know that not all north-south streets are “busable” to create these connections, but there must be a way to support this often-expressed great need. This proposal makes this problem worse. For example, we recommend exploring putting routes on Washington St and Medford St. and especially adding a route or two on the very wide McGrath Highway (later to be McGrath Boulevard). The current CT2, slated for removal, is an example of a highly used, multi-city route that makes use of Washington St. The current 80, also slated for removal, is an example of connecting Winter Hill with destinations in the center of the city. In addition to McGrath, using Cedar St as a north-south should be considered. (Recall the 89 was routed on Cedar St. as a detour for a year during GLX construction. 
  • People not close to a Green Line station would suffer more. Ending bus routes such as the current 87 route, 89, and 91 would disproportionately impact working-class residents, seniors, disabled residents, and others without cars who aren’t within a 5-10-minute walk of the Green Line. For example, tenants at Clarendon Hill and Mystic Housing (who are predominantly low-income and immigrants) are concerned about how harmful this would be to their commutes, to children traveling by bus to school, and generally to their daily lives. Many seniors use the current 87 and 88 routes to get to Somerville Council on Aging on Holland St. As mentioned earlier, the removal of the 80 and 89 routes leave a gap in coverage on west end of Broadway and Powderhouse neighborhoods to connect anywhere, including to schools, Davis Square, Dilboy and other sporting facilities across the city. The current 87 route along Somerville Ave, used heavily by not only Somervillians but by East Cambridge residents as well, is relied on for a variety of essential services, including grocery shopping at Market Basket. We don’t understand why the MBTA BNR team cites this route as a duplicate for the GLX route and wants to remove it. We would encourage more examination of ridership data of this route and ways to restore or incorporate the Somerville Ave portion of the current 87 route. 
  • More frequent routes would get bogged down in traffic. Without dedicated bus lanes or signal priority, it’s hard to imagine how some of these new ambitious high-frequency routes connecting communities are not going to be bunched up or stuck in traffic. The T seems to expect municipalities to fast-track the building of bus priority lanes on these new routes within the next few years of the BNR rollout. We’re not arguing against increased service, but trying to be realistic about how this might work.
  • Rides that will require taking 2 buses require smooth reliable timed transfers. Related to the item above, many destinations in the new plan will require a rider to take two buses. (Traveling between Union Square to Davis Square is one example; what was a one-seat ride becomes a 2-seat ride.) Such transfers are onerous in the current system due to unreliability of bus schedule adherence on top of the hassle of transferring. This kind of situation discourages riders from relying on buses for routine transportation. We wonder whether the MBTA will be able to meet this burden to riders by delivering reliable, timely transfers.
  • Bus stops need shelters with seats and clear wayfinding signage. Bus shelters are sorely in need at many bus stops now. Regarding wayfinding, the bus stop at Assembly is a prime example; how would a rider know where to find the Orange Line T stop a few blocks away? And vice versa, at the Assembly T stop there are no signs outside guiding a rider where to find the bus stop. We were glad to hear in the MBTA BNR meeting of 17 June that the 90 bus stop will be moved closer to the Assembly Orange Line stop. We hope signage and a bus shelter will be in place at the new location.

Specific problem spots

The devil is in the details. Some locations and routes most in need of quality public transit seem poised to see a removal or reduction in bus service.

  • Union Square, rapidly becoming the largest commercial center in the city, would lose several bus routes despite the new Green Line station:
    • No more direct bus to Davis Square. This lack of connection between Somerville’s two biggest squares is inexcusable.
    • No more direct bus to Kendall Square with the loss of the 85 and CT2. No direct service to CAAS from many parts of the city by clients who travel by bus (such as aforementioned Davis, Mystic, Clarendon). 
    • No more direct bus to the Longwood Medical Area. 
    • No direct bus between Union Square and Assembly Square, which will be the two largest commercial employment centers in Somerville.
  • Winter Hill residents, particularly people living around Mystic Avenue, would lack service. They lose service to Davis Square with the removal of the 89 bus (which is one of many issues with removing that bus route). They would still have no access to Union Square and Market Basket. 
  • Broadway, which is currently an important east-west connection servicing several bus lines in the new bus priority lane, will lose all current bus routes, and gain one high-frequency bus route that does not connect with any GLX stops (but should!) as it connects with Sullivan. For example, the loss of the 89 bus leaves a transit gap for residents who live around the western end of Broadway to get to many places, such as Dilboy to the west, Davis Sq to the south, and schools to the east. Broadway is a major road with bus priority infrastructure build for encouraging more ridership to rely on dependable bus service. Why does the MBTA see a benefit to removing bus routes from Broadway?  Changes of this kind will require residents to start relying more on car trips within the city, something no one wants to see happen.
  • Somerville’s schools would be less connected to students than they are now. Somerville is a rare example of a Massachusetts city with no dedicated school buses; as a result students rely heavily on MBTA service, so these changes matter a lot, especially for younger children who might be more comfortable riding a bus than the Green Line.
    • Somerville High School: Removing the 80 and 88 will remove the ability of a huge number of high school students to get to/from school. At a minimum, the 90 will need to run as frequently to/from SHS to North St/Clarendon Hill as the 88 currently does to transport high school students after school dismissal.
    • Capuano Early Childhood Center, Winter Hill Community School, and the East Somerville Community School: again, removal of the 80 and 89 buses means removing access to students across a large swath of the city. These are some of the City’s schools with the largest numbers of students! Communities like the Mystic Housing Development will have limited access to any school other than the Healey.
  • Other major Somerville destinations would also suffer:
    • Somerville Hospital: only one bus route in the new proposal.
    • City Hall and the Central Library: more limited access like the high school.
    • Market Basket: only one bus line (to Porter or Union) instead of today’s easy access from Davis, Lechmere, and Kendall.
    • Dilboy Stadium and Park: still no direct buses. Buses traveling directly to Dilboy could save hundreds of car trips every week and deliver children and adults safely to the Stadium, turf and grass fields, tennis and basketball courts, Dilboy swimming pool, and to the Mystic River paths there.
  • The chronically late, poorly scheduled 90 bus would have a longer route and a frequency increase from once an hour to every 30 minutes (not an impressive increase, and will probably continue to be late unless it runs on bus priority lanes).
  • There would still be no bus service along the Alewife Brook Parkway, which could provide linkages between the future Route 16 Green Line station and Alewife’s Red Line station. And designating stretches of Alewife Brook Parkway as Bus Only lanes could help bring the necessary traffic calming of a de facto road diet to Route 16.
  • There would still be no additional bus service to/from Assembly Square beyond the 90 route. This long-requested additional service would enable Somervillians to finally take advantage of the huge number of employment opportunities there as many new developments come on line. Like Union Square/Boynton Yards, Assembly is quickly becoming a significant commercial district with a great number of jobs for Somervillians – if they could get there. Also important, better bus service would enable residents of Assembly Square to access the rest of Somerville.
  • Eliminating the CT2 removes access from several neighborhoods to Union Sq, Kendall Sq, and Longwood Medical Center; these are important job centers for Somervillians.

We are mindful of the MBTA’s promise to not cut any bus service in Somerville until after the full GLX service opens, so that changing transit patterns can be studied. We are confident that ridership on Somerville bus routes that are slated for removal in the proposal will continue to be high, due to reasons described above. 

We praise the efforts to optimize bus routes and schedules that connect Somerville with other communities. But we’re very disappointed with this first draft from the MBTA BNR team and encourage them to act on these concerns from Somerville’s residents. We’d like to see the highly traveled routes that residents rely on to get around WITHIN the city retained or modified in ways that are beneficial to Somervillians. Make sure the MBTA also hears what matters to you!