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What Boston Learned About Transit Planning from a Subway Shutdown

For 30 days, the city made dozens of changes to its streets and saw bike-share use soar. For Boston’s chief of streets, it was a reminder that “there’s no substitute for trying something and learning from it.”

Buses at the Forest Hills Orange Line station in Boston.
Buses at the Forest Hills Orange Line station as emergency work on the city’s second most busy subway line is about to start on Aug. 12, 2022.
(JS O'Connor Photography/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Toward the end of the summer, amid a slow-boiling safety crisis on its transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority shut down one of Boston’s busiest subway lines for repairs. Seeking to avoid traffic chaos and gridlock, the city of Boston quickly made a series of changes to its streets: dedicating bus-only lanes, changing the direction of streets or closing them to cars, creating temporary bike lanes, designating queuing areas for shuttles, offering free 30-day passes to its Bluebike bike-share system and many other adjustments.

It was a real-time experiment in street design and transportation planning on a scale that, under normal circumstances, might have entailed thousands of hours of community meetings and untold traffic engineering reports.

Amid the turmoil, there were some surprising results — including record-breaking ridership on the Bluebike system. Late last month, after the shutdown came to an end, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced that some of the changes would remain in place, including a new bus stop and several bus and bike priority lanes.

Boston’s chief of streets, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, talked with Governing about the logistical and spatial challenges of planning for a loss of transit service, making iterative design adjustments to city streets, and what he learned about how communities respond to disruptions. “Cities aren’t precise machines,” he says. “They’re places where you kind of have to look at the overall situation and say, ‘This works, this doesn’t work.’” The interview has been edited.

Governing: For people who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the T system, can you give us a sense of the scale of disruption you were anticipating from losing the Orange Line for a month? 

Jascha Franklin-Hodge: The Orange Line is the second busiest rail line that serves the Boston region. On a typical workday it will carry between 100,000 and 125,000 people. So when you think about what it takes to move that many people and the space required — subway trains are extremely space efficient. A single train set can have, easily, 700 people in it. Putting that many people into any other mode of transportation, even a bus, is an enormous undertaking. That was the challenge: How do we move this many people?

Governing: What kind of changes did you make at the street level and what were you hoping they would accomplish? 

Franklin-Hodge: There were two shuttle-bus routes that basically shuttled people along the northern and southern stretches of the Orange Line. Each of those routes terminated at a Green Line station and the idea was that people would transfer to the Green Line if they needed to continue through. There were two locations in Boston, one in Copley Square and one at Government Center, which were these massive transfer points where we knew we were going to have an enormous number of buses queuing and a huge volume of passengers coming to and from the buses and trains. So at both of those locations we fundamentally reconfigured the roadway network.

We created extensive bus-only areas. At Government Center we had multiple streets that were shut to private vehicles and we created in both locations a space where dozens of shuttle buses could safely queue and not compete for space with private automobiles. It was a mix of making streets bus-only, dedicating lanes to buses, and changing the curb regulations along thousands of feet of curb in both locations. It allowed for this really substantial amount of space for shuttles to move freely. So when a Green Line train unloaded with 200 people trying to get on the shuttle buses, there were eight shuttle buses lined up waiting to take them. They had the space, they weren’t fighting through traffic to get in, you could load those buses up and quickly get them dispatched.
A T Ambassador standing outside a parked bus talking with a passenger.
A T Ambassador directs passengers boarding shuttle buses at North Station on the first day of Boston's Orange Line shutdown. On a typical workday the subway will carry between 100,000 and 125,000 people.
(Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
In other areas, dense residential areas, we had some fundamental geometry problems with 50-foot coach buses trying to make turns on small streets, so we had to do a lot of analysis and smaller adjustments at each intersection to make sure that turning movements could safely happen. It was less a transformative thing where you look at a space and say, “Wow, this is totally different.” But there’s all these small, subtle changes that were totally necessary to keep everyone safe and make sure the buses could move smoothly. And then we put in place, all told, four miles of bus priority lanes throughout Boston that were not at these transfer points.

Our Disabilities Commission audited all the shuttle stops in the city and identified places where there were accessibility challenges. At one place we had a sidewalk that was in really poor condition that was going to be a significant transfer point and we actually came in the first morning of the shutdown and ripped out the entire sidewalk and put in like 100 feet of asphalt because we just didn’t want to have people trying to get on a shuttle bus using a wheelchair or with a mobility device and be struggling on the sidewalk.

Governing: Well broadly speaking, how did it go? I think I saw somewhere that you said it was smoother than you expected. What did you measure in terms of driving, walking and riding patterns? 

Franklin-Hodge: Yeah, it went better than expected. I think everyone was prepping themselves mentally for total armageddon. The worst case scenario here is 100,000 people a day decide to drive their cars. Thankfully that did not happen.

What we saw on the streets was that the big changes we made basically worked. There were very few things we did that we didn’t have to tweak or refine in some way. Some of the things we did were like, we’re going to move the STOP bar here, but nobody’s paying attention to where it is and they’re stopping where they shouldn’t be stopping. So in some of these locations we were — literally, twice a day — making tweaks or changes for a few days until we were like, OK, this is working well enough.

We had the Boston Police Department deployed at a number of critical intersections throughout the shutdown and they were an invaluable source of not only information but also suggestions for improvement. They would often spot very subtle things about how vehicles were sometimes coming into conflict and say, “I think we should try a line of cones here.” Our attitude when we heard that stuff was, “Let’s try it.” We’re not going to go through a month of engineering analysis. We’re going to do the thing that the person who’s got some eyes on the ground thinks may help. And we’re going to watch it and change it.

Then there was a real qualitative sense of this as well — what are we hearing from people? We had staff out on the ground helping people find their shuttles during the first week. Many City Hall staff were riding the shuttles. We had a Slack channel for anyone interested in what was going on, they could post their experience and their daily commutes. We were really trying to capture the qualitative, what’s the human experience like, what are people tweeting about, and use that as a barometer of whether we’re meeting expectations or not.

Governing: What changes did you decide to make permanent and what made you confident that they were worth keeping? 

Franklin-Hodge: Some of the changes we decided to make permanent were things that we saw having a high potential value for existing transit services or existing bike usage in the city.

There’s one set of stuff, like making an accessibility improvement, where it was just a thing we should do and we’re not going to tear that improvement out. That’s there to stay and we probably should have done it sooner. And then, in Copley Square we put in place a series of dedicated bus lanes and many of these were initially done for the shuttles, but we also have a lot of bus riders who travel through this area.

So we looked at the impact it had on traffic and the benefit we saw to buses and we said, this is fine to keep. There’s just no downside that we see. Maybe there’s a tiny bit more delay for a few drivers during peak time, but when you stack that up against the more than 10,000 people who ride the bus routes on this corridor, we’re perfectly happy to accept a little bit more delay for private cars if it means that 10,000 people have a few more minutes back in the day.

In some ways the cost-benefit calculations were not as formalized as they might be in certain circumstances. There’s really no substitute for putting something into the real world and observing and measuring how it functions. Cities aren’t precise machines. They’re places where you kind of have to look at the overall situation and say, “This works, this doesn’t work.” This provided us an opportunity to do that assessment much faster than we normally would have and with a much wider scale of infrastructure.

I would say we were aggressively experimental in what we tried — if we thought it would help, we did it — and we were very pragmatic in deciding what to keep or what not to keep. Rather than tie ourselves in knots trying to formalize analysis, we said, “Let’s talk to people, observe, see what’s happening on the ground, and if it seems to work and we think there’s a long-term benefit, then let’s keep it.” That turns out to be a really efficient process for making changes.

There’s been a couple places where we’ve had people say, “I wish that wasn’t a bus lane,” but there’s not been a lot of pushback or a lot of concern. Most people see what we see, which is that this didn’t make things significantly worse for other road users and there was a huge benefit to some portion of the people traveling. It’s not to say there’s no place for community process in these things, but I think in some ways the community process is the experiment and the feedback opportunities and observational opportunities that came with that.

Governing: Do you have the leeway to change the way you do community engagement around this stuff in the future based on this experience? 

Franklin-Hodge: I’m certainly not going to manufacture an emergency. But I think it has reminded me that there’s no substitute for trying something and learning from it. Giving the community a chance to weigh in not on a hypothetical but on a reality — to experience it, to live with it. It’s a truism with anything in transportation that it takes three weeks for people’s habits to adjust. This shutdown was just long enough that people had the time to be like, “Oh, OK, that street is now a one-way, so maybe I’m going to make an adjustment to my route.”

There’s a certain amount of settling time that is really valuable to have. If you go to a community with a single specific change and you’re like, “What do you think about this?” everybody is going to say, “That’s going to affect me in this way, and either I love it or I hate it but I’m going to be really opinionated about it.”

If you make a series of changes and then you give people the space to think about how that affects their lives, very often people find ways to absorb those changes that are not painful or maybe are beneficial to them. It stops being a conversation about what am I going to lose and it becomes a conversation about is this working for me? That is a much more productive space to have a community dialogue.

My big takeaway from this was we need to try more stuff. Not that we don’t have a conversation before we do a thing, but we need to be willing to try stuff and we need to be willing to share something with our community members, not pretending that we know everything about how it’s going to work. That often ends up where community dialogue can go — people have their fears so the city feels like we have to gather every piece of data, we’ve got to button down every possible argument, we’ve got to prove that this is a good idea and it’s going to be great.

That is an extraordinarily time-consuming process and in some ways it can be a futile exercise, because there’s a lot you don’t know. There’s a lot you don’t know about how a design works. There’s a lot you don’t know about how behavior changes. So the other lesson I take from this is humility and agility combined are maybe a better strategy for working through community challenges than trying to find a perfect solution before doing anything.

Governing: What did you do with the Bluebikes and what did you learn about ridership? 

Franklin-Hodge: This was one of the big holy-smokes moments of the whole thing. We made 30-day passes to our bike-share system free for the entirety of the shutdown. We were expecting maybe 8,000 or 9,000 people would take us up on that and it would be sort of a nice bonus for folks. We had just shy of 59,000 people claim free 30-day passes.

There were 300,000 rides taken on those free passes. There was a 50 percent increase in ridership from the same period the previous year. Bikes were an astounding success story and I believe we set eight daily ridership records. Our previous daily ridership record was just over 18,000 rides. The highest daily ridership during the shutdown was just shy of 27,000 rides. That’s astounding for a lot of reasons, but there are a couple takeaways from that.

One: 27,000 is a lot of people. The busiest bus line in the MBTA system carries 10,000 people a day. 27,000 people is like a quarter of what the Orange Line would carry on a normal day. This is real transportation. This isn’t a novelty. It’s not a thing that tourists do for fun — I mean, it is — but we need to think of it as a form of public transportation.
A stack of Blue Bikes in Copley Square, Boston.
A stack of Blue Bikes in Copley Square, Boston. The city handed out nearly 59,000 free 30-day passes while emergency work took place on the Orange Line.
(Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/TNS)
The second thing we learned is that there is a lot of latent demand and interest in biking. When we lower barriers and we encourage people to do it, and when we give them that free window where you can use the system and try it out, there’s a lot of people who are going to do it. One of the big questions we have now is how many of these people can we convert to passholders or permanent members? How many of these people will keep biking? Once those passes expire, what does ridership do and how much of those gains are sustained?

Governing: Well, what else did you learn about how the streets work and how much influence you have over commuting behavior and mobility? 

Franklin-Hodge: It was a reminder of something we already knew, which is just how essential our public transit system is to life in the city and how big a deal it is when that is disrupted. Our transit system isn’t perfect but even in its imperfection it delivers tremendous public value. When that value is interrupted, you see it, you feel it.

The human importance of this was so dramatically underscored. And I hope that leads to more longer-term commitments from our state government to fully fund the MBTA. I hope it leads to a real renewed commitment on the part of MBTA leadership to never allow the system to get to a point where we have to shut it down for 30 days. We never should have been here, and the fact that we were is, I hope, a wakeup call for everyone in a position to do something about it.

From the city’s perspective, we learned that priority infrastructure matters. If you redesign streets for buses, they work much better on those streets. It’s not rocket science, but sometimes you have to do something at scale to really see the impact. And this is one of those moments where we had the ability to do that.

It’s also given us the reminder that when we set ourselves to it we can move quickly. You almost never want to move at the speed we want to move here. But I think it’s a reminder that we can move quickly, we can try things, we can learn from them, we can adjust them, we can use temporary materials in a lot of cases to refine a design rather than going straight to permanent, and if our goal is supporting transit, and it is, then we have to not lose that speed and that sense of urgency.

I went into this expecting people to be yelling at me for a month about how terrible things were. And there was certainly some amount of yelling. But by and large what I saw was the residents of Boston understood that this needed to be done, they saw us working to make it work for them, they saw the work, they saw the changes, saw the crews out there patching sidewalks, painting bus lanes, putting up signage, putting up tents, handing out fliers, reaching out to the immigrant communities in multiple languages. People saw that.

It was a real reminder to me that nobody expects perfection from government, but they expect you to care and they expect you to work on their behalf with a real sense of empathy, to do what you can to make life good for people who live in your community. When you do that, people appreciate it and they extend gratitude and they extend grace and they adapt and work with you and become partners in important public endeavors.
Workers lift boxes of rail baseplates as repairs take place on the Orange Line in Boston.
Workers lift boxes of rail baseplates as repairs take place on the Orange Line in Boston. For 30 days, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority raced to complete a series of safety upgrades and maintenance projects that officials estimate would take more than five years under normal operating conditions.
(Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald/TNS)
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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