Wednesday, April 24, 2024

“It said one minute, one minute ago.” I glance back down at my phone, which tells me that the 68 bus is now due. “Let’s wait and see.” We crane our necks in tandem, peering down Broadway for a bus to materialize from the gently swirling snow.

“Is it going to come?”

The woman, a neighbor and a fellow would-be rider, has this to say about the 68: “Every 40 minutes – and sometimes it just never comes! I manage to get this bus maybe one day a week.” And soon: “I swear they’re planning to cut this route, and they’re going to do it because of low ridership!”

A few minutes pass by with no sign of a bus. She wishes me luck and trudges down Broadway.

Our new City Council has brought into office a wave of enthusiasm for improving public transit in Cambridge, often in the spirit of a Green New Deal – bold, transformative projects that serve environmental, economic and equity goals. We saw many specific proposals in candidates’ platforms, from eliminating fares to exclusive bus lanes and a fleet of municipally managed shuttles to complement the MBTA. Now the council is beginning to make good on these promises, with reports of a pilot program for free service on the workhorse Route 1 bus. Free bus service – along with the rest of these ideas – deserves due consideration. But there is a very important element largely missing from these conversations: a focus on service frequency.

Perhaps more than anything else, the frequency of a transit service – how often a bus or train comes – determines how useful it is for passengers. The red line spoils our key squares with trains every few minutes, but from Cambridgeport to Inman Square, the rest of the city deserves improved frequency as well. It’s well and good to have bus stops dotting every major street in Cambridge; it’s less useful when buses serve them only once or twice an hour. As a result, the transit network is useful for fewer people, commutes are longer and there are more cars on the road than need be the case in a city as dense, walkable and wealthy as ours.

Let’s put some numbers on this. During rush hour, only five bus lines in Cambridge – the 1, 66, 71, 73 and 77 – arrive every 10 minutes or less, and most of these skim our boundaries on their way in from neighboring towns. Other routes, such as the 47 and CT2, are crucial links to Boston and Somerville, but come at best every 15 and 20 minutes, respectively. The 68 and 91 buses that cut through the heart of Cambridge might help with my commute from Inman Square to Kendall each day, but they arrive so rarely (every 30 and 40 minutes) that I mostly walk to Central to ride the red line one stop instead. None of this even touches on our skeletal evening and weekend service, when most routes run at best twice per hour and at worst not at all.

These frequencies may sound acceptable, and indeed there are thousands of commuters that put up with them. But even in the lackluster arena of American transit networks, Greater Boston and Cambridge in particular is falling behind. In Seattle and San Francisco, 15-, 10- and five-minute bus frequencies are the norm at rush hour, and schedules remain robust later into the evenings. Minneapolis, a city not known for having good transit, is building out a network of buses that will run every 10 minutes, all day. And it is these U.S. cities focused most on investing in their bus networks that have bucked the national trend of declining transit ridership and have the best hope of meeting ambitious emissions targets in the face of a changing climate.

For those who are most dependent on the MBTA to get where they need to go, it’s hard to overstate the freedom that high-frequency service provides. Impromptu decisions and ambitious uses of free time seem more possible, and missed transfers are less devastating. The very scarcity of frequent bus service in Cambridge inflates the value of housing along the red line, furthering economic segregation and pushing vulnerable riders farther from the robust core of the transit system. Many people who would be happy to use transit if they could afford it are forced into situations where private car ownership is the only rational choice, even when it presents a financial burden far beyond that of a monthly CharlieCard. In the conversation about eliminating transit fares, let’s keep in mind that “Can I afford to take the bus?” is rarely a question focused on the $1.70 fare – it’s about the opportunity cost of relying on a scattershot, infrequent system while trying to raise a family or work several jobs to make ends meet.

To be fair, I’m certain the City Council would also like to see improved bus frequency in Cambridge, but it’s something that, at first glance, they have relatively little control over. Bus schedules are made by the MBTA in conjunction with the cities it serves, and are constrained by chronic shortages of vehicles, drivers and, crucially, bus storage facilities. These are regional problems that are solved primarily at the regional level.

So here is what I ask of the city:

First, state your aspirations for a frequent bus network loudly and clearly. Understand that there will be no significant change toward sustainable transportation in its absence. Second, frame local and near-term improvements such as exclusive bus lanes and stoplight priority as frequency wins – when buses run faster and more reliably, they can make more trips per hour. Third, engage with long-term and regional planning processes as never before. When the MBTA plans service improvements, as it is doing with its Better Bus project, scrap for a few extra runs of the 47 or 91 bus each day. During the contentious process of selecting sites for new bus storage facilities, reflect on Cambridge’s economic privilege and strategic location in the context of Greater Boston, and consider making room for one.

A network of frequent, all-day routes useful for picking kids up from day care, grocery shopping, doctors’ appointments or a night on the town would release many residents from the burden of private car ownership, and it would reveal what’s been under our noses all along: Cambridge has the dense, walkable urban fabric of European and Asian cities where per-capita bus ridership is three or five times higher than ours; we’re just missing the network to complement it. I’m excited to hear more about the transit improvements city leadership has planned, and I hope we’ll start to hear more about bus frequency in these conversations. This kind of change will not be fast, local or straightforward. But the economic, social justice and environmental implications dovetail so neatly that they should be on the mind of every councillor invoking the idea of a municipal Green New Deal.

Ian Reynolds, Marie Avenue