Transit in 2020, driven by coronavirus pandemic, must sort through mixed signals of coming year
The Covid-19 pandemic has had far-ranging effects on how we get around Greater Boston. From the shift to working from home to reductions in MBTA service, the coronavirus has forced changes to transit in ways one can safely assume have never been seen before.
Take the rush for outdoor space to walk and socialize that saw sidewalks and parks fill like never before. In response, Cambridge – following the example of many other cities – implemented a shared streets pilot program that opened up space for pedestrians on Magazine, Harvard and Garden streets. Over time, the city iterated on the idea by adding semi-permanent traffic barrels and 10 mph speed advisories. But the pilot never expanded beyond the initial three locations despite proposals from the public for the conversion of at least three dozen other streets.
City staff described mixed feedback from the public and impending snowfall as reasons to dismantle the program in mid-December, and it remains unclear what will become of shared streets come spring. State government is still committed to the idea of shared streets, though, and on Monday announced $3 million in grants of up to $500,000 to 15 cities to support them; neighboring Somerville got $222,000 to improve the bus, bike and pedestrian experience for two streets. “The challenges of getting around and of keeping businesses open are different and more complex in the winter,” state transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack said. “This funding will help communities keep vibrant until next year when a vaccine is more widely available and when there comes a time when physical distancing restrictions can be loosened.”
Coronavirus prompted a nationwide shortage of bikes and saw lines form at bike shops in and around the city. As bikes picked up more work, such as transporting food to local food pantries, Cambridge contemplated their future in the city. Though Cambridge has been at the forefront of passing bills and ordinances to improve bike-friendliness, 2020 saw a string of bicyclist deaths, showing that more needed to be done to protect cyclists. In this vein, the City Council passed a breakthrough ordinance that will see 22.6 miles of bike lanes built over the next six years. The Cycling Safety Ordinance will create a fully connected network of bike lanes that allows riders to cycle continuously across the city in any direction.
As Covid-19 swept the area, ridership for public transportation plummeted, remaining low on many T and bus lines as the pandemic settled in but recovering in some parts of the MBTA system, such as the blue line.
In the face of lower ridership, the MBTA began a process called Forging Ahead meant to cut service to prevent budgetary woes. After a lengthy public comment period, the results of Forging Ahead were still controversial, drawing the ire of local politicians and advocates for public transit as excessively harsh and ill-timed. The MBTA’s own advisory board came out against the cuts, helping prompt the agency to reconsider and soften the cuts.
Still, cuts are coming between January and March that will affect customers on much of the MBTA’s network. More than 20 bus routes will be cut, and another 20 modified. Train frequencies on most T lines will be reduced by up to 20 percent. The Commuter Rail will change fundamentally, with weekend service gutted and five stations closing. Direct ferry service to Charlestown and Hingham will be cut entirely. Finally, The Ride will see changes to scheduling and pricing that could affect its riders among the elderly and disabled.
The MBTA continued with the green line extension project that will move Lechmere station in Cambridge and bring service to parts of Somerville and Medford. Shuttle buses replaced service between North Station and Lechmere in May as the station is moved across Monsignor O’Brien Highway, allowing a higher throughput of trains to serve six planned stations.
According to the most recent updates from the MBTA, the green line extension has not faced significant delays from the coronavirus. Demolition of the old Lechmere station was completed in June, and a new, elevated station is being built. The rehabilitation of the Lechmere Viaduct, a key part of the program, saw its final section of concrete poured Dec. 4.
With Covid-19 expected to persist at least through the first half of the year, the story of transit in 2021 will likely be a continuation of extraordinary change. Warmer weather in the spring will see more people venturing outside, and Cambridge will have to decide the fate of its shared streets pilot program.
MBTA cuts will meet the potential of ridership returning with a vaccinated public and federal stimulus funds, which could see the agency net an extra $500 million – raising questions about the cuts decided this December, if not the future of its service levels.