Crowding thresholds to dictate MBTA pandemic operations

Boston Statehouse

Boston, MA – 5/27/20 – Governor Charlie Baker (C) puts on a safety vest as he stands beside MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak (R) before touring improvements being made to the MBTA’s blue line. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

BOSTON (SHNS) – As more people begin returning to the office and venturing onto the subway or commuter rail to get work, the MBTA is exploring ways to communicate with riders about crowding and making alternative modes of transportation available if trains or buses become too full for passengers to safely distance from one another.

The efforts are all part of the MTBA’s planning process to begin ramping up service in the second phase of Gov. Charlie Baker’s economic reopening plan, which could begin in as soon as June 8. But the answers to questions about how to safely operate a public transit system in the middle of a pandemic are not always clear.

For instance, MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said Wednesday that other systems have struggled with the question of how to decide which passengers to remove from a crowded bus. Similar equity concerns can arise if a bus or train were to simply bypass a stop because it was already too crowded.

“There’s some important operational considerations there because you may get into a situation where you’re bypassing some stops so regularly that the service is not being delivered equitably, so that is part of an ongoing discussion right now,” Poftak said at a press conference Wednesday.

The head of the T was with Gov. Charlie Baker for a visit to Maverick Station on the Blue Line in East Boston to get a look at the accelerated work being done to upgrade track and other infrastructure on the MBTA line between the Bowdoin stop in downtown Boston and the airport.

The governor was joined by his administration’s top transportation officials, as well as House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Sen. Joseph Boncore, the Senate chair of the Transportation Committee.

“As we turn to reopening we know that public transportation will play an important role in making sure people are able to get to where they need to go,” Baker said.

Poll results released Wednesday by The MassINC polling group found that 67 percent of those surveyed would be at least somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of returning to public transit. Disinfection, the mandated use of masks and real-time information about crowding were all cited by those polled as steps that would make them feel safer riding the T or regional buses.

As the state tried to fend off more COVID-19 infections, Baker said the T has and will continue to regularly clean and disinfect all vehicles, fare gates, and other high contact areas in subway and bus stations, and remind riders to always wear a mask as part of its “Ride Safer” campaign.

“Buses, ferries and trains are unique environments. Fighting the virus in these settings is only possible through shared responsibility,” Baker said.

Baker said his administration also will continue to urge employers to let employees work from home if possible, highlighting commitments the state has from 50 major employers in Greater Boston, including State Street and MassMutual, to keep the majority of roughly 150,000 employees home through at least the spring and possibly longer.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said that when remote work is not possible companies should try to work with the state to implement policies like staggered start times to help prevent the T from becoming “undesirably overcrowded” and to help limit traffic.

“Employers need to work with us to gradually bring workers back, especially here in the city of Boston and in the urban core and consider options, not just work-at-home, but like staggered start times that can further ensure that both the T and the highway network can handle the growing demand,” Pollack said.

Traffic gridlock, crowded trains and irregular T service were all major issues before the pandemic arrived.

One part of the MBTA’s strategy to safely ramp up service to pre-pandemic levels is to implement “crowding thresholds” based on recommendations from the World Health Organization. For instance, a bus with 58 people used to be considered crowded, Poftak said. Now the threshold will be 20 passengers, at which point the T will attempt to deploy additional buses or take other steps to reduce crowding.

Poftak said the MBTA has also reviewed plans being put in place by other major metro transit systems, including the Chicago Transit Authority, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

The T, Poftak said, is looking into how it could communicate with riders about crowding levels so they could make a decision about whether to delay their trip or seek an alternate mode of transportation.

The agency is also looking into the feasibility of using “overlapping modes” to get people to move to a bus instead of the T, or the commuter rail instead of a bus, along the same route they would normally travel. Poftak said the MBTA will begin to test this strategy by offering commuters from Lynn the opportunity to use their Charlie Card on the commuter rail, where there is excess capacity, and then observing the impact that has on bus and Blue Line shuttle usage.

“The new normal for the T will very much be dictated by crowding thresholds,” Poftak said.

The MTBA is currently operating its core subway and trolley lines at 60 percent, and the agency says ridership is between 3 percent and 24 percent of normal usage, depending on the line.

In Phase Two of the governor’s reopening, service will increase across all modes of transportation, including the resumption of full service on the Blue Line, limited ferry service, and increased commuter rail and bus service.

“Life as we know it has changed in many ways, but what hasn’t changed is the need for a good transportation system that functions well, one that is safe, reliable, resilient, sustainable and equitable,” Pollack said. “We are, however, expecting to see ongoing changes, both in how people travel and, related to that, how people work.”

Child care is often mentioned in the same breath as public transportation as a service integral to bringing people back to work, and the governor said he would have more to say on the state’s plan “soon.”

“We agree. It’s got to be part of the game,” Baker said.

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