Some bus riders upset, others unaware of MBTA’s major redesign

The MBTA hasn’t significantly changed its bus routes since the 1960s, even though the Greater Boston area has grown dramatically in the decades since.

The latest conversation about the need to update the MBTA’s bus system began in 2018, but due to delays prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t until June 2021 that the MBTA launched its Better Bus Network Redesign Project. For the past year, officials have been collecting data to determine what the new map should look like, and this past spring they published a draft proposal with several significant changes to bus routes — but some riders say they haven’t had enough opportunity to weigh in on the redesign.

Doug Johnson, the T’s project manager for the Bus Network Redesign, said since the draft map was released in May there has been a major push to solicit public reaction to those plans in the form of open houses, online forums, advertising and meetings with riders at stations and on buses. In addition, Johnson said T staff held 250 meetings with municipal and elected officials and community-based organizations about the plans.

In addition, Victoria Ireton, the MBTA’s deputy director of community engagement, said there are ten “street teams” who engage with riders at bus stations and attend open houses and community meetings. They speak several languages, including with American Sign Language, to make sure they are reaching as many people as possible.

Despite those efforts, Anita Nagem, of Medford, said she was blindsided by the changes.

“This proposal significantly changes the MBTA bus network, eliminating many routes and re-routing many others,” she wrote in a letter to GBH News. “The T is promoting increased frequency of service on some routes but neglecting to mention the service cuts that will happen.”

Nagem contends many riders were not aware of the online meetings, and that they had not seen notices on buses or in stations. Other riders agree the MBTA didn’t do enough to inform the public.

“I’ve seen a couple of signs on some of the bus stops — like posts — but not all of them,” said Cambridge resident Amanda Girod.

Girod most often rides the 1, 83 and 87 buses. She told GBH News she thinks some of the MBTA’s proposed changes will be beneficial, but she is not happy about the new route for the 83 bus.

MBTA redesign sign.jpeg
A piece of paper detailing proposed changes to bus service is taped to a post at a bus stop in Somerville.

Fernando Cervantes Jr / GBH News

Diana Hsu, who has lived in the region for more than 15 years, said she had seen some information about service changes on buses but was frustrated there wasn’t more notice prior to the public meetings. She is also concerned that current staffing shortages at the MBTA will worsen problems with service.

“How do you think you can run a system with longer routes, with more frequency, when you have a staffing shortage?” Hsu said.

Johnson defended how the agency has been involving riders.

“I think it’s fair to say that the public outreach that we’ve done for bus network redesign is the most extensive public process that has ever been conducted for an MBTA plan or project ever,” he said.

But Makayla Comas, community engagement manager for Livable Streets, said the main problem with the agency’s outreach was that it relied too much on feedback from people who keep up with transit news.

“Not everyone who takes public transportation is deeply invested in the T; most people just want to know if their trip is going to be delayed or not,” she said. “Relying on such a small group of people for feedback means that the T is excluding the input from thousands of folks who may not have known that Bus network redesign exists. They should have put flyers on each bus seat from day one [and] QR codes and flyers of the proposed map should have been at each bus stop.”

Johnson, of the MBTA, admits the agency may have missed some riders through their efforts.

“I have no doubt that there are folks in different communities who haven’t heard about this yet,” he said. “But I do think that our outreach effort has been extremely successful. We have solicited nearly 15,000 comments on the draft map since it was released by somewhere upwards of 5,000 individual people just through our survey and the public meetings that we’ve had.”

Johnson says there will be more time for feedback after the July 31 deadline for public comment.

Although the MBTA’s board is expected to vote on the plan in September, Johnson said the process will take between three and five years to be fully implemented.

“Throughout that entire process, there’s going to be public outreach about changes that are proposed, any changes that are coming — especially as we go through the system and start to implement these changes,” he said. “There’s going to be outreach to the riders who use those routes about the changes that are coming.”