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Bringing bus rapid transit to Arlington

This opinion piece was written by Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine and Jennifer Raitt, director of planning and community development, in advance of a public meeting to discuss a pilot for a bus rapid transit program set for Wednesday, May 16, from 7 to 9 p.m., at Town Hall.

Have you had the commuter experience of being stuck in traffic, looking at the cars around you, wondering if it would be faster to walk to your destination?

If so, you’re not alone. As Arlington continues to grow, with more residents commuting to more places, our current road setup is not keeping pace with our needs. Significant resources were expended to reconstruct Mass. Ave. over the last decade; the road is now designed to accommodate many modes of transportation. Mass. Ave. is the spine of Arlington’s transportation system and could do even more to capitalize on bus transit.

Until 1955, a streetcar ran on Mass. Ave. on a dedicated track lane from Arlington Heights to Harvard Square. In the 2018 morning rush hour, heavy car traffic, three bus routes, and a growing bicycle community are all competing for street space. The delays are significant, leading to missed appointments and plenty of frustration.

Improving transportation along this corridor is critical to Arlington’s economic development, health and quality of life. It’s clear we need a solution to move more people, more efficiently, using less space. For these reasons, we’re taking steps to modernize Arlington’s bus system in the direction of bus rapid transit, starting with a pilot project on Mass. Ave.

As Arlington’s main form of public transit, buses can serve the greatest number of residents and provide the most dramatic decrease in traffic congestion. Buses provide the biggest untapped opportunity to create a reliable, fast transit option for commuters. Many features of bus rapid transit -- such as dedicated lanes to take buses out of traffic and timed signals to give buses more green lights, both of which we’re exploring for Mass. Ave. -- can be made in the short term and have big impact.

Modernizing our bus system helps us effectively plan for transportation in Arlington’s future. A recent study shows that greater Boston can expect growth of 430,000 new residents by 2030. Arlington’s population is projected to grow to nearly 45,000 residents during the same time frame.

While the lion’s share of commuters still currently travel via their own car, more people are seeking alternatives to get around and beyond Arlington: 17 percent of people in Arlington now commute by bus -- including nearly 5,000 riders along the Mass. Ave. corridor. Ride-share is also in demand, with more than 258,000 individual rides originating in Arlington in 2017, per state data. Recent bike counts indicate 450 people commute by bike during the morning rush hour on the Minuteman Bikeway alone.

A commitment to better buses reflects what we heard in the community process around the development of our town master plan. During community meetings and through ongoing outreach with the planning office, Arlington residents encouraged us to enhance mobility through transit, bicycle and pedestrian access and other alternative modes of transportation.

Recognizing this demand for faster, more reliable service, riders and political leadership have already taken steps to make buses a priority. Last year, Arlington joined Cambridge, Watertown and Everett in receiving a grant related to bus rapid transit from the Barr Foundation, which we’ll use for our Mass. Ave. pilot. The project aims to reduce congestion at key intersections in the eastbound lane along Mass. Ave. from Pleasant Street to Alewife Brook Parkway.

Currently, the Route 77 bus is often delayed 24 minutes by the time it reaches Cambridge. Our goal is to work with the MBTA to pilot bus-rapid-transit features to eliminate this delay. Longer term, we hope for improved service and increased ridership, helping create a faster, more reliable commute for everybody.

Other local communities, such as Everett and Boston, have already seen significant reductions in roadway congestion by prioritizing bus service. The City of Everett’s bus-only lane on upper Broadway has contributed to a 20-percent reduction in travel times. Bus priority pilots in those communities gave riders a more positive impression of their bus experience and increased bus ridership.

Prioritizing buses also addresses sustainability and public health goals like cutting greenhouse gases and promoting complete streets.

We gain in quality of life when we divert from car travel to other modes like walking, biking, and transit. Buses are a key piece of the mobility puzzle. We hope you will join us, May 16, at Town Hall to learn more about BRT and the Arlington pilot. We welcome your comments and suggestions about ways to improve bus service in town.

This editorial was published Tuesday, May 8, 2018. 

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