City Council holds hearing on transit signal priority

Yesterday a group of City of Boston and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials told the Boston City Council about their efforts to bring transit signal priority to Boston. The hearing was chaired by Councilor Sal LaMattina, but was held through the efforts of Council president Michelle Wu.


City Councilors Andrea Campbell, L, Sal LaMattina, C, and Michelle Wu, R, held a hearing on transit signal priority Tuesday.

“For me, the question boils down to what . . . the City can do to make our public transit as good as possible,” she said. “What can we be doing?”

“This is a great way of speeding up Boston residents getting to work,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell.

Transit signal priority is what it sounds like: traffic signals are adjusted as needed or timed to keep buses and at-grade rail service like the Green Line running over having them wait at the lights while cars are allowed to go.

Chris Osgood, the Chief of Streets of the City of Boston, said Go Boston 2030 surveys showed that more reliable transit is a high priority for Boston’s citizens.

“Our priority is to help people get to their destinations,” he said. “Transit signal priority can help us. Transit signal priority is one of the elements we can do.”

“Traffic management enhances the smooth flow of traffic,” said Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department. “Adjusting traffic signal times is done regularly. The transportation department supports efforts to time signals for transit priority.”

She compared transit signal priority to resident parking permits and said that they have to maintain access for pedestrian and drivers going across the prioritized street.

“Currently the BTD is working with the MBTA to prioritize traffic signals for the Silver Line and Green Line,” Fiandaca said.

Melissa Dullea, the Senior Director of Service Planning for the MBTA, said TSP was employed at 12 locations right now — eight for the Silver Line and four for the 57 bus route from Kenmore Square to Watertown Yard. She said that the process for the 57 involved hiring consultants and making sure there wasn’t an undue impact on automobile traffic.

Right now they aren’t looking at expanding TSP, but she said it could be done because the City has put the infrastructure in place.

Scott Hamwey, manager of long-term planning at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said that they wanted to work on making the Silver Line more like the bus rapid transit it was supposed to be. He said that they want to identify roadway segments with high usage as candidates for dedicated bus lanes. As an example he pointed to Washington Street between Roslindale Village and Forest Hills, where there are a lot of bus routes and consequently the corridor moves a lot of bus passengers even though none of the routes is high ridership on its own.

“It’s a balancing act to manage all users of our roadways,” said Fiandaca.

“We need to do [TSP] is a manner that makes sure we’re not detering other traffic,” said Don Burgess of the Traffic Management Center.

David Block-Schachter, the MBTA’s chief of technology, said that the T was also looking into ways to do more off-board fare collection and all-door boarding to reduce time spent in bus stops.

Marc Ebuña, a co-founder of TransitMatters, testified that activists are concerned about the City and the MBTA pointing fingers at each other over why it’s not getting done and they want to see someone take ownership of TSP.


Marc Ebuña of TransitMatters testified on transit signal priority.

Other communities are being more pro-active with transit signal priority. Last year, citizens of Cambridge voted to fund TSP along the route of the 1 bus on Massachusetts Avenue, as part of their participatory budget voting.

Osgood said that BTD would be open to collaborating with Cambridge on TSP for the 1’s route in Boston, but John DeBenedictis, an engineer with BTD said he hadn’t heard anything about the 1. He said that TSP was feasible on its route, but because it intersected the Silver Line’s route on Washington Street, adjustments would have to be made.

“We’re going to keep it in committee,” Wu said. “I’d love to do some working sessions and get into next steps.”

A disconnect between activists and officials was manifest, however.

Burgess said that the system the City has been working on was to help buses stay on their schedules and so they only get signal priority when they’re running late.

By contrast, people like Ari Ofsevit want a system that is across the board better. According to Ofsevit, reducing a light at D Street in South Boston from 100 seconds to 20 seconds would save the Silver Line 2,671.5 hours a year. This is different from merely waving it through when its running late.





4 thoughts on “City Council holds hearing on transit signal priority

  1. The light at D St is absolutely absurd. During rush hour, the light cycle is 110 seconds (it’s 100 seconds otherwise), which comes out to 32 cycles per hour, and each cycle can have up to two buses in each direction, though to prevent delays causing queues of buses, you can only have about 1.5 buses per cycle on average. As it happens, the current peak service also has 32 buses per hour, between the SL1, SL2, and SL Waterfront shuttle. It’s not clear if the new service to Chelsea will replace some or all of the SL Waterfront trips, but even so, the Silver Line is already at capacity and the areas around the stations are still growing, and they’re going to have to add more service as demand grows, at least until they hit the limits of what the line can handle: a limit determined by the timing of that light on D St.
    So now we have a situation where the state has spent hundreds of millions on a fancy tunnel for buses, and the usefulness of that tunnel is severely constrained by… the traffic light at its end.

  2. There is a serious lack of vision at City Hall right now. The whole idea of transit priority is not just to help trains or buses that are behind schedule. It’s to give transit priority at ALL times. Why should a Green Line train with hundreds of people on it have to wait for a handful cars with one person each in them to turn left, for example?

    WBUR has a series on traffic this week, and the number one thing they heard from drivers is that they would much rather take the T, but the T is slow, unreliable, and doesn’t serve them well. Transit signal priority is one very easy way to improve the T, which not only speeds up vehicles, making it more appealing, but it also increases the capacity. If each train or bus is able to get through its route more quickly, the T can serve more riders with the same number of vehicles.

    I’m really getting tired of all the excuses as to why Boston can’t prioritize our streets for transit (or for walking or biking for that matter.) From a pure efficiency standpoint, getting as many people on transit (and walking and biking) is the way to go. But people will only do that if those options are convenient and safe. That benefits drivers too. When more people choose to not drive, we free up space on the street for those who need to.

  3. Pingback: The Tufts Daily

  4. Pingback: TSP and Transit Priority: Not Sexy like Hyperloop but Effective Today | Happy Commutes

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