Tuesday the Roxbury Innovation Center in Dudley Square hosted a group of advocates, officials and members of the public for the LivableStreets Alliance Making Buses Sexy talk. The Barr Foundation’s Mary Skelton-Roberts, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority chief technology officer David Block-Schachter and MBTA Financial Management and Control Board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt. LivableStreets executive director Stacy Thompson moderated the discussion.
Left to right: Monica Tibbits-Nutt, David Block-Schachter, Mary Skelton-Roberts and Stacy Thompson.
By “sexy”, LivableStreets Alliance meant “working.” Unlike other panels, where officials tout gimmicks like on board wi-fi, the panel talked about on-time performance, pre-board fare collection, connectivity and transit signal priority.
“I want to walk away with a sense of hope,” Thompson said. “People ask me if we’re serious about making buses sexy and the answer is yes.”
She asked Tibbits-Nutt what was in the works at the MBTA.
“For the first time in a year and a half I’m really excited,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “The big thing about our buses is that we are looking at buses in a way we’ve never looked at them before. I’m oddly optimistic.”
“My job is to make Monica more specific,” Block-Schachter joked.
He said there are three “sexy” things the MBTA is working on, whioch he listed in order of near-to-long term. He said they are partnering with TransitApp, an app that uses real time information to alert users about when their buses or trains are coming and, because of the partnership, they’re getting data back about how people use the MBTA. Block-Schachter also said that they were working on transit-signal priority — although the MBTA does not control the signals, they can get their buses ready for TSP to be implemented. Lastly, he said that they’re working on improving fare collection in order to eliminate cash on board, which could result in a 10 percent speed improvement.
Skelton-Roberts played a video of a trip to Mexico City the Barr Foundation organized for officials and community members to show them what bus rapid transit was all about and what a bus system could be like.
“The bus system allows you to move through a city that’s beautiful to look at,” she said. “We know in Boston we don’t have BRT, we have buses.”
Skelton-Roberts said that Mexico City’s buses are run better than the MBTA’s trains. “It’s about mobility,” she said.
“We’ve seen all these magical things, but how do we build the bridge between them and our real world needs?” Thompson said.
“We’re trying to figure out how to pilot some of these incremental improvements,” Skelton-Roberts said. “We take a climate perspective.”
She added that officials and advocates need to do a good job of explaining the improvements and how they will help people get to and from their destination faster.
“The biggest thing from my perspective is the trade-offs,” Tibbits-Nutt said. “I love pilots, as long as they’re cheap.”
“Taking cash off buses — that’s a trade-off,” Block-Schachter said. “Doing off-board fare collection across the system is an investment that starts with a ‘B.'”
“We live in a culture where the car continues to be king,” Skelton-Roberts said. “We need to talk about priorities.”
“All of us are struggling to crack the nut,” Thompson said. “How can we move things forward?”
Tibbits-Nutt said that she follows up on things obsessively, encouraged people to come to meetings and advocate for change and has been going out to bus garages to talk with drivers and find out their perspective.
“We have a limited amount of time,” she said, referring to the FCMB.
She added that the MBTA was going to begin service planning because bus routes have not changed to keep up with development. She said it would likely be done garage by garage and the first meeting would be October 20.
“We’re not responsive to where development is,” Tibbits-Nutt said.
Skelton-Roberts said that one of the important things about Barr was that because they’re not bound by the administration they can hold on to the vision.
Block-Schachter said that one of the things they were doing was hiring people who actually use public transportation. He added that people need to have realistic expectations. “Buses bunch and 50 year-old systems break down,” he said.
Tibbits-Nutt said that the municipalities need to do a better job of enforcing rules against double parking and parking in bus stops.
Other events LivableStreets is planing include developing CoAx tools for community engagement and are urging people to participate in Focus 40 and GoBoston 2030 forums.