By Neil Schneider, Executive Vice President and John Dolan, Senior Vice President
When life as we know it came to a standstill in early March, little was known about the coronavirus, what the impact on our lives would be, or how long it would be before things could return to “normal.” Employees and employers quickly learned to adapt to work-from-home strategies to keep businesses operational; brokers and landlords scrambled to amend leases to provide rent relief for tenants; and concrete, workable guidelines to allow for some semblance of normalcy in our lives were developed by the CDC and the World Health Organization.
Nearly nine months have passed since Governor Baker issued the initial two-week stay-at-home advisory, and while a return to the office for most workers seems unlikely until Q2 at the earliest, many essential employees (as well as those employed in non-essential businesses like bars, restaurants and movie theaters) still need to show up for their jobs.
So how are these people getting to work?
For those who commute by car, one of the few bright spots of the pandemic has been the easing of traffic congestion. Earlier this year, a study by transportation analytics company INRIX ranked Boston as the most congested city in the United States – for the second consecutive year. Traffic congestion essentially evaporated when COVID-19 first hit, and although it has crept up incrementally since the summer, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
But workers in Boston and the surrounding inner suburban job centers are not necessarily reliant on cars to get to work. In fact, approximately one-third of Boston and one-quarter of Cambridge workers rely on public transit to get to work, according to 2018 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, and roughly 35 percent of workers coming into Boston rely on one of the MBTA modes (subway, bus, commuter rail, ferry) to get to their jobs.
And with good reason. Although this may come as a surprise to many locals, Boston is consistently ranked as one of the top five cities for public transit by multiple sources, including U.S. News and World Report, which ranked Boston number three last year. It is a fact not lost on investors, as office buildings located within a half-mile of a public transit stop saw a 38 percent increase in sales pricing from 2012 to 2016, compared to just a three percent increase for the rest of the metro region, according to a 2019 report from the American Public Transportation Association and the National Association of Realtors.
Then came the pandemic.
Ridership on the MBTA took a precipitous nosedive, as subway and commuter rail ridership decreased by over 90% in early April, and bus ridership dropped by 78%. In May, ridership began to rise as Governor Baker ordered mask-wearing in public places where social distancing was not possible, and businesses slowly began to re-open. Currently, bus service has recovered to about 40 to 50 percent of pre-COVID levels, depending on the route, according to an October report by Commonwealth Magazine. Subway lines have also rebounded, with the Blue Line back to nearly 40 percent of pre-COVID levels, while the Red and Green Lines are 21 and 19 percent, respectively. Commuter rail ridership is still languishing around 12 percent. Some popular bus routes, such as the 7 and 9, which run through South Boston, are still drawing only a small fraction of their pre-pandemic ridership, from a previous high of 5,000 people per day during peak months to a low of 300 people this past summer.
“The comeback has been a lot slower than I think a lot of us anticipated,” says Allison Simmons, principal and co-founder of NorthEase Consulting Group, a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) consulting firm. “Most employers that I’m working with are anticipating a return in the second or third quarter next year, so that definitely has an impact on public transit.”
Some of the decreased ridership has to do with the perception of risk, says Simmons, which she feels the MBTA has done a great job of mitigating with their Ride Safer campaign and other initiatives. The program includes enhanced cleaning of vehicles and facilities (the MBTA reports spending $750,000 more per week to clean than it did last year) as well as high-contact surfaces like handrails and fare gates; hand sanitizer dispensers at stations throughout the system; and an app that provides real-time information on crowding on buses and subway lines.
“I’m not an epidemiologist, but I haven’t seen any data that says that using public transit is any riskier than going to the grocery store or any activity where you can wear a mask and social distance,” says Simmons. “And there aren’t any instances that I’m familiar with where there was an outbreak of coronavirus associated with public transit – on a bus, on a train – any of that. It’s up there with many activities that we’ve decided have to come back. And I believe we’ve got to get that message out more and let people know that the T is doing the right thing.”
Her opinion is supported by a recent study commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association, which included a comprehensive review of the United States and global research on COVID-19 transmission and public transit. Acknowledging the current science that concludes that transmission occurs primarily through person-to-person spread via respiratory droplets, the report found that systems that implement the wearing of face coverings, physical distancing, enhanced ventilation and filtration, surface cleaning, and personal handwashing procedures pose little risk to riders. The report concluded, “No direct correlation has been found between the use of urban public transit and transmission of COVID-19.”
It is important to note, however, that the reduced ridership (20 riders per bus is now considered to be “crowded” compared to 55 pre-pandemic) that the MBTA and other public transit systems are experiencing is a major contributor to safety. Maintaining thinned ridership will be “essential” going forward, Melissa Perry, a George Washington University epidemiologist, recently told the Boston Globe, adding that a crowded train where everybody wore a mask would still be a risk.
Anecdotally, we surveyed a number of our employees taking public transit into the office (on a reduced work schedule to allow for social distancing) to gauge whether they feel safe taking public transportation. One administrator, a former Orange Line rider pre-COVID, reports that she feels safer on the commuter rail trip from Providence to Boston. “It’s a longer commute, but it’s incredibly clean, it’s well monitored, and I feel a greater sense of security.” She adds that people are generally more mindful of others, and while “some could wear them better”, people wear masks and practice social distancing on the trip.
From a personal standpoint, John Dolan admits that he avoided the T for the first three months. What changed his mind was the day when he took the Red Line to a doctor’s appointment. There were few people in the car, but one was a doctor wearing a Mass General Hospital coat and ID. It was then that he decided that if a doctor feels comfortable riding the T with a mask on, he should as well.
His Red Line experience has by and large been that people are respectful, are wearing masks, keeping safe distances, and spacing themselves out between seats. Although those who insist on wearing their masks on their chin or not at all on the platform, most people respect each other’s personal space more. And he thinks the great thing is that people are respecting each other’s space. And it’s not a COVID thing – it’s more of a common decency thing.
The MBTA is making a concerted effort with cleaning and safety measures, although we realize this may be difficult to sustain as ridership increases. New statewide restrictions on mask rules have taken effect as well. The MBTA recently announced that a $300 fine would be levied on those that aren’t wearing a mask on the T. As was predicted, infection rates have spiked as cold weather has driven more indoor activity. People have begun letting their guard down as they become COVID-19 fatigued. But there is good news on the horizon, with two vaccines on the way, so that “return to normalcy” may become a reality by late spring. If the T continues the enforcement of wearing masks, limiting the number of passengers, running additional cars, and limits service cuts, we believe people will be comfortable riding the T again.
Going forward, one thing is certain: Public transit will continue to be the lifeblood of the Greater Boston transportation system.
Senior Vice President, Marketing