Worcester’s WRTA bus system: designed to fail?

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WRTA bus at Worcester City Hall bus stop. What happened to all the free shuttle buses to the WRTA Hub/Union Station? We’ve got ’em – every 20 minutes or so … (photo: R.T.)

By Chris Horton

Don’t get me wrong.  I love public transportation.  I love trains, ships, trolleys. I used to even love planes and busses. But getting around in Worcester without a car really sucks.  And it doesn’t cheer me up when we’re told we have the best transit system in Massachusetts outside Metro Boston.  (Is that true? Really?)

When I need to go somewhere that’s not on my own bus line, a two-ride trip, I can pretty well count on long waits. I can expect missed connections.  Busses scheduled to run every 15 minutes often run in convoys – four busses playing leap-frog, then nearly an hour until the next batch.  This makes planning a trip very hard.  A one-hour appointment at 3 pm will usually take up my whole afternoon.  In rough weather I can expect to end up cold and wet. And I can expect to return home exhausted.  

(That is, if I can get there at all!)

Many people using the busses have needs far more urgent than mine.  I meet riders holding down two or even three jobs to make ends meet, dropping kids off at school or daycare providers, who say it’s a nightmare, as late busses and missed connections lead to firings.  At least I live near a supermarket and pharmacy; every day I see people lugging three or four overstuffed bags of groceries onto the buses and lugging them around town.

Then there’s the places the buses don’t go and the times they don’t run.  Every time the members of the Worcester Unemployment Action Group have discussed what our top issues are, the lack of bus service to where the jobs are is near the top.  Very few buses to outlying areas, virtually no buses to neighboring cities, routes where the first bus of the morning won’t get you to work on time or the last bus of the day get you home, jobs that are out of reach because there’s no Saturday service – these severely limit what job seekers can take, once they’ve joined the ranks of the carless.

Attending the WRTA Board meetings and hearings, looking at the way they make changes, what they pay attention to, it’s clear the bean-counters are in charge, and they are more concerned with perceptions than actually meeting their riders’ needs. This showed in their very expensive third-party rider survey, which was a checked-box machine-scored affair that didn’t uncover what changing routes around will really do to people who have chosen apartments and taken jobs based on the existing routes.

The new impossibly small and crowded $17 million Union Station Bus Hub is a monument to traffic engineering failure, and many riders bemoan the loss of being able to stop off downtown between buses. But it looks good on paper! (Was this part of the City Fathers’ plan to clear the “riff-raff” out of the Commons?)  Their sop to the complainers: a new Downtown Shuttle that only runs every 17 minutes – maybe!  

Soon they’ll be able to throw up their hands and say “Oh look!  We tried it, and it didn’t work!”  Their special trick like the bus the public was demanding that would run the length of Main Street all the way to Lincoln Square.  They put one on last year, running once an hour from Webster Plaza to Linclon Plaza – once an hour only on Saturday – and – Surprise! – it didn’t catch on!

Now there’s talk of fully privatizing our bus system, which is already privately run contracting to a public agency.  Don’t think it could get worse?  Don’t bet on it!

OK, I know, “fixed route” public transport will never get everybody where they want to go when they want to go there.  Rail may be faster than cars when roads are congested, but buses never will be.  But buses can be sociable.  They can be safer and cheaper than driving and better for the environment. At their best they can be low-stress.  Buses can even be so good that people leave their cars behind to use them!

How do I know this?  Every year I spend at least a week in Nova Scotia visiting family.  In recent years I’ve stayed in Halifax and moved around by bus.  The Halifax “Urban Core,” at 297,000 people, is about the same population as Worcester and its neighboring towns. 

There is a dense network of busses – including busses connecting with the very popular cross-harbor ferries.  They run late into the night.  On some trunk routes there are busses every five minutes.  There are ten Bus Hubs, including suburban hubs, several of them twice the size of Worcester’s.  There are hundreds of benches and shelters, and I’ve seen myself how they get shoveled out right away after every snowstorm!  People actually leave their cars behind to ride the busses!

The difference is that Worcester’s busses are treated like welfare for the poor.  How we got here, how we get back to having a quality public transportation system for all, how we pay for it – these are things we should be talking about. Halifax shows it’s possible.  Anything less is unacceptable.