Paul LeClair has been riding the bus since he was a teenager. Today, 50 years later, he lives near Route 128 and relies on the 62/76 bus to run errands in Lexington six days a week at about 6 a.m.
Jagriti Singh and Abinash Chaudhary use the 62 to commute to and from white-collar jobs in Bedford; they pass through Lexington each workday at rush hour.
And Lexingtonian Kunal Botla, 17, has relied on the 76 to get him to and from high school in Cambridge daily for the past year.
The clientele of the two bus routes that connect Lexington to other parts of Greater Boston, the 62 and 76, use the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) for different purposes at different times of day. But they share their reliance on the service – so changes to the routes and frequency of these buses affect their lives, and those of hundreds more riders.
Some aspects of the MBTA routes will change as soon as next year as part of the Bus Network Redesign, an initiative to restructure bus routes in response to changes in demographics, travel patterns and traffic. The Bus Network Redesign is one of several enterprises under the Better Bus Project umbrella, which is itself a piece of the once-in-a-generation, $8 billion overhaul of statewide public transportation called the MBTA Capital Investment Plan (CIP).
The MBTA first published a draft proposal for the redesigned bus network this May; throughout the summer, agency officials are gathering feedback on the recommended routes prior to submitting a revised proposal in the fall to its Board of Directors for approval. Riders can submit feedback on the draft proposal until July 31.
Implications of the draft proposal for Lexington
Combined, the 62 and 76 currently pass through Lexington Center at least once an hour on weekdays. More limited service is offered Saturdays; there’s none on Sundays.
Under the new MBTA bus route proposal as applied to Lexington, Bedford and Lincoln (communities served by most of the same regional bus routes), the 76 would become a peak-only service offering a “more direct route” to two of the area’s largest employers, Lincoln Lab and Hanscom Field – bypassing Lexington Center and Lexington High School, but adding new stops on Marrett Road instead.
The 62 would also offer Sunday service, which MBTA officials say riders have been requesting for years – especially those who need to reach hourly suburban jobs that day.
Big-picture, the changes would simplify some of the convolutions of the current 62/76 operations. Under the current system, the 62 runs different routes depending on the time of day, and operates as the 62/76 on weekends and off-peak. Both routes would offer more consistent, streamlined service under the new proposal.
Today’s confusing routes are, in large part, a product of the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, the 76 ran all day each weekday; it was combined with the 62 during the pandemic until last December, when the routes were separated again for peak periods only.
In fall 2019, there were nearly 1,000 average boardings on the 76 each weekday, according to MBTA Deputy Press Secretary Lisa Battiston, as well as about 1,300 each weekday on the 62 and 62/76. In fall 2020, those numbers dropped precipitously: The combined 62/76 route saw a weekday average of just over 400 boardings per day.
Those numbers have started to creep back up: In fall 2021, the combined 62/76 route saw a little over 700 weekday boardings on average.
“Transit is essential to the region’s economy, especially post-pandemic – and MBTA buses serve our most transit-dependent populations,” said MBTA Chief Administrative Officer David Panagore at a forum on the proposed changes in June. The proposed network accounts for changes in where existing and potential riders live, work and want to go, while increasing service by 25% across the network and 70% on weekends, he added.
Panagore emphasized that the current proposal is still a draft. “The map will change meaningfully based on the feedback we receive from riders,” he said, “and hearing from you will make it better.”
The Town’s response
Town Manager Jim Malloy submitted official feedback on behalf of Lexington in mid-June concurring with the MBTA’s “‘equity-first’ strategy to focus on those most dependent on transit” in the Bus Network Redesign. Still, Malloy suggested three changes to better serve Lexington: Run the 76 all day, as was done pre-pandemic; keep the 76 running through Lexington Center, past the high school and on Hartwell Avenue to maintain frequency of service in alternation with the 62; and extend another route – the 77, a high-frequency bus that connects Cambridge and Arlington – all the way to Lexington Center.
Failure to continue 76 service off-peak would mean “the core of our community will have worse service than before COVID,” Malloy wrote in a letter to the MBTA. The Town would require additional funding for supplementary local transportation, he suggested, should the MBTA reject this amendment.
Keeping the 76 running through the Town Center and past Lexington High School would be critical to meet need in the parts of town with the highest transportation demand, Malloy wrote.
Transportation Manager Susan Barrett stressed that public transportation is a necessary solution to horrendous traffic congestion at LHS – a problem that persists despite the use of 36 school buses in addition to school vans, she said.
The “main potential barrier” to the first two changes, according to Battiston, is “the question of resources – buses and drivers.” Communities throughout the MBTA network are requesting more service, she noted, and the agency will consider all of the requests to determine what is feasible.
Barrett is sympathetic to the resource crunch, and generally approves of the MBTA’s process so far. “There’s always trade-offs,” she said. “When you get to a place like Lexington, which is in the Outer Core, that’s where it kind of becomes the hardest.” Outer Core communities pay less for transit than Inner Core communities – and Inner Core communities would typically have more people left in the lurch by service reductions than Outer Core communities, Barrett said.
In the Town’s letter, Malloy recommended the State “examine all options,” including increasing the transportation budget, to avoid necessitating “painful trade-offs.”
Extending the 77 to Lexington Center would follow the spirit of a decades-old proposal to extend the Red Line to Lexington (which, Barrett said, is “definitely off the table” today) by offering a direct route from Lexington to Cambridge.
Battiston suggested that transfer opportunities from the 62 to the 77 at Arlington Heights under the current proposal would meet this need while using fewer resources. What’s more, extending some 77 routes to Lexington, but not all, would “[add] complexity that we have been trying to avoid…[which] also can lead to irregularities and gaps in service,” she added.
The proposal ultimately approved by the MBTA will be implemented in phases over five years, beginning next summer.
Bus riders weigh in
Botla, now a rising senior, attended LHS for two years before switching to a high school in Cambridge. It takes him about an hour to get to school by bus – and anywhere from 60 to 100 minutes to return because of the bus infrequency. But the bus is cost efficient and better for the environment than driving – so to him, it’s worth it.
Botla has been advocating for better bus service since December 2021; after engaging in the MBTA’s public outreach process, he expanded his activism to other transit nonprofits this spring.
“The changes being proposed are some of the most significant ones made ever by the MBTA,” Botla wrote in an email – but he found the initial proposed map “extremely disappointing.” He circulated a petition in late June requesting most of the same changes suggested by the Town, observing that “recent engagement methods by the MBTA look to center the importance of something by the number of people asking.” At press time, it had garnered close to 200 signatures.
Botla believes the MBTA is a critical access and independence opportunity for high school students. A major advantage over school buses, he noted, is that students have increased flexibility to stay for their extracurriculars and head home on their own schedules.
He also reasons that if more Town transportation funding went to public transit than school buses, everyone – including students – would have more options.
Botla is looking to gain signatures from 10% of Lexingtonians “ideally,” and to ultimately win the support of local and state elected officials from School Committee and Select Board members to state representatives. He believes these leaders are best positioned to convince the MBTA to adopt the requested changes.
He also hopes the petition will double as an awareness campaign for MBTA service in Lexington. Too few people are aware of MBTA service as a Town transit option, while cognizance of the major proposed changes is even rarer, he said. As a partial remedy, Botla suggested signage on Route 2 should advertise the traffic and cost benefits of public transit compared to cars, supplementing online information.
LeClair, who is dependent on the 76, strongly opposes the proposed changes. He was previously unaware of them and criticized the MBTA for insufficient communication.
But some data suggests the proposed changes to the 76 could make public transportation more appealing for regional commuters to Lincoln Lab and Hansom Field. Separate from the MBTA’s Bus Network Redesign, Lexington is currently updating its more than decade-old Transportation Management Overlay District Plan in the Hartwell Area, which seeks to improve transportation options, mitigate traffic and ultimately “reduce single occupancy vehicle trips,” per a July Planning Office memo.
According to data presented by consultants at a Planning Board meeting yesterday, 28% of survey respondents were likely to take public transit if it is well run – and about 24% of respondents would be encouraged to take public transit if changes provided “more direct” service to their final destination with “fewer stops.”
Chaudhary and Singh, the white-collar workers in Bedford, weren’t aware of the proposed changes either. But when they go to work, they see few people alight at Lexington Center – perhaps one person for every three to four people who get off at their stop in Bedford, they estimated.
Both would like to see more frequent service. Chaudhary compared American transit unfavorably to Indian cities such as Mumbai: “It needs to catch up,” he said.
The bigger picture
Town staff and some riders share an understanding that Lexington’s transportation future is inseparable from other major statewide issues.
Bolstering MBTA service will help the State and Town “meet state and local goals on sustainability, housing, economic development, congestion reduction, and mobility,” Malloy wrote in the Town letter.
Botla referenced climate change specifically: “There definitely has to be a mindset change” toward public transit and away from cars, he said.
Among measures to strengthen public transportation locally, Battiston wrote that Lexington can consider strategies such as encouraging “extensive” use of MBTA services; continuing funding services such as Lexpress to supplement state services; implementing bus lanes where traffic congestion can delay service; and allowing for “transit-supportive zoning and developments.”
“These measures improve the reliability of transit services and reduce travel time on transit,” she wrote, “which help make transit more competitive with other modes of transportation.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Kunal Botla has relied on the 62 bus; in fact, Botla has primarily relied on the 76 bus, though he lives near a 62 stop as well. LexObserver regrets the error.