No Rider Left Behind: How Cities Can Make Transit Shutdowns as Painless as Possible

Rebuilding and repairing transit infrastructure is the future of transit in the U.S. How can agencies ensure mobility and equity?

(Photo courtesy MBTA)

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Boston’s month-long Orange Line shutdown in August was not for the faint of heart.

“Our first concern was, ‘How are we going to take a transit line which carries at peak 100,000 plus people every day and put all those people in buses on surface streets?’” says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, chief of streets for the city of Boston. “That was a real, like, scary proposition.”

The MBTA planned to make five years worth of repairs in 30 days and the city of Boston needed to adapt, and quickly. Announced publicly on Aug. 2, the shutdown commenced Aug. 19, giving Franklin-Hodge and his team a little over two weeks to make needed changes to streets and sidewalks. Four months later, the general consensus is that the Orange Line shutdown was a success (although there are still ongoing slow zones).

“It’s not just about building [transit infrastructure] anymore, it’s about repairing,” says Kaitlin McCready, communications and branding consultant and former director of customer experience for MTA’s L Project in New York City. “Repairing and maintaining is maybe not a sexy subject, but it’s really important for the future of transit.”

As cities and agencies deal with aging infrastructure, maintaining mobility, accessibility and equity for riders will continue to be a priority. Here are five battle-tested strategies to improve the rider experience.

Communicate more than you think you need to (and don’t be afraid to get nerdy)

Often, transit riders — and other road users — just want to know what’s going on and keeping them informed is the first step.

When the MTA started repairs on a section of the L Line, a popular transit corridor between Brooklyn and Manhattan, in 2019, the agency took extraordinary measures to communicate with customers. McCready and her team launched a weekly newsletter that not only provided detailed information about how to navigate the system during the shutdown, but also got into “transit nerdiness” like specific train track improvements.

“Most people just want to know, ‘Is my train coming today?’ says McCready. “But we wanted to reach as many people as possible and really educate them if they wanted to be educated.”

This strategy was a success — the weekly newsletter saw an impressive open rate of roughly 50% (compared to the typical 10% average for government communications).

Communicating with other road users during a shutdown is also important — especially when you’re shifting riders from underground rail to surface streets.

“If I’m gonna take a major street in a busy downtown corridor and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t drive here anymore,’ I need to be able to articulate exactly why,” says Franklin-Hodge. “We said over and over, our first priority is making sure the shuttle buses can move smoothly.”

“Mayor Wu was out there talking about [the Orange Line shutdown] constantly,” says TransitCenter’s director of communications, Hayley Richardson. “Just out there every day, tweeting with updates, talking about it on every news channel — you know it really sent the message that transit riders matter in Boston.”

Show transit riders that you care and lead with empathy

Shutting down a popular transit line can mean headaches for riders — how will they get where they need to go?

“I kind of steeled myself for a month of people yelling at me, just about how ‘Traffic is gridlocked, you can’t get anywhere, the T doesn’t work, the shuttles are broken, it’s unsafe to bike — everything is bad,’” says Franklin-Hodge.

But he found that Boston residents were surprisingly understanding. He credits empathy – specifically, hiring people who use the system.

“You need people on the team who are able to take that step back and say, ‘I am a rider, what do I need?’” he says. “What are the things that are going to clearly demonstrate that somebody cares about the impacts this has on me as a human being in my daily life?’”

One example — the city rented tents for some of the shuttle stops to shield riders from the sun and rain. It also helped that Mayor Michelle Wu takes the T.

“You can’t know what a disruption it’s going to be if you take an SUV to get to work every day,” says Richardson.

“It makes me so furious when there’s a board of people making decisions about an agency and no one ever uses the system,” adds McCready.

For the L Project, McCready’s team made it a point to follow-up with riders who made suggestions and show them the changes that the MTA made as a result, “saying, we don’t just listen, but we actually execute on it,” she says.

Rapidly deploy changes, seek feedback, then iterate

In the case of a crisis, cities can rapidly implement new infrastructure that would normally take months (or years) of study and community input. For example, Boston resurfaced a 20o foot section of sidewalk to make a shuttle stop accessible to wheelchair users.

As a result of the success of reconfiguring some of the city’s streets, Boston announced permanent changes like new bus lanes, bike lanes and parking restrictions.

“There’s no substitute for just seeing something in the real world and giving people a chance to interact with it,” says Franklin-Hodge.

In New York, the city made the 14th Street busway permanent after installing it during the L Train shutdown.

“Which needed to happen for a long, long time — bus riders deserve dedicated street space long before the shutdown — but the shutdown created the crisis that was necessary to push forward the street changes,” says Richardson.

Prioritizing bus riders is one key way that cities can ensure equity for underserved communities — they are more likely to be low-income than rail riders.

In Boston, Franklin-Hodge and his team fought for a bus stop to be added in Chinatown as part of the shuttle service — and that bus stop became permanent.

“The Chinatown neighborhood kind of got cut out of the shuttle bus route,” he says. “So we fought pretty hard with the transit agency to get them added back in.”

Make it multimodal

Bikeshare was the unexpected hero of the Orange Line shutdown. As part of the project, Bluebikes, Boston’s bikeshare program, offered free 30-day passes. It was a stunning success — according to Franklin-Hodge, the program saw a “53% ridership growth year over year.”

“We gave out just shy of 60,000 free passes over the course of 30 days. And we beat our single-day trip record, I think, nine times over the course of the shutdown.” Daily ridership went from a high of 18,000 pre-shutdown to 27,000 throughout the entire Bluebikes system.

The city also made it easier to ride along the Orange Line corridor with safety enhancements like pop-up bike lanes and new signage. In a show of mayoral solidarity, Mayor Wu used Twitter to organize group bike rides to City Hall.

This bikeshare boom shows that commuters are willing to try new modes of transportation, especially if they are free. As part of ensuring accessibility during shutdowns, cities can experiment with discounting other modes of transportation while also fast-building the infrastructure needed to make cycling safe.

Don’t call it a crisis

But why wait for a transit shutdown to implement changes that benefit walkers, rollers and transit riders?

“It is a crisis that the people that are taking transit every day are experiencing slow, unreliable service,” says Richardson.

Instead of seeing transit shutdowns as a crisis, says McCready, cities and transit agencies can use this unique opportunity to tell a new story and focus on the customer experience.

“This is an opportunity to educate people and really bring people in to say… this is how things are gonna be, there’s gonna be a lot of these repair projects, and this is how we need to work with you, so that we can give you the best transit possible.”

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Maylin Tu is Next City's Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Social Impact Design. A freelance reporter based in Los Angeles, she writes about transportation and public infrastructure (especially bus shelters and bathrooms), with bylines in the Guardian, KCET, Next City, LAist, LA Public Press and JoySauce. She graduated with a BA in English from William Jewell College in Missouri.

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Tags: new york citybostonbusestrainstransportation accesstransportation equity

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