Don’t use bus routes to subsidize malls …

especially if the mall isn’t the final stop on the route.

I recently had the pleasure of riding the entire route of the 34E, one of the MBTA’s longest bus routes. The route starts in Walpole Center, makes a beeline to Washington Street (which extends from Boston to Providence) and runs in a straight line to Forest Hill Station. A straight line, that is, except, for a bizarre figure-eight loop through the Dedham Mall. The loop-the-loop to access the mall unnecessarily lengthens the route, costs the T money, costs passengers time, and subsidizes private development, all to service the front door of an auto-centered development.

Instead of continuing on Washington Street, the mall loop takes 8 or 10 minutes as the bus leaves the street, navigates no fewer than eight stop signs and traffic signals, makes two separate looped turn-arounds and traverses the same intersection three times. The route is scheduled for a full hour for the 14 mile trip from Walpole to Forest Hills, so the detour through the mall accounts for 13 to 16% of the total run time, all to serve two stops (out of more than 80 total on the route) which would otherwise require a 2 to 5 minute walk.

In other words, for riders wishing to get to the Dedham Mall, it would likely be faster if the bus ran straight on Washington Street and they got off and walked in to the mall, rather than taking a circuitous route to be dropped near the door. And for everyone else, it would save 8 to 10 minutes each way of not riding through the mall parking lot.

I rode the route on a weekday evening a few days before Christmas. This should have been a high water mark for people using the 34E to get to the mall. While my bus was full—there were probably between 45 and 50 passengers on board at any given time (and probably 70 or more served along the route)—only two or three got on or off at the mall. So, in order to serve this small number of passengers, the rest of the bus had to loop in and out and in and out of endless parking lots and driveways, because front-door service to the mall is apparently required.


What is particularly irksome is that in this case—and it’s not isolated, but, at least in Boston, perhaps the most egregious (the 350 serves the Burlington Mall with a similar detour, but much closer to the terminus of the route, meaning that many fewer passengers are inconvenienced by the route’s detour)—is that anyone who rides the bus past the mall has their trip dramatically lengthened (how dramatically? 18 minutes a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year adds up to 75 hours of extra time on the bus annually). Jarrett Walker talks of “being on the way” and the mall is decidedly not; the 34E takes what should be a straight-line transit trip and degrades it to a mall circulator, despite the thousands of passengers who ride the bus daily.

In addition, running service via the mall requires several hidden subsidies which degrade service and provide a perverse incentive for people to drive instead of use transit. This one, in turn, further subsidizes the car-centric mall over pedestrian-oriented business districts, several of which are served by this route. There is also the direct subsidy to businesses at the mall. If I open a store on a street near an existing transit line, I would not (and should not) expect the transit agency to reroute the transit line to provide a stop at my front door. Yet we provide this service to the mall.

This subsidy can be quantified, in fact. The T doesn’t break down service between the 34E and the 34, but let’s assume that slightly more than half the passengers on the route are carried by the 34E (looking at the total number of vehicles on the route at different times of day)—or about 2500 passengers. The route costs $3.09 per passenger to operate (66¢ average bus fare paid plus $2.43 subsidy), or a total cost per day of about $7725. If we calculate 15% of this approximately $1150, meaning that over the course of a year—even given lower service levels on weekends—the cost to serve the mall is well north of $300,000 per year. [Update: these numbers may be somewhat lower given that morning service—before the mall opens—and some peak evening rush hour trips do skip the mall.]

Here’s another way to look at this: currently, the 20 minute evening headways on the 34E requires 6 buses running the route in about (or just under), each bus makes a round trip in two hours. If the run time were reduced to 51 minutes by omitting the mall, the same six buses could make seven round trips, reducing headways and, thus increasing capacity on the route. If you could get it to 50 minutes, the same headways could be maintained with 5 buses, which would save 1/6 of the route’s operating cost while providing the same service. But, instead, we provide service to the mall, at the expense of everyone who isn’t the mall.

What to do? Make the mall subsidize the route—yes, to the tune of $350,000 per year—or have them build an ADA facility from Washington Street to the mall. The extra cost of running this route in to the mall for 10 years could buy a very nice set of bus shelters, crosswalks and a ramp from Washington Street to the mall’s front door. Another option would be to run the 34—which ends its route nearby—to the mall, instead of putting this joggle in the middle of the 34E. While it might not have the same cost savings, it would at least not have the effect of costing thousands of passenger hours each day. Or, abandon service to the mall all together. Malls are dying, anyway, and it should not be the business of public transit agencies to help prop them up.

20 thoughts on “Don’t use bus routes to subsidize malls …

  1. Ah yes, the insanity of highway-oriented development.

    By the way, every time I visit my friends in Pittsburgh I get a taste of this. The airport connector is the 28X bus, but it also serves the Robinson Town Center mall that is nearby the airport. So everyone who wants to go to or from the airport via bus has to take a 10-minute loop through an exurban shopping center.

    The funny part is that back in 2010, Pittsburgh Port Authority actually considered cost savings on the 28X: by cutting out the airport extension and only serving the mall, leaving the airport with zero transit.

    In Boston, let's not forget that routes like the 8, 10 do wacky routes to serve areas around the South Bay Shopping Center and various employers. Or the 47 for that matter. It also diverges to serve both Ruggles and Dudley, and while those are important connections, gosh if it doesn't do it in the most awkward way possible. I once rode the 47 from Broadway to Fenway because I was lazy and I figured "hey, one seat ride". Big mistake: took twice as long as making the connection downtown.

    • I remember taking both the 8 and the 10 and going around South Bay Mall was just annoying. The traffic around there was horrible and if buses get caught up in it, that causes the route to become delayed. The 34/34E case is really extreme because the 34 terminates outside of the mall and goes around the rotary to start back up to Forest Hills while the 34E has to go around the mulberry bush just to get through the mall. The T should just have the 34 do all of that. Then the ironic part is that not all of the 34E trips serve the mall which makes me wonder how many people from Walpole actually get on/off at the mall rather than going mainly towards Forest Hills or towards Walpole.

    • Yes, the 34E is certainly not the only culprit, but seems to be one of the worst offenders given that it's a long route already and the diversion is mid-route. As for the 47, it's in a class of its own. The T created it as a Red Line-Longwood connection from the south, and then appended the old 67 Cambridgeport Loop bus on to it. It has been too successful for its own good; in the most recent rating they increased evening service due to crowding.

      There's a long post I've meant to write about the 47, but the long and short of it is that it makes no sense as that length of a route. It should be one route from Central to Longwood and then either to Ruggles or—more radically—south towards JP, and a second route from Longwood to Broadway or Andrew and then across in to South Boston, giving Southie residents a one-seat ride to the LMA. This could probably be done with the same number of vehicles currently on the route, or perhaps fewer since the demand might be different for different pieces of the route at different times of day. (Full disclosure; I can hear the 47 from my bedroom window.)

  2. If you take the 34e and look at the passengers and where they get off and who they are you will see that the bus serves a diverse population,very few of whom go to the mall except to work.

  3. One slightly unusual thing about malls is that their ridership seems to be very peaky, and at rather odd times, because most of the bus ridership is employees, and they tend to all be getting there for some shift change time. Having ridden the 70 past the Arsenal/Watertown malls, the ridership can vary quite a lot depending on which specific run you're on. So your single sample of mall ridership at the 34E might not be entirely representative. I'd really love to have stop-level data from the MBTA, and even better, (averaged) trip-level data for a given run of a given bus, at the stop level. Which I'm sure they can coax out of the AFC system if they really wanted to.

    • Yes, but … there are certainly better ways to serve the mall employees than adding 10 minutes to every bus that comes through. First of all, most employees could probably walk the 500 feet to Washington Street (since they can get a 34 or a 34E there), especially if there were better pedestrian connections. And I'm not saying that my ride was representative, but that it's generally bad transit planning to try to serve everyone's front door looping through malls. The 70—and I've gone on at length about the 70—doesn't circle in to the Arsenal Mall and Watertown Mall parking lots, but serves them from a stop on Arsenal Street. The 34E could do the same in Dedham.

    • It goes to the supermarket from the perspective of many. Also the very early trips carry a lot of people on their way to work, which is why you will see people getting off at what seem to be random stops in the woods, the work being just the other side of the woods. This is a complex line which can be easily misunderstood on only one trip.

    • It is certainly complex, but the only time that it deviates from a straight route (aside from a couple of trips which diverge to worksites further out the line) is to serve this mall and the supermarket. Most people who ride transit to work walk from their homes to the bus line, and should be able to walk from the bus to their workplace. We should not solve the "last mile" by unnecessarily deviating a bus line to serve the front door of every workplace.

    • Time to compile a list of every MBTA bus route that deviates to serve a major mall. I *think* that the 34E is the highest-ridership line and it's already so long that the mall figure-8 adds insult to injury.

  4. You have to be very careful about suggesting these things because you run into Title VI issues, especially if the riders to the mall are a different race from the surrounding community. Removing bus service can also be racially charged, as shown in the Cynthia Wiggins situation in Buffalo (woman going to work at the mall which banned public transit buses gets crushed by a truck and family wins $2.55 million in settlement – and these services provide important connectivity for seniors and the disabled, helping to save them from using paratransit that they might be entitled to due to the additional distance involved in getting to the mall.

    "Abandoning service to the mall" is a recipe for maintaining the school to welfare/prison pipeline because malls are a source of entry level jobs, and in a liberal state will, and should, be roundly rejected. Transit, for better or worse, serves a greater purpose than just moving people from point A to point B efficiently. MBTA can consider putting a traffic signal and crosswalk from Washington Street, but it will likely have to be at their expense, because removing service will be a Title VI racial discrimination issue.

    • Several salient issues here. First of all, I never really suggested abandoning service to the mall more than in jest, but to the front door of the mall. As I suggested above, straightening the bus service would require a similar effort to improve pedestrian access, with adequate stops, shelters and ADA-accessible ramps (and the savings from providing this extra service could be used for this). For those unable to navigate a 500-1000 foot walk (even the Stop and Shop could be accessed via a 1300-foot path along Mother Brook) we have paratransit. The point of fixed route transit is not—and should not be—a ride from everyone's front door to the front door of every destination. It should provide the best service to as many riders as possible, and a 15-minute-per-day detour for most riders is anathema to that goal. If we attempt to reroute transit to try to serve everyone, the trip becomes so long and convoluted that it winds up serving no one.

      The Wiggins case is a case where there were no safe pedestrian alternatives, and the "last mile" is really important for transit. If we don't provide a path from the bus stop to the destination, then we have to serve the front door. In the case of front-door mall service, the T spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in service costs because the mall hasn't been built with the slightest thought towards people who might arrive there in something other than a private vehicle. (As someone who has walked, biked and taken transit to malls—mainly under extreme duress, having to go to a store with no more-accessible location—this is a frequent complaint.) The odd thing is that if the mall kicked out buses, it would actually result in better service for the rest of the riders. It's a different story for lines which terminate at a mall—this is actually a good route-planning structure, using the mall as an anchor at the end of the route—but for the 34E is not the case.

      As a liberal state, we should bemoan hidden subsidies going towards private businesses which encourage vehicle use. In this case, anyone with a job at a store in Downtown Norwood who wishes to get there on the bus has to ride an extra fifteen minutes per day so people who work at the mall can get dropped in front of the door. And there's also the issue of putting this jog in the middle of an already-long route. The Dedham Mall is already served by the 35 and 52 bus routes, which terminate at the mall, and could similarly be served by an extension of the 34. Straightening the 34E would not remove access to the mall. The few people who would be inconvenienced by a new transfer would be dwarfed by the majority of riders who would have a shorter trip.

  5. The Sullivan Square loop doesn't make much sense either. The 86, 91, and CT2 for example, have to make two complete loops to drop off (upper level) and pick up passengers (lower level) before proceeding into the signalized intersection at Sullivan. I've never understood why the buses don't pick up and drop off passengers on the upper level, and the proceed to turn right onto Cambridge St/Washington Street (through what is now cement barrier). There must be some logic to it, but it escapes me.

    • The upper level is probably too busy to serve all the routes during the day. (It does serve all routes after 7:30 pm.) And the right turn to exit directly onto Cambridge Street would be too sharp for a bus. (Of course they could reconfigure the roads if they wanted.)

      But I don't understand why they don't drop off on the lower level. Is it so passengers don't have to climb a flight of stairs or walk up a long ramp (but descending was deemed ok)?

    • This is a different issue. As the first reply points out, this is probably due to the number of buses serving this location, as well as the fact that it is a terminal and a recovery point for all of these buses, so they drop off passengers, park out of the way while they make up slack in their schedule (if any, although considering that the 86 and CT2 end at Sullivan, you better believe there is recovery time built in to those schedules), and then come to a separate pick-up location.

      In the abstract, the parking lot and bus terminal at Sullivan Square really ought to have some transit-oriented development built, there's relatively-decent transit access there.

      It's also different inasmuch as while this is operation time (and it has costs to the T) the buses are empty. We're not forcing riders to loop around twice before they get dropped off. For the 34E, a regular rider loses three full days out of the year—nearly 1% of the entire time in the year!—looping through the mall.

  6. In the abstract, which would y'all prefer, a bus system which follows the trolley lines as they were in 1926, or one that serves today's employment centers and shopping destinations?

    I vote for the latter, but the T for the most part does a very bad job of it. In general, if an area didn't have bus service in 1960, it doesn't have it today, even if thousands of people live or work there.

    Just look at the bus systems in places like Seattle and San Francisco: excellent coverage anywhere there's development, and express buses all over the place, including plenty of suburb-to-suburb routes.

    Looking at this particular example, I think it's important for the 34E to serve the northern (Stop-n-Shop) and main sections of the mall. It's too bad the mall's road system doesn't make this quicker.

    A few weeks ago down by Legacy Place, I saw a small horde of people walking through a rain storm down Elm Street. It took me a minute to figure out why: they had just gotten off the bus at the nearest stop on Washington. I felt terrible for these people, that the T hadn't bothered to serve what's the biggest trip generator in the local area.

    Considering the 350: the vast majority of ridership north of Winchester, especially in the reverse-peak, is to the mall. Second to that is Lahey Clinic and the office parks along the way. Hardly anyone rides all the way up to North Burlington — the bus is empty up there most trips. Yet 20 to 30 minutes of every round trip are spent on the segment north of the mall. And in the PM rush, all outbound trips skip the mall, which means employees have to walk more than a mile from the nearest stop.

    My proposed solution: in exchange for planning permission to build a big mall, towns should require that developers work with the MBTA to design a road system that works for buses. And the T shouldn't be afraid to add and reroute service where it's needed, even if that means cutting service to places that currently have it.

    • The problem is that "today's employment centers and shopping destinations" are laid out in a way that's convenient for cars, not transit, and that means transit service trying to serve them gets inefficient quite fast (since it has to make all kinds of detours). At least the stuff built around trolley lines in the 1920s was built in a mostly transit-friendly geometry, which is why transit continues to be able to serve it effectively.

    • To answer your questions, many of which are valid (but, I think, somewhat misguided):

      • In the abstract, I'd prefer a system that follows straight lines and main roads and moves people back and forth efficiently. If a transit line runs along a road with no commercial centers and few residents, then, yes, it makes sense to divert it to activity centers. For the 34E this is certainly not the case (for the 350, it's somewhat different; more in a second).

      • If an area doesn't have transit service, it was probably developed for automobiles, and running transit service there would be expensive and inefficient. If you look at the T's most and least expensive-per-rider routes, buses that loop through the suburbs are generally more expensive to operate than ones closer in. The best predictor for transit effectiveness is density, and despite serving a lot of people, suburban malls and office parks don't have it.

      • I really don't follow your San Francisco and Seattle examples. Let's start with Seattle: it has two systems: King County's suburban routes often follow a highway and then access a major node, often acting as a commuter rail line would in Massachusetts (which they don't really have in Seattle). Commuter Rail has the theoretical advantage that it can easily serve town centers; it doesn't have to get on and off of highways (even if in Massachusetts it is often built with park-and-rides away from the center of town; don't get me started). There are suburb-to-suburb routes, but where they exist they're running from large, dense employment centers (Bellevue, Redmond), not one-off shopping malls. And San Francisco has MUNI in the city which really only serves the city (like the T) and a variety of systems beyond. BART and Caltrain carry most longer-distance passengers, with buses acting often as last mile or circulator systems. The busiest and most effective routes—VTA's 22, for example—run in straight lines and don't deviate in to every little development (even as VTA's light rail does try to access many employment nodes, but barely outdraws the 22 which runs straight as an arrow down El Camino).

      • Back to the 34E and Dedham. You're making a judgement call that the 34E should serve the Dedham Mall. And you suggest it should also serve Legacy Place. What about the people beyond that point on the line? Should they have to loop through Legacy Place, the Costco, BJs, the Star Market, Dedham Plaza and the Dedham Mall? Why bother serving the parts of the route designed for transit? Should we just superimpose transit on the area designed for cars? What happens when someone opens Traditions Plaza (or something equally stupid) with a bigger theater, a costlier Costco a more wholesome Whole Foods? Should we serve their front doors, too? And, at the same time, abandon businesses which located along the transit route without building a huge parking lot in between?

      The Dedham Mall could be served with better pedestrian facilities and nearby stops that don't require a detour. It should be on the developer or the town to work towards this, not the public transit agency. And Legacy Place, well, it's actually surprisingly transit-oriented, if in the wrong direction. They actually have signed access to the Commuter Rail station (about a 5 minute walk). However, in an obvious oversight they neglected to build any decent infrastructure between the nearby 34E bus stop on Elm Street. What could have been built as an ADA sidewalk and a wide sidewalk was instead unimproved. This says a lot more about the failure of the town of Dedham's planning process than the MBTA. (cont)

    • (cont) It's only about 1500 feet from the 34E to Legacy Place—about a 6 or 7 minute walk. You know what else is about that far from transit? The Cambridgeside Galleria (which runs a shuttle to Kendall, as well). Most of Newbury Street. When you see people in Downtown Boston walking in the rain, do you feel just as sorry for them? They're doing the same thing. A lot of people have to walk a few minutes to access transit. We can't bring transit to everyone. We certainly shouldn't pay a lot of money to bring transit to malls. But we should do a better job of bringing malls to transit.

      As for Legacy Place: it is one of these horrid faux-urban Lifestyle Centers. They try to design it to feel walkable, with narrow "streets" between the buildings. It's just the next iteration of the indoor mall (which also tried to create an urban shopping experience). This attempt to create a shopping "experience" will probably be a passing fad in 20 years, much as the indoor mall is falling out of favor. For both, there's no way to get there without driving.

      Is there anything unique at Legacy Place that you can't get at a store better connected to the transit network? Probably not. They didn't orient the development towards transit, and we shouldn't spend money to provide better transit. If a hypothetical consumer has the choice, today, between buying a widget at a store at Legacy Place or a store closer to a transit node, they should be encouraged to patronize the better-situated business, not shuttled to one that they can otherwise only get to by car. (If they choose to drive to Legacy Place to get said widget, it's doubtful they would have taken transit had it been just a little more "convenient.")

      • As for the 350, this is a different situation. The Burlington Mall is much closer to the terminus of the route, and it serves as the main anchor at that end (along with the Lahey Clinic), so there are far fewer through-riders. There is no major town center like Norwood or Walpole beyond, just some suburban parts of Burlington. The reason the route spends time north of the mall is the same reason the 34E goes to Norwood and Walpole: people live there. You bemoan the fact that the 350 skips the mall in the evening, but it makes perfect sense. Few people are going to the mall at that time (employees especially), while most of the people on the bus are going home after work. Should we require 10 passengers to take a 15-minute longer trip to get home so that one or two people can get to the mall more quickly? Access to the mall should not degrade other riders' service—to the point many other riders would probably drive instead.

      A point on the Lahey Clinic: they chose, in 1980, to move out of Kenmore Square to Burlington. Now, the only way to get there is a long trip on the 350 or fighting traffic on 128. If they had that choice to make again, I bet they would have stayed put. They'd be easier to access by transit than most of the LMA, which seems to be holding its own these days.

      • There's no need to design a road system that works for buses. We have a road system that works for buses. We should design new development to interact with that road system. If the Dedham Mall was built with the parking in the back, it could have fronted on to Washington Street—and a bus stop. If Legacy Place build its main entrance on the property line instead of the parking garage, it would have been a four minute walk from the 34E. There is certainly a role for planning and design, but your premise is backwards. Transit works quite well as it is: we shouldn't have to build inefficient transit. We should build more efficient development.

  7. Not to take away from your overall point, but the $300,000 estimated cost of servicing the mall is overstated because weekday rush-hour trips on the 34E in the peak direction do bypass the mall.

    Generally speaking, though, I do agree that the amount of service provided to the mall along this route does appear to greatly exceed the demand. This is not surprising given the mall's gradual transformation from a standard indoor mall with anchor stores to a suburban 'power center'. At minimum 34E service to the mall should probably be cut back to alternate trips during midday and Saturday hours, although this would likely benefit passengers only in terms of transit time and noty necessarily offer a cost savings to the MBTA due to a likely desire to maintain consistent headway coordination with the 34 Dedham Line trips.

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