Cars are returning to Worcester.
For much of the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic stripped New England’s second-largest city of severe traffic.
The peanut at Kelley Square smoothly siphoned cars around its curves. Vehicles cruised along Interstate I-290 without any inhibitions both in the morning and later in the evening.
Motorists downtown and across the city had their pick of two or three parking spaces.
But as vaccine doses rise, so do the number of cars packing into the city.
Traffic is returning to Worcester despite many people still working from home.
As the cars return it shines a spotlight on Worcester’s lack of public transportation.
“We’ve been in rough shape public transportation wise in Worcester and Central Massachusetts for a number of years,” City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. said.
Emerging out of the pandemic may offer an opportunity for the region. Congress already passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said will allot about $200 million for Worcester. The breakdown will include $115 million for the city and $81 million for schools.
McGovern said the city can use its discretion for much of the funding from the bill.
On top of the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden is also pushing for an infrastructure bill that could be worth up to $4 trillion.
It’s funding that provides Augustus with some cautious optimism to restore some public transit routes that were cut due to funding.
Augustus said when transportation funds are cut, it prompts a larger “death spiral” which could easily get out of hand.
“Route cuts [combined with] fare increases, it’s just killer,” Augustus said. “It doesn’t go where I want it to go and it costs more so you drive more people away.”
Driving the public away from public transportation often places people back in personal cars or prevents those who can’t afford a car to be restricted to a smaller area for goods and places to work.
“It’s a lifeline, an essential service for people,” Augustus said.
‘A perfect candidate for a fare-free system’
Funding for public transportation from state and federal levels is important, Augustus said, because it inherently is inefficient. Buses aren’t always full and every stop isn’t popular.
Augustus said the key to any system would be to highlight the efficient aspects that can subsidize the inefficient areas.
Due to the inherent inefficiencies, Augustus envisions an entirely new take on public transportation.
“There’s an on-call element to it. Is that a way to meld the two?” Augustus asked. “The Uber and Lyft sensibilities of transportation as opposed to a schedule and you have to schedule around when we go.”
Something like that already exists in Worcester County. Augustus emphasized the Worcester Regional Transit Authority using the mobile app Via.
The innovation was funded through a $460,000 award from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The app, WRTA Via, can be used with both iOS and Android devices and allows passengers to access an on-demand shuttle that provides services to Westborough High School, the Senior Center and two MBTA commuter rail stations.
“I think we need to figure out how to get more modern, if you will, with how people expect public transportation to be provided,” Augustus said.
In Worcester, there are two destinations involving public transportation: within the city and outside it.
Investments at Union Station are evidence of how important the commuter rail into Boston is for the city’s growth, Augustus said.
Last year, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation announced a $29.3 million grant for an 800-foot-long, high-level platform that will allow disabled access and enable multiple trains to stop at the same time.
Despite the investments, the total number of routes from Worcester to Boston was cut by the MBTA a month after the grant was announced as a result of cost-cutting measures linked to COVID-19.
With public transit within the city, Augustus supports a free-fare system.
The Zero Fare WRTA Coalition was formed after the Worcester Regional Research Bureau’s “Implications of a Fare-Free WRTA” report was published in May. The coalition is made up of citizens advocating and organizing for a Worcester public transit system that is efficient, frequent, convenient and free, the group says.
In the report, the Research Bureau said “research and evidence from other cities have shown going fare-free to be perhaps the most effective ridership-boosting plan available to bus systems, a priority for a system like the WRTA that is suffering from significant drops in ridership.”
A price tag associated with a fare-free system is about $3 million.
“Worcester’s specific conditions — rider demographics, farebox recovery ratios, service zone characteristics, and lean operations — point to a perfect candidate for a fare-free system,” the report said. “The equity implications of allowing all residents to ride the bus without paying a fare may overshadow the implications for government efficiency, but both are important factors in whether to implement a fare-free model.”
Augustus has seen the model work in other cities. Kansas City, he said, used federal stimulus money in the early 2000s to build a monorail system downtown, which is free.
Federal money paid for the infrastructure of the monorail while assessments from businesses along the route pays for the service.
It’s a model that Ride the Woo plans to implement.
The trolley service plans to offer visitors and residents of Worcester free rides across the city through partnerships with local businesses.
Originally, Ride the Woo planned to debut around the same time Polar Park debut. The coronavirus, though, delayed plans.
‘A virtuous cycle’
Any public transit initiative will require public buy-in, not just through the support of the idea but by participating.
Worcester remains a car-centric city with public transportation sometimes seen as a means for those who can’t afford a car. It’s a sentiment unlike larger cities where large segments of the population depend on public transit for a primary means of getting around the city.
“I think it’s similar to the mindset that we’ve been trying to change for a number of years around parking,” Augustus said.
Augustus wants a public transit system where residents believe it works for them.
“It has to be a system that works for the customer,” Augustus said. “If you have a work meeting or an appointment, it has to work when you want to go. I keep coming back to this on-call system, I really think that’s going to be [the future], the idea of using technology and the stuff that Uber and Lyft have transformed.”
There’s reason to believe the service would also work for the city.
A public transit system in Worcester would likely involve stops within the Canal District, but it likely wouldn’t stop at the Worcester Public Market then again at Crompton Place and yet again at the Fidelity Bank Ice Arena.
The central stop locations would prompt more walking across the city, which Augustus said promotes the idea of safety. Safe places generate more visits and instead of a death spiral, it promotes a thriving ecosystem.
“It creates a virtuous cycle,” Augustus said.
It’s something that could take off in all of Worcester’s neighborhoods, connected Main South to Shrewsbury Street. Tatnuck Square to the Canal District and Greendale to College Hill.
The work between those stops is just beginning, though.
“We don’t see public transportation going away,” August said. “We see public transportation expanding and playing more of a critical role.”