I caught a ride on a MetroWest Regional Transit Authority (MWRTA) bus for the first time yesterday. The service began operating just over 10 years ago, offering curb-to-curb paratransit and 16-fixed route bus services in 13 Massachusetts cities and towns, including my hometown of Ashland.
Ever since I learned about the service, which admittedly was only a couple years ago (give me a break I’d been living in DC!), I wanted to check out the ride. The impetus for yesterday’s ride was to pick-up a book from the Framingham Public Library. Sure, I could have requested the book using the Minuteman Library Network’s free service and have it delivered to Ashland Public Library. I could have also taken the MBTA commuter rail from Ashland to Framingham, but MWRTA has it beat on price (if not on frequency).
A ticket for the MWRTA costs $1.50 cash or $1.25 with Charlie Card–the very same card used by the MBTA for the Boston subway and buses. You can even get free paper transfers within 90 minutes onto other lines. In contrast, tickets on the commuter rail are $3.25 for the single stop.
To begin, I left my parents’ house around 1:30pm to bike the nearly three miles to the downtown and the Ashland library. I locked my bike and returned a book I had borrowed the other day. At around 2pm, I called the MWRTA hotline to confirm the stop and the next bus. The good news: I was correct that the bus stopped in front of the Ashland Post Office. The bad: the next bus was scheduled for 2:58pm.
Only one bus operates on Route 5, which connects downtown Hopkinton through downtown Ashland to downtown Framingham largely by Route 135 (the Boston Marathon route!). When I called, the bus had just arrived at the Framingham hub. Fortunately, the fall weather was pleasant, so I used the hour to walk around Ashland’s historic downtown.
Back at the stop, the bus arrived 12 minutes late. I had some warning because the MWRTA has a bus tracker that lets you follow buses on each of the routes. I went to the stop 10 minutes early, as recommended by the MWRTA, and noticed on the tracker that the bus was still in downtown Hopkinton. Next time, I’ll keep an eye on the tracker before heading to the stop.
When the bus arrived, I attempted to pay with my Charlie Card. Unfortunately, I only had a 90 cent balance. I discovered that the bus only lets you pay in cash or with stored value. Unlike my experience with SmarTrip and WMATA buses in the DC area, you cannot add value to your card on the bus. I had attempted to register and add value to my card online the night before, but was unable to do so–likely because my card is so old. Still, the driver took pity on me and allowed me to pay with one of the dollar bills that I had on hand (I saved the other one for the return trip).
The bus had plush leather (pleather?) seats and two other passengers, plus the driver. All told, it had seating for 20 or so people plus space in the rear for wheelchairs, including an accessible ramp that can lower from a door on the side. Seven minutes after boarding, the bus made it’s first scheduled stop at the Framingham MBTA commuter rail station.
In that hour I had waited I could have easily biked to downtown Framingham, but that would have foreclosed on the entire experience. Unfortunately, Ashland has not yet invested in bike infrastructure (bike racks are even scarce downtown), but unprotected bike lanes emerged on Route 135 once we crossed the Framingham border. The community has invested heavily in streetscape improvements in downtown, which also coincides with a vote last April to become a city (finally).
Most MWRTA bus routes stop in downtown Framingham, many at the Framingham Intermodal Station, a new parking lot and hub adjacent to the train station. Route 5 stops on the opposite side of the tracks, so people looking to switch to lines to points beyond would need to cross to the other lot. In the future I may try switching to another line–hopefully the schedules match-up. Yesterday, I walked the 0.5 miles through downtown to the recently renovated library.
After collecting a book, I wandered about downtown for a bit. I would have popped into Jack’s Abby brewery for a pint, but I have plans to do so on Saturday. I then returned to the train station stop, found a space on the nearby bench, and waited for the next bus. My wait was much shorter this time and the bus cut its tardiness in half, arriving just six minutes behind schedule at 4:51pm. Four others boarded with me with nine total on board plus the driver.
On the way back to Ashland we made the request only stop at Bethany Health Care Center in Framingham. The route has a handful of these types of stops that require prospective passengers to call the MWRTA hotline to request a pick-up or ask the driver for a drop-off. The diversion added only a few minutes to the ride and soon enough we were back on 135.
Nearing the stop in downtown, one passenger disembarked in front of his house. As it turns out, the MWRTA operates on a system by which you can request the driver to stop anywhere along the route. You can also ask to be picked up anywhere along the route by flagging down the driver in a spot where it’s safe to stop. Soon after the bus stopped in downtown, I got off, and I road the few miles back to my parents’ house.
The system provides valuable connections between communities at a cheap price for those who do not own cars or drivers’s licenses, but the frequency and operating hours (M-F only and final service before 8pm on Route 5) are likely inadequate to convince people with cars to ride the buses. A further barrier to usage by casual riders are minimal markings at stops, which also lack bus shelters and route maps (aside from the intermodal station).
Still, the buses I road were clean, staffed by a professional driver, and, at least in the case of Route 5, it is direct with an easy connection to other bus lines and the commuter rail. Last mile connections are made easy by letting riders store bikes on the front of the bus (the MBTA does not permit bikes on rush hour trains). Interoperability with the big city’s transit card is an added bonus that I would not normally expect on an independently operated regional bus system.
While the MWRTA does not meet all the standards of a top-notch bus service, it matches the frequency of the buses I’ve taken in Charleston, SC, while beating the CARTA service by providing real-time bus tracking. It meets and often exceeds my expectations for a regional bus service in the suburbs. Still, as Framingham embraces its new identify as a city, I’m curious to see whether the MWRTA–or Framingham–begin offering new routes or more frequent service.