Event Recap: Shaping the Post-Pandemic Commute, Together

WRITTEN BY Caitlin Allen-Connelly, Project Director & Noah Jacobson,  INtern, WILLIAMS COLLEGE '22 | July 12th, 2021 | SLIDES

On July 12th, A Better City hosted a joint panel event with leaders from member companies and from the MBTA and Keolis to work together towards better post-pandemic public transportation. Richard Dimino, President and CEO of A Better City, welcomed the audience of approximately 40 members and partners, followed by Steve Poftak, General Manager at the MBTA, who gave a brief introduction and update on the T. The General Manager emphasized that the post-pandemic commute already looks different from pre-pandemic and during-pandemic trends and will continue to change. He stressed the importance of working with providers like Keolis to discuss new work schedules in the post-pandemic world.

Session I: Public transit for the new normal

Caitlin Allen-Connelly, Project Director, A Better City, moderated the first session: Public Transit for the New Normal. Participants heard from five MBTA/Keolis leaders on MBTA employer survey results, service levels, fare products, Regional Rail schedules, and the Ride Safer and We’re Ready public outreach campaigns.

The Post-pandemic commute

Anna Gartsman, Director of Strategic Research for the Office of Performance Management and Innovation at the MBTA, presented data from various MBTA modes, including buses, subway, and Commuter Rail, to illustrate the new post-pandemic trends in ridership.

  • New Trends – Buses have been the most resilient mode as commuters have returned to work. The subway has varied in ridership comparatively, while the Commuter Rail saw substantial increases in usage after service changes in early April. Most of all, travel on the T is less strictly adherent to a 9-5 schedule, with flatter, broader peaks at the beginning and end of the workday.
  • Trips vs Riders – Riders are coming back faster than rides, meaning that while more people have returned to public transportation use, the average person is taking fewer trips on public transportation, further illustrating the post-pandemic changes to commuting.
  • Employer and Employee Panel Results – 45% of employers surveyed expect a return to work between May and August 2021, while 45% expect to return to work in September 2021. 10% expected a return to work after September 2021. This timing varied by industry, with high-tech companies in technology and engineering already returning while more traditional companies in finance and law are more likely to return to work in September. The Panel results can be found at this link.
  • Telework is Here to Stay – 65-80% of employers have reported that they plan for or expect some level of regular telework in the new normal.

MBTA Service Expectations

Wes Edwards, Assistant General Manager of Service Planning and Schedules at the MBTA, presented on expectations for service post-pandemic on MBTA routes, including frequency, bus network redesign, and other post-pandemic changes to the MBTA. Wes said that the MBTA expects to operate approximately 93% of pre-pandemic bus service hours. All major changes to bus routes and service are planned to start on August 29th.

  • Changes to Buses – The MBTA is exploring increased service on local bus routes as an alternative to express routes. In addition, buses are currently running higher levels of service than pre-covid on certain “durable routes” that continued to have high usage throughout the pandemic. Limited service is being restored to bus routes that stranded riders as a result of service cuts.
  • Rapid Transit Lines – The Red and Orange lines have returned to Winter 2021 frequency levels with shifted peak service to match new post-pandemic trends. The Blue line has also returned to Winter 2021 levels, while the Green line is continuing to increase frequency towards Winter 2020 levels.
  • Bus Lane Expansion – Since 2015, over 11 Bus Lane Miles have been added, representing an over 5x increase over those 6 years. Continued bus lane expansion is expected.
  • Bus Network Redesign – The MBTA is working to find ways to make transit better for modern population centers and movement trends. Existing bus routes and networks are decades old and could potentially be optimized with new network redesigning. The MBTA is currently looking into better bus network designs.

Employer-Coordinated Commute Plans

Carmel Levy, Manager of Sales Transformation at the MBTA, and Elizabeth Winters Ronaldson, Senior Director of Commercial Strategic Partnerships at the MBTA, presented on Perq and other employer-side commute options and changes. Carmel spoke on the importance of employer policies, such as transit benefits and worksite parking, which can influence public transit use and reduce congestion and CO2 emissions. Related to  Perq, the sales channel for employers to buy transit passes for employees, and how important the system is for encouraging public transit use. 

COVID safety measures and service flexibility

Justin Thompson, Senior Manager of Public Relations and Government Affairs at Keolis, presented on the flexibility of post-pandemic Commuter Rail service and on COVID-19 safety measures that have been and will continue to be used to ensure a safe passenger experience.

  • COVID-19 Safety Measures on the Commuter Rail – Justin outlined the extensive safety measures taken on Commuter Rail cars, including regular deep cleaning, workforce protection and sick days for staff, social distancing of passengers, constant air flow to replace interior air, and contactless ticket verification. Emphasizing that this was the new standard, not a relic of the early pandemic months, and that even more cleaning procedures would be implemented in the near future.
  • Service Flexibility – Commuter Rail will offer more service, expanding hours to 11pm on weeknights and adding earlier options for weekend shift workers. All trains will continue to be evenly spaced on consistent schedules all day. Access has been prioritized for essential workers and transit-critical communities. Schedule and service changes specific to each Commuter Rail line have been implemented and can be read about at com/commuterrail, and more information on Keolis’ commitment to flexible service can be found at keoliscs.com/returntowork.

MBTA Public Outreach campaigns

Andrew Cassidy, Director of Social Media at the MBTA, presented on upcoming social media campaigns, including safety, tourism, and commute marketing materials. Ride Safer 3.0 launched in June with a focus on showing riders what the MBTA is doing to make their trips safe. There are several posters, signs, and billboards ensuring riders of all CDC compliance measures and additional safety measures the MBTA is taking on all routes. We’re Ready Phase 1 launched this July, encouraging tourism to many of Boston’s landmarks, including Fenway Park on the Green line, historical sites on the Orange line, and beaches on the Blue line. We’re Ready Phase 2 will launch in August as students return to school and employees return to work.

Session II & III Employer Policies and Public Transit Concerns for Workplace Return & Moving Forward, Together

Scott Mullen, Transportation Demand Management Director at A Better City, moderated sessions II & II, which included comments from A Better City companies as well general Q&A on MBTA/Keolis presentations and employer public transit needs.

Q&A and member comments

Rick Dimino asked the first question: What sorts of flexible fares or promotional fares can we expect to see this fall, particularly in September after the 5-day Flex Pass sunsets?

  • Elizabeth Winters Ronaldson: All traditional fare products will be offered in September. The MBTA is currently looking into flexible fares for the future, and welcomes feedback and suggestions. The 5-day Flex Pass continues to be an important factor in designing future fare products, but it will sunset on September 15, 2021.

Diane D’Arrigo, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Campus Services at UMASS Boston, asked the next question and offered insight into UMASS Boston’s post-pandemic format expectations: UMASS Boston will be minimally remote, and is looking forward to pre-pandemic service levels. Are there marketing materials on safety that can be distributed to staff, faculty, and students?  Also, can Keolis take a look at adding more service at the JFK station for students?  Currently, riders pass the JFK stop and transfer at South Station to a red line train to then come back, which could be avoided.

Guido Costa, Senior Facilities Manager at Putnam Investments, asked the next question: What flexible fare options will be available, and where can additional safety and cleaning information be found?

  • Steve Poftak produced the links above and discussed the timeline for pilots and emergency programs with respect to Title VI equity evaluations, which have dictated the mid-September end date for the 5-day Flex Pass.

Peter See, Senior Vice President of Property Management at Boston Properties, offered his thoughts on post-pandemic commute trends, saying that most Boston Properties buildings are at approximately 24% occupancy, with hopes for 75% later in the Fall. This past January occupancy was as low as 10% according to See.

Danny Levy, Chief Customer Officer at the MBTA, asked the next question, directed at A Better City members: Are there any clear cut decisions on return to work or return to campus timing yet?

  • William Hajjar (Boston University): August 9th staff can return to campus, with a larger influx expected late August and after Labor Day. Most if not all participation will be in person.
  • Glenn Haskell (New Balance): New Balance will return to work September 13, and is moving forward primarily remote.
  • Chris Maher (TD Garden): 65 concerts, along with the full slate of Bruins and Celtics upcoming this next year, with the addition of NCAA frozen court next year and a big tennis event this September, the Labor Cup.


Key links:

MBTA Ride Safer




Keolis Commuter Rail




MBTA Employer Survey


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