Regional Transportation Plan Meeting

About 20 people attended the public meeting organized by the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments this evening at Lowell City Hall on the current Regional Transportation Plan.  NMCOG is a regional transportation agency established by the state legislature.  Its district includes Lowell and most of the area towns.  The Regional Transportation Plan, which must be updated every four years, provides a blueprint for the expenditure of federal funds by area towns.  NMCOG also provides analytical and planning support to its member communities.

Tonight’s session began with a short presentation on the purpose of the RTP and then became a free-wheeling discussion among all present (which included City Councilor Corey Belanger).  There was also a significant contingent from UMass Lowell including Adam Baacke who was formerly Lowell’s Director of Planning and Development.

The Lowell Regional Transit Authority was a topic of discussion.  The LRTA is developing a cell phone app that will tell riders how long until the next bus arrives.  There will be a QR code (one of those square bar codes you see everywhere) on every bus stop.  By scanning that QR code, your phone will show how many minutes until the bus arrives based on a GPS transmitter onboard every bus.  LRTA hopes to have this product deployed by July 1, 2015 but that is not a firm date.

The decade or more old move of the bus hub to the Gallagher Terminal rather than the streets of downtown has had mixed results.  The travel time of buses from their maintenance/storage facility to the beginning of their routes was greatly shortened but there is a sense that removing the bus lines from downtown also removed some of the people who formerly shopped downtown so there is some interest in possibly making some modifications to the current structure without completely undoing it.

Other observations about the LRTA: its ridership has shifted towards suburbia over the past decade.  Back then, 80% of its riders were from Lowell; now that number is only 50%.  The LRTA has not yet shifted its downtown routes to account for the two way traffic implemented last summer.  In other words, the buses still go west on Merrimack and east on Market just as they did when that was the only choice.

The UMass Lowell representatives spoke about the benefits of closer cooperation between UMass Lowell transportation services and the LRTA.  Each day, there are 8000 trips individual trips aboard UML buses while the LRTA has just 6200.  No one was advocating a merger or abolition of one or the other.  Instead, there was a recognition that between the LRTA and UMass Lowell, there’s a lot of money being spent on transportation in Lowell and that the load could be better balanced to benefit all involved.

Walkability and bikeability were both of great interest to most of those present.  The planners said that while they have ample data about vehicle traffic, there is almost no data about walking trips or biking trips and that tends to skew the planning process towards motor vehicles.  There was also much talk about the interaction of pedestrians and motor vehicles at intersections which, based on the experience of all who spoke on this topic, is decidedly against safety for pedestrians trying to get across the street.

As for the general topic of walkability, Adam Baacke offered some useful observations: he said don’t think of sidewalks or crosswalks in isolation.  Instead, identify the places someone wants to go to and where they are coming from and figure out the best walking route to get them there.

Many other things were discussed – better layout of bike lanes, how people in wheelchairs also benefit from bike lanes and face daily hazards from sidewalks in disrepair are a couple of examples.

While this evening’s event did not have as its primary purpose discussing Lowell’s walkability, that became much of the discussion with very positive results.  There was a lot of energy and interest in the room.  It was an example of how people who believe that Lowell will benefit from become more biker and walker friendly should seize every opportunity to discuss and promote those objectives.

5 Responses to Regional Transportation Plan Meeting

  1. Paul Early says:


    I too think that this meeting will facilitate the city to encourage and construct amenities for different modes of transportation. By and large, I think that the meeting was quite positive, although I believe that the NMCOG and LRTA people were note quite prepared to respond to the type of questions and debate that transpired there. Hopefully, the debate that happened will encourage employees/members of the LRTA and NMCOG to be more receptive to alternative transportation options. The one message that I wished I had thought to raise, is one that you had earlier mentioned, namely that drivers should not see pedestrians, cyclists and buses as the enemies, but as co-travelers who are not taking up auto space on the streets.

    I think that it is important to discuss and explore the possible reasons for the shift in LRTA ridership to the suburbs. I was not very satisfied with the response that the decline that you indicated might be due to the data collection methods. The change he mentioned happened once, perhaps over a year. I believe more likely scenarios are increased transfer/layover times, decreased schedules, and erratic schedules (schedules that are not met)

    It seems to me that their is a disconnect between the ridership of the train (which is not all that affordable for many who are compelled to ride the LRTA) and the fact that all buses lead to the train station. I frequently ride the bus on Saturdays and occasionally on weekdays. I find that when I do ride it with my kids, that it often would have been faster to have walked. I have also experience variability in bus schedules.

    I am not impressed with the discussion about an App to tell me when the next bus is due at my stop. It is a nice feature, but I would rather have a bus that gets me to my destination ON TIME (so that I either catch my train or so that I get to my job/date/event on time) and with a service that is frequent enough so that I can more easily make timely transfers which are forced by the fact that there are no crosstown buses. I find this to be horrific. The LRTA also seems not responsive to the needs of reverse commuters. They dead head empty buses out to the suburbs from Lowell and then start to pick up people coming back into the city.

    I hear rumblings about the problems at the T and even that some representatives and senators decided to ride that MBTA. Home many from our Lowell delegation or from the City Council have ridden the LRTA (other than the downtown shuttle) lately.

    I am a new comer to Lowell and am not sure what the history of the LRTA and bus service is in the city. I have heard from people whose families are multi-generational Lowellians that the bus service used to be much better in the distant past, e.g. 1980s. I wonder whether the creation on the LRTA may have caused problems for Lowell. When I look at the list of the Advisory Board for the LRTA, I notice that 13 of the 15 members represent suburban communities and I am not sure where the ADA representative is from. The board seems to be modeled on the US senate rather than on the house of representatives in that its representation is not proportional to population.

  2. Marianne says:

    I am really sorry I missed this meeting, it sounds like there was a lot of interesting discussions.

    My main forms of transportation are biking, taking the bus, and walking. While I normally commute by bike year-round, this year’s cold and snowfall has had me taking the bus most of the time.

    Due to a number of factors that I won’t bore you with, taking the bus works pretty well for me to get to and home from work on a daily basis. Where the bus fails me is in giving me options to do other things like go out/shop/visit local friends.

    The LRTA’s evening and weekend service, while improved, is still atrocious. I can maybe do something after work and get home on the bus, but only if it goes no later than 7:00 pm. That’s on a weekday. On a weekend, if I want to take the bus downtown, I have to be mindful of the fact that the bus runs hourly on Saturday but stops running before 6::00pm, and not at all on Sunday, and plan accordingly. It is always more convenient for me to bike, walk, or drive

    I would find it impossible to do the things that I want and need to do if the LRTA were my only option for transportation, which I think is a bit ridiculous. I also think it’s crazy that the Gallagher Terminal is the bus hub and that there are no crosstown routes. When the bus terminal was downtown, I would always incorporate little errands into my bus commute or do some browsing while I was waiting for the bus. The downtown shuttle just seems to me like an extra bit of unnecessary inconvenience that keeps people from considering taking the bus, especially because if you miss a transfer, it can potentially add an extra half-hour to your trip.

    I wonder if the reason for the large number of suburban trips are due to the fact hat most grocery/big box stores are not located in Lowell. If you’re visiting Drum Hill it’s a suburban route, as is Stadium Plaza.

    I’m both interested in and skeptical of this app idea. The LRTA website is atrocious and I would probably prefer a website that was functional and cohesion with Google Maps to an app. I take a bus that has a snow route and many days this winter had me calling the LRTA dispatcher to find out if a snow route was in place (because the info wasn’t always on the website) and hoping that the driver remembered to take the snow route because I wait at a different spot for the snow route. I know the drivers are only human and must get in the habit of driving certain routes, but being stuck at a bus stop in the snow with a route that runs every half-hour is not good service.

    I am really happy that these transportation discussions are considering people who don’t travel by car and use transit, a bike, or their feet to get around and I hope we see some concrete improvements come out of these discussions.

  3. Paul Early says:

    Marianne, I was at the meeting and the impression I had was that the increases in suburban ridership was not just to stores, like Market Basket, Walmart or Hannafords, but to places like Westford. I may be wrong on this, but I remember thinking just as you were when this issue was raised. I think that your point is important one and that aspect of the ridership numbers should be investigated. With that being said, I seem to remember that the LRTA has been increasing their suburban service to places like Westford, Littleton and Burlington.

    I agree with your assessment of the LRTA website it is not very good and a Google Map linked app would be much better. But, knowing where a bus is, only helps for the immediate situation as a rider. Bus riders, using the service for word should have reliable on time service. When the bus comes 5 minutes early or 10-15 minutes late this causes problems that an app will not fix. The app seems like a lollipop or pacifier to me (I would choose the lollipop over the app in this situation). Buses that are not on time create problems for transfers and layovers, especially in our situation where there is no service through Gallagher and when service is so infrequent. This lack of timeliness also causes problems for arriving at your destination on time. I can overlook a 5 minute delay, but a bus that comes too early is a different animal. The app will not help me if I am counting on the service and I miss my transfer. As you have pointed out it is not a transit service to rely on, if it is your service. Or I can not get back from or get to my destination, because the service has already ended or has not yet started when I need it.

    I encourage you and everyone to fill out the NMCOG Regional Transportation survey, if you have not already done so. Dick has a link her on the site. There is a public transportation component to it.

  4. Gail says:

    In my experience, the Pawtucketville bus became too unreliable going home, after the staging moved from downtown, that I went back to driving [and I could get a bus pass voucher for free from my employer]. I would call the LRTA dispatch to find out when the next outbound Pawtucketville bus could be expected, usually 10 to 15 minutes after it was supposed to have been at the stop I was at. Since it was still the inbound Belevidere bus, they couldn’t answer my question. An app might take pressure off of dispatch, but I do not think it is likely to be any more accurate with [I am afraid I have forgotten the term cross link(?)] buses that are on more than one route. The routes also need to have more realistic times built into them. Regardless of the time of day, it supposedly takes the bus 5 minutes from it’s Gallagher departure to get to city hall or from city hall to Gallagher; and 2 minutes from UMASS Lowell North Campus to city hall. They also need a crawl on their website or some other type of notification when there is a major delay or they take all of the buses off of their routes. Several years ago, due to snow, my office closed early. Before I left I checked the bus schedule on line and called to see if the buses were running on time, and I was told yes. I waited for over two hours for the bus. I was told it was announced on WCAP. I work in an office with cubicles, we aren’t allowed to play a radio or stream on-line media. I was dressed for winter, but I was soaked through. Based upon the plan, I was to have taken the downtown shuttle, but I would often need to wait more than 30 minutes, for the bus that supposedly came every 10 minutes, and then I would miss my bus, which added an hour to my evening commute (of 2 miles). When it left from in front of CVS, I had 2 streets to cross, and I could plan on an 8 minute walk from my office, wait a couple of minutes, and then I would be home in about 10 minutes. I think a lot of people would shop while waiting for their bus, especially if they were transferring. Now that I have to walk further and cross more intersections the walk-time is less predictable. When you have to run to catch a bus and then wait 30 minutes, for a bus that is supposed to run every 30 minutes enough times and you do have other options, you stop taking unreliable public transportation.