Future MTA: Imagining a better bus system for Manchester

Manchester’s red, white and blue MTA buses with the iconic MTA logo.

If you’ve ever ridden the MBTA, known as the “T”, in Boston, you’re probably aware of its strengths–frequent and relatively cheap service, coverage of most of Boston and Cambridge’s densest neighborhoods and biggest sites, reasonable hours from early morning until late at night 365 days a year.

You’re probably also aware of some of its weaknesses, not least of which is its hub-and-spoke subway system–to get from Allston to Harvard Square by car or bike, you can simply cross a short bridge over the Charles River; to get there by subway, you’d have to take a Green Line trolley 3 1/2 miles into the heart of Boston, and switch to the Red Line for another 3 1/2 miles back out to Harvard Square.

For the past few years, FutureMBTA has compiled maps–of actual proposals and imagined ones–that show ways to improve the T system.

LivableMHT began after an initial, imagined proposal for a streetcar system in the Queen City, and we’ve been glad to see the MTA making big improvements within its modest budget, such as the free Green DASH bus, which follows a loop similar to the heart of our streetcar proposal. And a few months ago, we thought about some improvements that could be made to the current MTA system.

All that got us thinking–why not imagine a Future MTA–what would an ideal, but still realistic MTA bus system look like?

Burlington, VT’s handsome CCTA buses run more frequently and more extensive in a city barely a third the size of Manchester.

Portland and Burlington–the largest cities in Maine and Vermont–combined have fewer residents than Manchester. They are both farther from other mid-sized cities, such as Nashua, and major urban centers like Metro Boston. Yet, they both have more extensive transit systems, with longer hours and more frequent service. Burlington’s CCTA bus system is also cheaper to ride than the MTA and Portland’s METRO.

Based on experience using those systems, as well as the MTA and the T, LivableMHT has drawn up an imagined bus system that we think Manchester could support if it was funded more like the bus systems in Portland and Burlington.

Future MTA

LivableMHT’s Future MTA system takes the existing MTA bus system, and expands on it–adding a handful of routes; reducing the number of looping, one-way routes; realigning some routes to serve major corridors, neighborhood centers, and employment, residential and cultural centers.

It also realigns some routes to share major corridors, such as Kelley Street, Webster Street, Maple and Beech Street, among others, so that service between these areas and downtown, the Mall of New Hampshire and other major points, is more frequent.

Burlington, VT is planning a new transit hub downtown–Manchester should do the same.

Future MTA also extends some lines further into the neighboring suburbs of Bedford and Hooksett, which would require those towns to contribute to funding the MTA. It imagines more frequent service, especially during peak commuting hours, and longer service seven days a week.

It envisions an enhanced transit hub on the site of the old Union Station, in the Gaslight District between the Verizon Wireless Arena and Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. This hub, which we’re calling simply Manchester Station, would be served by all MTA lines (and the terminus of all but two of them), as well as intercity bus lines and commuter rail to Boston, Nashua and Concord, and potentially Amtrak service all the way to Montreal.

Giving buses the right-of-way

Part of Future MTA’s vision of a better bus system is a number of bus priority corridors, which are highlighted in yellow on the map below. These are streets that multiple routes would share, so that service to major points and from dense neighborhoods would be more frequent. These currently exist to some extent on Elm Street, as well as McGregor Street and South Willow Street. But Future MTA envisions much more frequent service along these corridors, and possibly even bus-only lanes on some of the busiest.

One such bus priority corridor could be Bridge Street between Elm and Maple Streets, which is currently one lane in either direction with parallel parking on both sides, and which Future MTA envisions hosting five bus routes. It’s an important street with many small businesses and even more residents living nearby, but it’s also pretty congested during rush hour. So Future MTA would recommend considering restricting parallel parking during peak hours: instead of parallel parking on the westbound side of the street, there could be a bus-only lane during the morning commuting hours. Then, after 9am or 10am or so, the parallel parking would be available and the buses would travel in the regular lanes. Parallel parking on the eastbound side, then, would be used as a bus-only lane during the evening commute.

This sort of infrastructure improvement, which would cost almost no money, would make buses more reliable and hopefully attract new riders. Other bus priority corridors, like Kelley Street, much of Maple and Beech Streets, Valley Street and South Willow Street, wouldn’t need new traffic patterns–just modest infrastructure improvements: more signage and bus shelters to serve more routes, and inevitably more riders.

Future MTA routes

LivableMHT’s vision for a Future MTA system. (Click to expand)

So let’s look at the Future MTA routes:

  • Route 1 maintains the existing Green DASH service, extending it slightly to serve Manchester Station and the Gaslight District, as well as the Arena. It could possibly also serve the ballpark during games and events there. The Green DASH would continue to be free, maintain the most frequent service–10 minutes peak, 20 minutes off-peak–and serve as the heart of the system, and serve downtown workers and residents by day, and extend into the evening to serve diners, bar-goers and residents downtown.
  • Route 2 would continue the new Health Care Shuttle, running clockwise up Bridge Street to the VA Medical Center, then down Mammoth Road to the Elliot Hospital, and back along Valley Street, serving health care facilities and neighborhoods along the way.
  • Route 3 would continue to the run between the Airport and downtown, serving Bakersville, the Highlands and Brown Ave.
  • Every other run of the Route 3 on weekdays would be the Route 3X, which would extend past the Airport to Harvey Road and Stonyfield.
  • Route 4 would be one of two crosstown buses, running along Elm Street between Rivers Edge and North Side Plaza, stopping at the Manchester Station transit hub along the way.
  • Every other run of the Route 4 on weekdays and Saturdays would be the Route 4X, which would extend past North Side Plaza to the Ocean State Job Lot plaza in East Hooksett.
  • Route 5 would continue to serve SNHU, but would improve service through the North End, and would link the Currier, NHIA, City Library, Victory Park, Palace Theatre and other East Side cultural institutions along Hanover, Amherst, Maple and Beech Streets, creating a more cohesive Cultural District.
  • Route 6 would vastly improve service on the West Side, running down Kelley Street, and connecting St. Anselm with downtown.
  • Route 6A would alternate along with Route 6 to provide frequent service along Kelley Street, but would also serve Pinardville, as well as Main and McGregor Streets and Granite Square on the West Side.
  • Route 7 would also serve St. Anselm and Granite Square, as well as South Main and Milford Streets.
  • Route 8 would continue to run between the Mall of NH and downtown, but would now also link to Rivers Edge along southern Elm Street, then crossing Queen City Ave to South Willow Street.
  • Route 9 would run along Hanover Street to Industrial Park Drive, returning along Candia Road to Mammoth Road and back to Hanover Street. This would improve service along one of the East Side’s major east-west corridor, and would run along Bridge Street, another major east-west corridor, between Elm and Maple Streets.
  • Route 10 would between the Mall of NH and downtown, running along Bridge Street to Maple and Beech Streets, then connecting to the Hollow, and continuing down to Valley Street, where it would connect to major retailers, Gill Stadium and the new Municipal Complex. From there, it would run along Somerville and Jewett Streets, through the heart of the Somerville and South End neighborhoods, to South Willow Street.
  • Route 10A would alternate along with Route 10 to provide frequent service along most of the same route, but instead of taking Somerville and Jewett Streets, the 10A would continue along Maple and Beech Streets to South Willow Street.
  • Route 11 would continue service along northern Elm Street and Front Street, but would extend service slightly further into West Hooksett to the many major retailers in that area.
  • Route 12 would be the second of two crosstown buses, running between the Bedford Hills development, under construction at Routes 101 & 114, and Elliot Hospital. Along the way, it would serve Boynton Street, Granite Square and Manchester Station, before beginning a loop along Valley Street to the Elliot, and back through the Hollow along Lake Ave.
  • Route 13 would restore service from downtown via Second Street, to Bedford Highlands retail center via South River Road and the Bedford Mall. This would be in keeping with the Bedford Planning Board’s commitment to attracting transit-oriented, mixed-use development in the area, but would require Bedford to restore funding for the MTA.
  • Every other run of the Route 13 on weekdays would be the Route 13X, which would extend past Bedford Highlands to Airport via South River Road and the new Raymond Wieczorek Drive.

Future MTA service could also include express routes to Nashua, Concord and Derry, connecting to the local bus systems there. Ideally, though, that service would be provided by a larger express bus system run by the state or the three counties of southeastern New Hampshire: Hillsborough, Merrimack and Rockingham Counties.

We’ve imagined a cooperative transit alliance–like COAST, which serves Portsmouth, Dover and several other towns in the Seacoast–that would provide express commuter bus service between Manchester, Nashua, Concord, Salem, Portsmouth and points in between, with a hub at Manchester Station. We’re calling it TriCAT, the Tri-County Alliance for Transit, and you can take a look at the envisioned routes and stops on Google.

Longer hours and more frequent service

Currently, most MTA buses run every hour. The notable exception is the Green DASH, which has much more frequent service–every 10 minutes during the morning, lunch and evening peak hours, and every 20 minutes in between. Future MTA envisions taking that approach to peak and off-peak service to create more frequent services during the times that people actually use transit most.

And service needs to be frequent enough that people will find it convenient and use it. A bus every hour will never attract someone looking for flexibility, who can choose to drive. So Future MTA imagines bus service along major routes, and to and from dense neighborhoods, employment centers, retail areas and other major destinations at least every 20-30 minutes during peak hours.

Future MTA envisions service at least every 15 minutes during peak hours along all bus priority corridors, which are highlighted in yellow on the map above. In some cases, this means that routes would have to run that frequently, but if routes share major corridors, this frequency can be accomplished by staggering multiple routes. For example, the 6 and 6A could each come every 30 minutes, but staggered so that a bus would travel down Kelley Street to and from downtown every 15 minutes during peak hours.

LivableMHT’s vision for a Future MTA schedule. (Click to expand)

Future MTA also imagines finally extending limited service into the evenings, especially on the weekend, and Sundays. Not all routes would need to run during theses times, and those that do could run at reduced frequency, but people should still be able to get a bus from city center neighborhoods to downtown, South Willow Street or the airport on Sundays and evenings. And students at SNHU and St. Anselm, as well as city residents, should be able to have dinner and drinks downtown without worrying about driving afterward.

LivableMHT’s vision for evening and Sunday bus service. (Click to expand)

Getting there

An improved transit system, like the one imagined in Future MTA, would almost certainly lead to significantly higher ridership numbers, and would certainly better serve the people of Manchester. More frequent, direct and convenient bus service would be able to attract regular and occasional users who currently drive, and it would be more convenient for those who rely on buses to get around. It would make Manchester a more vibrant, livable and better-connected place for families, students, visitors, senior citizens and immigrants. And as New Hampshire continues to lose young people to neighboring states and cities, a better transit system would help Manchester attract young people and families looking for an urban alternative to the suburbs and expensive cities like Boston.

But it would probably take time to build a system like Future MTA and TriCAT. It would probably make sense to implement a better transit system slowly, starting with realigning and increasing frequency on some key routes, like Routes 5, 6, 8 and 10 envisioned in Future MTA. Those routes serve dense neighborhoods, cultural institutions, museums and colleges, and major employment and shopping districts. Extending the GreenDASH and a few key routes to Saturday and weekend evenings would also help. From there, the MTA could gradually expand, extend hours and increase frequency until it reached something like what we’ve envisioned with Future MTA.

Manchester needs to build on the recent success of the Green DASH and invest in a better MTA. – Photo from the MTA

Obviously, a better transit system would cost more money. Higher ridership and corporate sponsorship would offset some of the costs, but the MTA would still need additional funding. With Manchester’s tax cap, very weak county governments, New Hampshire’s reliance on property taxes, and a state constitutional provision prohibiting use of the gas tax for transit funding, it’s hard to envision a better transit system without some changes. But New Hampshire and Manchester need to invest in things like better transit–not to mention infrastructure in general, as well as education–if it wants to attract and retain the businesses, young people, visitors and students who are increasingly looking to locate in small and mid-sized cities.

And promoting transit use would free up more land for buildings, which are more valuable and earn the city more property taxes than parking lots. Speaking of which, one option for increasing funding could be something along the lines of a fee-in-lieu-of-parking for developers in Portland, Maine. There, developers can choose to build less parking than is required by zoning, and instead dedicate money to a transit fund, allowing developers to make more money on buildings and providing the city with transit funding.

So, would you be willing to pay slightly more in taxes or fees if it meant better services, like transit, that would save you money on auto maintenance and gas? What do you think of Future MTA–do you think it would adequately serve your neighborhood? Would it get you from your house or apartment to where you work, study and shop? If you currently drive, would you consider taking the bus if the system looked more like Future MTA? Do you have ideas of your own to improve transit locally? What would your idealized Future MTA look like?


8 thoughts on “Future MTA: Imagining a better bus system for Manchester

  1. Riders have been trying to improve the system for years but there is no interest from the top down, or at least there hasn’t been, for as long as I’ve been trying to use the bus system. if there’s some now that would be a lovely change.

    But take the Green Dash – I’m a primary target for it, I have no car and I work in the Millyard and I like to shop and lunch around downtown, and I’m getting older and my knees are getting stiffer. I’ve ridden the Green Dash exactly 2x because the stops aren’t marked, trying to catch it is like catching a moving train, and it’s horribly inconvenient to get up and down from, the steps are extremely steep and it doesn’t kneel. It’s less of a pain to walk, or to bike, the same distance, than to hope you can catch it when you need it on a limited lunch break and actually get to where you need to be in time.

    So the GD runs around 99% empty on all of its runs, even on days when you can fry an egg on the sidewalk. One huge thing they could do to make free shuttles more attractive, is use the Trolley buses for them. Everyone loves the Thursday art tour trolleys! They make you want to get on them and just ride around for fun. Another thing they could do for the regular system (aside from fixing the routes instead of breaking them worse every time they tinker with them — how come the areas with least vehicle ownership and most senior citizens are the worst served?) is to do what every other metro system that functions does, and put up schedules at *well-posted* stops. You can get around in places where you don’t even speak the language, without getting lost, if they do that.

    I’ve ridden buses in multiple states, in multiple countries, and Manchester’s is far and away the worst I’ve ever dealt with. But no one in the administration there (the drivers are not at fault, at all) has ever been interested in copying the things that work, and work well, across the country/world. I do far more shopping online, even for basic household things, because it’s such a nightmare to try to wrangle groceries etc from ANY shopping center to the West Side via the MTA. (It’s actually easier & cheaper to go shopping on S. Willow than in Pinardville, via the bus!) And the short hours mean that it’s not reliable transport for most of us who commute, since not everyone can count on getting out of work at 5 on the dot even if they’re not working a later shift.

    Anyway, rant over. If they ever decide to make it a viable system again — I try not to read about NH public transport, both inter and intra-city, back before WWII, because it will just make you furious that we had such an excellent functioning system that you could take a streetcar back and forth to Derry, for instance, at reasonable rates — I will be delighted, but I’m not getting my hopes up again. The excuses I have gotten for why not taking the models of, say, Santa Barbara, for improving rideability have been too stupid to be believed.

  2. FYI, Bedford already does pay into the system, that’s why there are buses to the Bedford Mall and Target; Hooksett doesn’t, which is why it’s impossible to go to a movie in the theaters if you don’t have a car and live in the Queen City, something that our 1920s predecessors would find absolutely incredible, beyond belief altogether!

    1. JMB, Bedford actually stopped funding the MTA a few years ago. The MTA continued service to Bedford Highlands (Target) for a year or two after Bedford cut its funding, I believe, but had to cut that service due to the city’s budget cuts last year. As Will pointed out below, the Green DASH stops are now signed (which I agree is very important for visibility as well as user-friendliness), and route numbers have been added to all bus stop signs. These are small, but as you point out, important steps.

      I agree with most of your criticism, and of course the MTA is far from perfect, but in my experience the problems are usually out of control of the transit agency. For instance, people in Boston complain about the T a lot, but they should really be complaining to their legislators, who cut funding for the T while transferring much of the Big Dig debt to the agency. The same is true of the MTA–they can make some improvements, like improving signage and hopefully adding maps/schedules to some stops, but they’re working within a very limited budget.

      You may already be doing this, but the people to really take these issues up with are the mayor, aldermen and state legislators. They control the funding that transit agencies get, and so they’ll determine how much money the MTA has to spend on buses (my understanding is that the MTA purchased the buses for the Green DASH based on cost), and whether it can expand and extend service, let alone improve signage in a big way.

      But with the addition of the Green DASH, maintenance of most routes despite big budget cuts, a much improved website, better signage, the summer trip to Hampton Beach and the upcoming trip to the Deerfield Fair, I think the MTA deserves a good deal of credit for the improvements it’s made despite a shrinking budget. That’s not to say that the current system isn’t frustrating, or that the MTA doesn’t deserve criticism at times, or that we shouldn’t give them constructive feedback, but as is often the case, the real obstacle to improvement is somewhere higher than the MTA administration.

      I’d love to see a vastly improved MTA system, and getting there will require riders (and potential riders) to continue to work with and push the MTA and public officials. I hope this post will add to that discussion. And in laying out the imagined Future MTA, we tried to address many of the criticism that you expressed–and that we share. Transit should be concentrated (and much more frequent and direct) in the densely populated parts of the city, as well as along select major roads–South Willow St, South River Rd, Candia Rd, etc–outside that area. And buses should run late enough and frequently enough to comfortably get people home from work, not to mention a drink or meal after work if they want. More stylish buses might help get people on-board, too, like you mentioned. Of course, to get there, public transit must be much better funded at the state and local level.

      1. Unfortunately the route #s on the signs don’t help unless you a) have the routes already memorized, b) have a copy of the schedule handy. If you don’t have either — as most tourists and business travelers won’t, and frankly 99% of us locals either — then the #s don’t help any. It would be REALLY interesting to see what would happen today if a similar event to the Hippo’s “MTA scavenger hunt” contest was held again (iirc it was done in 2006), making it a challenge to accomplish various destinations sans car within the time limit…not sure what the prizes should be but I’m sure InTown could come up with something fun.

        The way they did it in Santa Barbara when I was there back in 2000 was to have a three-sided bright red metal lock-box at eye-level around the streetlight post (all the stops thus being well lighted!) that held cards with all the stops and times, and each stop was listed by street/intersection. So you could fairly easily tell where you were and where you needed to go, although it could have been improved since you needed a street map to make best use of it. It also ran until 7pm which made it valuable for people who don’t get off at 5.

        The way they did it in Rome in 1996, the stop was marked with its own LARGE streetpost, visible on both sides from over a block away (one problem as a pedestrian in Manch-Vegas is it’s easy to miss stops until the bus has already gone by, and I have yet to notice the Green Dash signs, though I walk/bike Elm/Canal/Commercial almost every day) and there was an actual list of the next 5 stops, in letters the size of our street signs under it, so you could see several stops out & also know if this was the line you needed to be on and if you were going in the wrong direction, even if you couldn’t speak Italian to ask the conductor. (The stops weren’t just streets either, but also landmarks and other important destinations.) There were other things that weren’t ideal, such as the fact that the bus ticket concession was held by local convenience stores & you had to buy them there, but as far as getting around as a visitor it worked really well.

        (Apparently the public transport system in Northampton MA is excellent as well, linking all the surrounding towns and being viable for commuting to & from work, but I’ve never used it myself, so can only report second-hand on this. But everyone I’ve spoken with who’s used it has nothing but praise for it. I also understand that Dallas TX has a terrible one, but I can’t say, since the last time I was there, nobody, not even the resident college students, could find a stop OR a schedule…)

        Of course the gold standard is Boston, (or London) with the route maps at just about stop, and when I asked why Manchester didn’t do this, I was told they’d tried taping (!) the paper route maps (!!) to the shelter walls (!!!) but people kept tearing them down and taking them….well, uh, yeah! Of course you need a lock box or a weatherproof bolted sign, the way that every other place with a “You are here” sign from shopping malls to the T have to do. And yes, it does cost money – but does it cost more than the “usability studies” that have been done which always leave the MTA less usable than before, or for that matter, running buses around 90% empty? I suspect not.

  3. Great post, Michael! With regard to jmb’s comments above vis a vis signage, I will note Green DASH stops are now signed. Also, a lot of new regular MTA bus stop signs have been erected in recent weeks. And, all MTA regular service signs now include route numbers indicating what buses stop there: http://ow.ly/i/TADz

    1. Thanks for pointing out those improvements, Will. I noticed them, too, and meant to point them out but forgot. Obviously, more frequent and direct bus routes, plus longer hours, would be a huge improvement, but the signage improvements and the like that the MTA has been doing recently are important improvements that don’t cost a lot of money. Adding maps and schedules at some bus stops (and all bus shelters) would be another low-budget improvement with a big impact.

  4. As someone contemplating a move from Boston to Manchester I read this with great interest. my biggest issues with the system as it is right now is first and foremost the limited operation times, and secondly the long time between buses. I love this proposal and yes would be willing to pay some additional tax or see a fare increase to make it possible.

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