The MBTA lags behind several peer agencies in its preparedness to minimize COVID-19 risks as public activity resumes, falling short in both long-term planning and mandating safe rider practices despite success in cleaning and workforce management, according to an analysis by a business-backed group.
Authors at A Better City compared the T to public transit systems in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. on a range of safety protocols. After assigning point values to represent how each agency fares on about two dozen different actions, they ranked the MBTA second-last among the group, topping only Washington's WMATA.
The group warned in a report last week that the gaps could exacerbate a trend of former public transit commuters turning to single-occupancy cars as they resume traveling for work.
"This anticipated mode shift to single occupancy vehicles will lead to crippling roadway congestion, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions that will disproportionately impact underserved communities and communities of color," the report read.
The report gave the MBTA a score of 14.5, which trailed New York City's MTA with 21, Chicago's CTA with 20, and both San Francisco's BART and Philadelphia'a SEPTA with 15 points each.
Researchers based scores for transit systems on steps that transit leaders had taken as of June 23, when Massachusetts was still in Phase 2, Step 2 of its reopening plan and the T had just days earlier expanded service beyond the low levels offered during the COVID outbreak's peak.
A Better City rated the MBTA's service restoration at that time as needing improvement compared to the five peer agencies, knocking the T for still not running a top-to-bottom full schedule and for not offering more express routes.
Ridership cratered on the T during the pandemic, dropping as low as 10 percent of standard crowds on subways and 20 percent on buses. Gov. Charlie Baker has urged people who can still work from home to continue to do so.
The T has seen more riders come back since late May. With Massachusetts now in the third phase of its plan, even more businesses once again are able to open their doors to customers and crowds could continue to grow.
The largest gaps the study cited between the T and other agencies came in broad planning and in physical distancing. All five peers have a comprehensive reopening plan in place, while ABC found that the MBTA's Ride Safer campaign falls short of that target.
Authors also criticized the T's approach to ensuring passengers are not too close together, which has emerged amid the pandemic as one of the best public health strategies available to limit the spread — particularly given the crowded conditions that are normally a feature on public transit.
According to the report, as of June 23, the T only pressed riders to stay a minimum of three feet apart and encouraged greater distance. All other agencies except SEPTA implemented six-feet requirements, while the MBTA lost points for not embracing policies to mark distances in stations and on vehicles.
The T's approach to face covering received a mixed review. MBTA officials said for weeks that they would encourage masks or face coverings for passengers but could not enforce the policy, but as part of the new safety campaign, they have made coverings available in some stations free of charge.
Amid those issues, ABC rated the MBTA as above average in cleaning and disinfecting and as achieving best practices for its workforce management by requiring rear-door boarding on surface vehicles, providing personal protective equipment to staff, and conducting regular health screenings.
"In terms of equity and economic vitality, the stakes for the Commonwealth have never been higher — and the MBTA must do everything in its power to ensure the health and safety of its operators and passengers and to facilitate the return of riders to the system," ABC authors wrote.