Monday, May 30, 2016

MVRTA: 53 (Newburyport Summer Shuttle)

Beach day! The MVRTA's seasonal services started this weekend, one of them being the 53 from Newburyport Station to Plum Island, via downtown Newburyport. Now in its second year of operation, the route is funded by the City of Newburyport, and (at least when I was on) it got hardly any riders! Maybe the ridership will get better as we get further into summer...

The bus in the station parking lot.
We even hit a bit of a snag before we could even get on the bus. Firstly, my friend Anna and I spent a while running around to actually find the stop for the summer shuttle. There was actually a decently-sized sign showing the stop in Lot A of the station, so that's on us. However, when we tried to get on the first bus that came into the station (simply signed as "Shuttle"), the driver told us he was only going downtown. Yes, it turns out the MVRTA runs a second route from the station to downtown, with its only indication of existence being this awful poster:

"Custom House Shuttle," huh? Well, I looked at the Custom House website, and THAT doesn't even give information on it!
Well, anyway, the Plum Island bus came soon after, and we got on. We headed up Boston Way, going by another lot for the station, then turned onto Parker Street, then Graf Road. The surroundings consisted entirely of random office and industrial parks, placed willy-nilly along the roads.

Welcome to beautiful Newburyport!
We then turned onto Low Street, leaving the industrial area and going through an intersection with Route 1. The road was now called Pond Street, and it had houses on one side and a park on the other. After a small shopping plaza, we turned onto Eppa Way, then High Street, going by a really nice pond on one side (part of the park that had bordered Pond Street).

Those are some big houses!
We then turned onto Green Street, which was lined with historic-looking houses and apartments. As we got closer to the water, businesses started to appear as well. We turned onto Merrimac Street for a block, then State Street, going right through downtown Newburyport.

A big pedestrian plaza.
You can normally flag down the shuttle wherever you want, but State Street is a "no stop zone." However, it does have one official stop right outside of the Newburyport Library with a strange sign saying "Bus Stop Only." A few people were waiting here, but when the driver asked if they were going to Plum Island, they said they weren't and stepped away from the bus. Thus, we continued to the end of State, where we turned onto High Street (again), which was lined with historic houses and trees.

This place is so nice!
After a few blocks, we turned onto Federal Street, going by more houses, as well as a church. Next, we swung onto Water Street, an intersection where there was a house from 1690! The street name was an accurate one, as we soon found ourselves right along the gigantic Merrimac River. On the other side of the road, there were huge houses that must be worth a fortune.

That's a river???
The road became Plum Island Turnpike, and we started to speed past empty fields. Then planes started appearing! Yes, apparently there's a small airport up here, and the road happened to go right by it! After the airport, it got a lot more marshy, with some great views across the grasses.

Those planes are so small...
In the distance, houses built on stilts over the marshes could be seen. The road then went up onto a bridge, and we were now on Plum Island. After a bit more marshland, we all of a sudden entered the developed part of the island, and the street was lined with tiny beach houses and businesses.

Gotta love marsh views!
The driver made a stop alongside the main Plum Island beach, but no one got on or off. Thus, we curved onto Northern Boulevard, which was almost completely lined with beach houses. They were all tiny, and some of them were on stilts,

Looking down one of the small side streets.
The streets had a numbering system by this point, but it was a bit strange, since the odd-numbered ones were on one side and the even numbers on the other. Finally, at 79th Street, Northern Boulevard ended in a small loop - this was Plum Island Point. The driver let us off and looped around to head back to Newburyport.

The bus along Northern Boulevard.
MVRTA Route: 53 (Newburyport Summer Shuttle)

Ridership: There were only three people going toward Plum Island and four going back to Newburyport. I'm not sure if the ridership is usually this bad, but the service just started operating this weekend, so perhaps it gets more people during the summer.

Pros: This is a fantastic shuttle in theory. A bus from Newburyport Station to Plum Island is a great idea, and the route is incredibly scenic. The fare is only a dollar if you have a CharlieCard ($1.25 otherwise) and you can get a $3.00 day pass if you think you'll be taking the route a few times. They're even planning to give it some proper advertising! Take notes, SLOOP.

Cons: Unfortunately, a whole slew of issues drag the shuttle down. Firstly, there's the route downtown. The bus makes a whole bunch of twists and turns and takes a very indirect route through the city. I guess it's to make sure that it can serve the library along the one-way State Street, but it ends up getting the bus stuck in traffic and making it late. Still, the library seemed like a busy stop, and the shuttle might be obligated to serve it for one reason or another - if it didn't have to stop there, it would make more sense for the shuttle to run via Green Street one way and State Street the other, especially since this particular bus really doesn't need to serve the residential areas along Federal Street (and the 54 serves them, anyway).



Then there's the schedule, which is a bit of a mess. See, whenever buses run from downtown to Plum Island, the route gets convenient headways of every half hour. But every time a trip runs all the way to the Commuter Rail (they're timed with trains), it makes an hour-long gap in Plum Island service. Now how can this be fixed? Well, the MVRTA seems to have two shuttle routes in Newburyport, the other being that strange one from the Commuter Rail to downtown. However, that latter route, to my understanding, basically runs empty at all times that don't correspond with trains. So we have two buses to work with. How about splitting the Newburyport shuttles into two separate services? One can shuttle back and forth from Plum Island to downtown every half hour, and the other can do Commuter Rail to Plum Island trips that correspond with trains, with Commuter Rail to downtown short-turns otherwise. A shuttle day pass would allow you access to both routes. This might make more sense if I map and schedule the idea:



Right, so that ended up being confusing. I tried to accommodate for both Friday and weekend trains with Route 2 (something the 53 doesn't necessarily do), but it ended up making a really crazy-looking schedule. Still, I think the concept works better - even though there are still hour-long service gaps, this time those gaps are from the Commuter Rail to downtown, which hardly anyone will be using, anyway. Still...it is quite hard to read. Schedules would probably have to be posted at all major stops, since it's really hard to memorize, unlike Route 1 (or indeed, the 53). If the view there is too small, here's a link to the full spreadsheet.

Nearby and Noteworthy: Newburyport is a really lovely town, with so many different businesses in a very historic setting! Also, Plum Island is a great beach, particularly up where the bus terminates at Plum Island Point - it's a lot quieter up there than at the main area further south.

Final Verdict: 7/10
Overall, this shuttle is pretty solid, with a fine schedule and a fine route. Honestly, my schedule concerns are mostly with the other MVRTA shuttle from the Commuter Rail to downtown, since that just seems to be running empty buses all the time (I didn't get to take it, though, so I could be wrong). Should I get the chance to ride that route this summer, it'll most likely get a low score for the fact that it seems useless, but the 53 does a decent job at doing what it's doing. I mean, the hour-long gaps in Plum Island service can be annoying, but the radical schedule changes are mostly to fix the other shuttle. Overall, the MVRTA could do a much better job coordinating and running its Newburyport shuttles. But the 53 on its own? Yeah...it's not bad!

Latest MBTA News: Service Updates

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