Despite reviewing the BRTA’s hub at Pittsfield first, my friend and I didn’t actually start our day there. Instead we parked at Fairgrounds Plaza, the first stop of the 21, which we took toward Pittsfield at the beginning of the day. If you’re looking for gorgeous Berkshires scenery, this is the route for you.
The local 21 travels between Great Barrington and Lee, where one can connect to the 2 for further travel to Pittsfield (I’ll bet you can guess what the next review is going to be). It takes a very twisty route, usually beginning with a Senior Center deviation; however, we were on the first trip of the day, which skips that and one other deviation. So instead, we headed straight up Route 7 before taking a left onto Silver Street alongside a cemetery.
We turned onto Maple Ave for a super short time before making a left onto West Ave, passing sizable houses with big yards. This jog was to serve the small Fairview Hospital, after which we took Taconic Ave back to Route 7. It led us through downtown Great Barrington, which has about all you can ask for in a cute, rural New England town center.
Some beautiful municipal buildings led us to the outskirts of downtown, where businesses still kept showing up, although now with gaps between each building. We turned onto State Road, crossing the Housatonic River with a view of some rapids downstream. There were yet more (increasingly suburban) businesses along here, plus a cemetery and a fire station.
The road curved north, and though it was pretty much lined with suburban businesses, the area was leafier than one would expect from suburban sprawl – the Berkshires! A strip mall, Barrington Plaza, would usually get a (frankly unnecessary – it’s very close to the main road) deviation, but this first trip of the day skips it. The businesses abruptly ended soon after, getting replaced by woods. We merged onto narrow Route 183, continuing through the forest.
Some houses showed up along the road eventually, plus an adorable cafe. The road ran right up along the Housatonic River, going by a housing development with a little bus shelter outside. As we approached the formerly industrial village of Housatonic, we crossed the river and turned onto Front Street, going through its small downtown.
We entered the town of Stockbridge as we left Housatonic, entering the woods again (with occasional appearances of houses). The road twisted and turned to follow the river, eventually entering the village of Glendale. It wasn’t much more than a few houses, an inn, and a tiny post office.
It was back into the woods from there, with an eventual right turn onto Route 102. As this road twisted its way south, houses started to show up with increasing regularity. It hooked a left around a cemetery, making its way into small, beautiful Stockbridge Center. The gorgeous town hall building marked the end of downtown, but the houses continued for a bit before we went back into the forest.
This section of middle-of-nowhereness was short, though – we quickly entered Lee and the village of South Lee, which had some houses, a factory, and a post office. Some general industry came after, following the road for a while until our third and final crossing of the Housatonic River. We went by a Big Y (which I think we’re supposed to deviate into, but our bus didn’t), then we had a brief section on the very wide Route 20. Finally, we turned onto Premium Outlet Boulevard, making our way up a hill to Lee Premium Outlets. The 2 to Pittsfield was waiting.
BRTA Route: 21 (Lee/Great Barrington)
Ridership: I was able to get BRTA ridership data from an anonymous source! Yay! So, in August 2017, the 21 got 2,607 weekday riders (about 113 per day) and 372 Saturday riders (about 93 per day). These are low numbers, and the route only ranks sixth on the system, but it’s a winding rural line, so I get it.
Pros: The route is just beautiful! You’ve got Berkshires charm galore on this thing. And the BRTA actually runs it decently – hourly, six-days-a-week service for a pretty rural route? I’ll take it! For times when express service (which we’ll be reviewing later) doesn’t run, a timed transfer is offered with the 2 to Pittsfield at Lee Premium Outlets. It’s a long, two-hour journey, but at least there is a connection.
Cons: This definitely isn’t taking the most direct route, what with a few deviations and the entire section on Route 183. However, just following the main road skips out on some population centers – I don’t know how much ridership Housatonic and (especially) Glendale generate, but it’s definitely more than if the bus were to just stay on Route 7. I guess the question is if the speed increase would be worth the lost patronage, and if it would lead to more Great Barrington people riding…at least personally, I don’t mind the 21’s twisty routing too much, but that could change if I saw more specific ridership data.
Nearby and Noteworthy: Honestly, there’s so much stuff on this route that I don’t know if I’ll be able to list it all. First of all, you have two wonderful downtowns with Great Barrington and Stockbridge, each with their own plethora of businesses. And then you have: Chesterwood and Naumkeag, two historic estates-turned-museums! The Berkshire Botanical Garden! The NORMAN. ROCKWELL. MUSEUM. It is an overload of Berkshires charm.
Final Verdict: 7/10
It’s weird coming off of the FRTA and getting to a rural route that actually runs with a workable headway. Yes, the 21 is twisty, and its ridership is low, but those are side effects of running a rural bus line. Plus, there are amazing tourist attractions on this thing – I’ll bet the number of tourists who have actually used it is low, but the potential is there!
Also, speaking of transit in Great Barrington, check out the work of Tate Coleman, a teenager at Simon’s Rock who set up the Great Barrington Public Transportation Advisory Committee. The media last reported on this in May, but the project is still very much active, with a goal of redesigning bus service in southern Berkshire County to better service existing and new riders. The BRTA seems (expectedly) hesitant to incorporate the cost-neutral ideas, but hopefully the committee can win them over!
Latest MBTA News: Service Updates
It’s certainly a long ways away from where it was over 20 years ago. I had to dig a bit to find a schedule to confirm my suspicions, but back before ’99, the 21 used to run a much more convoluted pattern. It would alternate every 2 hours between being a local circulator heading only as far as Housatonic, and doing the regional route straight up Route 7 to Stockbridge and then to the Outlets. It was clear that both legs deserved more service, thus came the route we see today. With the same amount of resources.
And Tate’s overall idea for improving South County service is something that’s long overdue. The cost-neutral aspect of it may be a little debatable (though an increase in resources for the plan wouldn’t be too dramatic in the grand scheme of things), but the ideas are all well worth a shot.
And, thankfully, the B is giving one of them a test run with that evening GB circulator they’re starting at the end of next month. If that does well, it lends some credibility to having a dedicated local route work. Especially if it works in the evening from the outset.
Oof, glad they’ve changed the schedule from then! That sounds awful.
What’s the evening circulator they’re starting? I haven’t heard of it.
In short, they’re repurposing some of the funds they got for the evening services to try this out in place of (most of) the 21X evening service after they conducted a survey on the evening services overall (which is still curiously up on their home page). There’s some other smaller changes in there, but that’s the most noteworthy.
Darn, a new route I’ll have to review that’s really hard to do! But hopefully it does well.
20 years ago the 21 was a bigger mess but less miserable to physically ride: a Flxible Metro is better than any cutaway, El Dorado Axess, or the grab bag of ex-BAT/LRTA Gilligs that run the Pittsfield routes.
This route brings back memories of going up 23 or 41 from Dutchess County to visit Great Barrington. I’m impressed at the leaving out of a key tenant at Fairgrounds Plaza in this review, but hey this isn’t the PVTA!
I really should’ve mentioned it, especially when this route serves two of them!
Thanks for this review, Miles! I’d be happy to discuss more about our initiatives in South County to improve public bus service. Great to see BRTA appear on your blog!
Thanks for commenting, Tate! You and the committee are doing amazing work.
Great review! I’ve read all of your comments for FRTA, PVTA and now I can’t wait for BRTA! (plot twist: I’m deeply connected to the schedules at FRTA and BRTA and love to read your reviews of the work. Feel free to shoot me an email if you want to chat more!)