Isn’t it great that this service change fell on a Sunday? Since the 226 doesn’t run on Sundays, I’m able to get day-one reviews of both that and the other (seven-days-a-week) new route introduced this rating that we’ll be talking about today: the 61. Perfect!

The last 70A ever.

The 61 is the replacement for the 70A, which, until yesterday, ran from Central Square to North Waltham via a confusing figure-8 loop. In order to make service on the 70 more frequent and consistent (in theory, at least – in execution this didn’t really happen), the 70A was cut off, simplified, and replaced with this new route, the 61. So essentially, we’ve got a Waltham Circulator on our hands…wonderful.

61 signs aren’t up yet, but the tape over the 70A does speak of its existence.

Even though it is kind of a circulator route, I like the idea of cutting off the 70A in theory – it really did not mesh well with the 70, and it only served to make that corridor more confusing. They’ve even simplified the North Waltham loop to avoid the figure-8 and the horrible variants that came with it, opting for a “P” shape instead. But the problem is that the 61 makes no effort to connect with 70 trips, making for a nerve-racking transfer if the 70 is late (which it often is).

The 61 headsign DIDN’T WORK. But that’s what happens when the first run of your new route operates with bus 0666…

But the first 61 trip ever, and many other 61 trips, came from a 70 with pretty much no layover…not that you would know that from looking at a schedule. When planning how to get to the first 61 trip at 9:36, I looked at the Sunday timetable and saw that a 70 arrives at 9:30. “That’s cutting it close,” I thought. “I’d better get to Waltham earlier.” Nothing about the fact that that 70 becomes a 61. This genuinely boggled my mind that they didn’t think to include this in the timetable.

Pretty standard Waltham housing stock

Okay, let me stop spoiling the cons section and actually begin the trip. The bus left Waltham Center with seven people on it: me, my three friends, and a family of three riding to check the route out. This was pretty much expected, since the 70A didn’t have Sunday service before – it might take a bit to catch on. We headed out from Waltham’s Central Square, doing a few turns out of the center before getting onto Lexington Street.

More houses.

Lexington Street was commercial, although it was at much lower densities than in Waltham Center. Once we turned onto Dale Street, it was all houses, continuing as we swung a right onto Bacon Street. We took this until Totten Pond Road, onto which we made a left – previously, this is where the figure-8 started, but it’s now a two-way section.

Ooh, this is a change.

After a park and a skating rink, we suddenly entered Office Park Land. The cluster of business-oriented hotels, businesses, and offices marked Totten Pond Road’s intersection with I-95. We didn’t cross the highway, though, instead turning onto Wyman Street to run alongside it. More offices appeared on the other side of the road.

Looking out over the Cambridge Reservoir.

As the street pulled away from the highway, we turned onto Lincoln Street, where we arrived at “North Waltham” – the route’s terminus of sorts. In actuality, buses never lay over here for longer than two minutes, since there’s a one-way loop afterward. And actually, it is nice that the 61 can do that; the 70A was so long that it needed a lot of recovery time at this point, but the 61 is nice and short, so it can get away with a tiny layover.

There was just enough time for a quick photo!

Once we left the strange layover point underneath a bunch of telephone wires, we entered a more standard residential neighborhood as we merged onto Lake Street. Incredibly, someone got on along here – the first rider using the route to actually get somewhere! Some strip malls showed up as we took a left onto Lexington Street. There was a ton of apartment developments along here, hidden behind trees and long driveways.

Making the turn onto Lexington.

More retail appeared at the intersection with Trapelo Road, onto which we turned, entering a residential neighborhood again. Finally, we turned onto Smith Street, which joined up with Wyman Street and completed the loop. After we completed the already charted territory back to Waltham Center, the driver said, “I’m laying over for 50 minutes before going to Cambridge. You’re welcome to stay on and keep warm until the next bus comes.” Really? They scheduled a 50-minute layover before the return trip to Cambridge on the 70, with another 70 passing through in that time? Granted, we arrived over 15 minutes early…which in itself is kind of insane…boy, I’m excited for the cons section.

Back in Waltham Center.

Route: 61 (North Waltham – Waltham Center)

Ridership: This one’s hard to predict. The 70A was always counted as part of the 70, so we can’t get raw numbers on how well that route performed overall. We do have stop data, though: adding up all of the boardings on the 70A’s independent section, we can see that the route got an average of 200 boardings on its loop per day. Huh…well, hopefully the 61 does better!

Pros: The 70A was a beast of a route, so canning it was a good move and a long time coming. The 61 keeps about the same frequencies, plus it adds new Sunday service, so from a raw “service to North Waltham” perspective, this is a major improvement. Also, getting rid of the figure-8 was great for simplicity, and they did it in such a way that the peaky office parks get bidirectional service – no AM/PM variants necessary!

Cons: Yikes, there’s a lot to unpack here. Okay, what’s wrong with the 61 on paper? The schedule is a major issue: it just does whateverrrrr it wants. Pick any day and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Service is essentially every half hour at peak times and essentially every hour at all other times, but just look at these weekday departures: 10:00, 10:55, 11:48, 12:59, 1:51, 3:02, 3:48, 4:21, 4:56, 5:19…AHHHHHHH!!! There is no consistency here, and it’s not helped by the fact that the route may have been given too much time – a 15-minute arrival at Waltham Center, even on a Sunday morning, is very very early.

But let’s get to the real heart of the problem here: this is a separate route from the 70…but it’s also kinda not. And there are problems with both of those two faces! For trips that are separate from the 70, you end up with multiple concerns regarding transfers. Firstly, the 70’s reliability holds together about as well as Humpty Dumpty, so I sure as heck would be concerned about missing my 61 in Waltham. Plus, what if I’m coming from somewhere that’s not on the 70 and I’m paying with stored value? Porter Square, for example: I pay $2.40 to get on the Red Line, then I get a free transfer to the 70…but then I have to pay again on the 61 because of how the T’s fare structure works. So…another $1.70, I guess? With the one-seat ride, that used to be free.

Of course, some 61s (no idea how many – could be a ton, could be a few) appear to come from the 70. Now there’s the problem of the 61 potentially leaving late, because again, the 70 has a 54% on-time rate. But okay, it’s nice that some one-seat rides are provided…I just wish I could know about them! Who seriously thought this was information that shouldn’t be included in the timetable?? Just have an “n” note or “d” note or whatever letter in the alphabet you want on the 70 trips that continue on as 61s without a long layover, and vice versa! This shows passengers which transfers are guaranteed, as well as which ones are free. Make this happen, MBTA, it’s a simple change.

Nearby and Noteworthy: When I was younger, I once took this bus (well, the 70A) to my piano lessons in Lexington, which I will totally rep for, because they were instrumental (heh) in fostering my love of music. Yeah, we did usually drive there, but in my defense, it was a pain to get out to by bus. Retail along the 61 is mostly chain restaurants, with some higher-end stuff around the office parks.

Final Verdict: 3/10
What we have here is a route with good intentions, but it can’t get beyond those. It’s trying to take over from a real beast of a route, which is admirable, and the fact that it not only tremendously simplified the previous routing, but also added Sunday service to an area that didn’t have it before is fantastic. The execution, though…this is just awful. The schedule is all over the place, and there are numerous issues with both buses that don’t connect (unguaranteed transfer, having to pay twice) and ones that do (unreliability, and PLEASE LABEL THEM ON THE SCHEDULE!!!!). It’s probably better than the 70A, but that’s a low, low bar to clear.

Also, should the 70A loop have been cut off on its own like what they did, or should it have been merged with an express bus? Or something else entirely? Discuss!

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