Microtransit, microtransit, microtransit. Everybody loves microtransit. At this point, it feels safe to call it a fad, but is it a fad that will last? I’ve been sour on the concept in the past, but the MWRTA’s CATCH Connect in Wellesley might just be the route to warm me up to it, at least in certain contexts. Let’s see why.
It’s important to talk about the precursor to the CATCH Connect: the 8. This route was an atrocious deviatory mess that got just over 30 riders a day. I wasn’t a fan. But in 2020, that route was replaced with the CATCH Connect, a service that can be hailed at any time on an app to take you anywhere in Wellesley, plus a few locations outside the town. For a town like Wellesley that’s not very conducive to transit, this might not be the worst idea.
I had to download the MWRTA CATCH app before riding the route. It’s…not the best. Most of these microtransit things will use an existing app like Transloc, but the MWRTA decided to make their own and it’s clunky. It can also be used to track fixed-route buses in its God-awful interface, but we’re concerned about the CATCH Connect section. We can enter our information, and for some reason the confirmation email comes from the CCRTA and throws an error…well, at least we’re in.
Now, I was actually using this thing for a purpose! I was trying to get to Newton Highlands to ride the Newton Connector Railbus. I figured I’d have some fun in the process, though: by traveling from the Natick Community Center to Waban Station, I could not only travel what very well might be the longest distance you can go on the CATCH Connect, but I could also take this Wellesley-based bus service from not-Wellesley to not-Wellesley! I struggled through the app interface to book my trip, and the bus was due to arrive in several minutes. It’s also worth noting that trips are free right now, but they’ll eventually rise to the standard MWRTA rate of $1.50 at an unspecified time.
The bus…er, van…came promptly, and after a struggle with the manual door, we were off. Because CATCH Connect buses are only taking one party at a time right now because of COVID, we made a beeline for Waban, traveling down Central Street past Wellesley College. Before hitting Wellesley Square, we turned onto Weston Road, running past houses before heading onto Route 9. This part of the trip was fun – we just ran express through Wellesley and into Newton! We finally left the big road by exiting off onto the residential Chestnut Street, using that to make our way up to Waban Station.
Ridership: It’s hard to say right now. Obviously I was the only one on my trip, and they’re only allowing one party at a time on board anyway, but anecdotally, I have seen other people on CATCH Connect vehicles before. I’m hoping people find this to be a more convenient alternative to the 8 and use it!
Pros: I don’t know if it’s because the 8 was so bad, but…this thing is honestly great! I mean, if the alternative is a worse-than-hourly route that deviates all over the place, maybe microtransit is a valid solution. I’d have to try it at a busier time later in the day to see how the system handles more riders, but at least early in the morning, the bus came pretty much right away and took me straight to my destination. And this seems like it’s a good environment for microtransit: the boundaries of Wellesley are pretty even, and even though a fixed-route service could logically follow Routes 16 and 135, it would still have to deviate to serve places like Babson College, MassBay Community College, and pretty much any residential area. Plus, if they market this to college students (which they should – get on that, MWRTA), they’re probably more likely to ride something like this than a fixed route because, you know, “Those Gen-Z’ers love their Ubers!” It’ll be much cheaper than Uber even once it starts charging fares, too – who can argue with $1.50?
Cons: Okay, let’s get it out of the way that the app sucks. If they’re going to try to get young people (or heck, anyone) to ride this thing, they need to make the app actually usable. Beyond that, it’s a bit disappointing that the route only runs from 6:45 AM to 6:45 PM on weekdays only – I’d love to see early morning service (for Commuter Rail commuters) and night and weekend service (for leisure travel, particularly college students). I’ll also play devil’s advocate and note that if you took three CATCH Connect buses (I’m not sure how many the MWRTA is actually using for the service), you could run a 20-minute headway on the rescheduling I did for the 8. But honestly, in this case, microtransit might really be the best way to serve Wellesley – it’s just not a transit-conducive town.
Final Verdict: The CATCH Connect definitely isn’t perfect, but I’m coming around on this microtransit thing, at least in certain contexts. Wellesley seems like a pretty good place to do it, especially given the route this service replaced. The MWRTA should be marketing the heck out of this, though – both to college students and to commuters! Of course, those populations may not find the service completely useful until the service hours are improved. And for God’s sake, someone update that app! 6/10.