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.

Newton Connection RailBus

Print posts are back! Er…kind of. As you probably know, I’ve exclusively been making YouTube videos for the past 3 months or so, and it’s been a ton of fun! Lots of people has been watching and the channel has been growing, and that’s been really exciting to see – thank you for sticking with me during this new phase of the blog.

But there’s been something missing…I miss the thrill of crossing bus routes and train stations off a list. I mean, this blog was built on doing bus and station reviews, and I feel like I’ve been neglecting that by doing videos full-time. So I decided to try something new: a combination of videos and print posts. What you see below is a short scripted review video, followed by the script itself that I wrote up. It’s a new type of video content for me, but I really enjoyed making it and I’m excited to share it with you all! I was thinking that these videos would not replace typical Wednesday uploads – those will still be the regular fun adventure ones (although I missed this Wednesday because of a family trip, and I’m really sorry about that). And to keep the channel from getting too cluttered, the videos will be released as unlisted, accessible only from the blog, but I’ll keep a playlist of these video reviews on the channel too.

My guinea pig for this experiment is the Newton Connection RailBus, a route that pretty much everyone agrees was a bad idea and will likely be eliminated soon. You know, a good way to test the waters on this type of thing. So, to recap, the video will feature the same script as the text below, but with visual content (obviously). If you’re only looking for a review, though, you can just read the text. I dunno, we’ll see how this goes! Please give me feedback, because this is very much an experiment and I want to know if it works. Would you rather see the old style of print posts? Is the video more engaging than just a print post? Should I do a mix of both? Thanks for watching and/or reading, and let me know what you think!

The Newton Connection RailBus is the MBTA’s newest bus route, and it’s…weird. It was created because the three Newton stations on the Worcester Line – Newtonville, West Newton, and Auburndale – only get train service in the peak direction at rush hour. This has been the case for years, but I guess Newton finally decided to (kind of) do something about it. But rather than advocate for funding to build a second platform at each station, instead we got…this thing. The Newton Connection RailBus.

The free route begins at Newton Highlands Station – this is so that people can get to the Newton stations from Boston in the morning rush, and vice versa in the evening. It uses an Academy bus, although surprisingly it’s a transit bus rather than a coach bus! I just wish it had an actual headsign instead of just “Special” on the front, with a little piece of paper taped to the side window saying what the route actually is. The stop at Newton Highlands is shared with the 59, but the bus just sort of awkwardly blocks it while it lays over. Thank goodness there don’t seem to be any schedule clashes.

From Newton Highlands, the route takes the same path as the 59, running mostly past suburban homes – you do get some businesses here and there, though, along with passing Newton City Hall and North High School. After stopping at Newtonville, the bus turns left onto Washington Street, making a stop at West Newton before using Auburn Street to get to Auburndale. The bus makes its way to Riverside from there – since the route would’ve gone by that station anyway, I guess planners thought it warranted a deviation, but the stop itself serves no real purpose given what the route is trying to achieve. Finally, we pass through the Lower Falls commercial area before using the small and residential Glen Road to get to Wellesley Farms Station.

The RailBus runs to Wellesley Farms so that people can get from the Newton Stations to outbound destinations on the Worcester Line, and of course vice versa in the evening. This transfer is awful, though – the bus drops you off on the inbound platform, and because the Worcester Line switches tracks in the evening rush (thanks to the single platforms at the Newton stations, ironically), passengers have to cross over in both directions. Crossing platforms at Wellesley Farms is rough, too: the one other passenger I saw use this bus had trouble with the stairs and took the entire seven-minute transfer time to make it to the outbound side. From Wellesley Farms, the bus travels out of service back to Newton Highlands; this route is reversed in the evening rush.

Ridership: Like I said, I only saw one other person use it. Of course, I rode on the first day, but it’s not like this thing is super well-advertised, and I doubt many people are going in the reverse peak direction from the Newton stations anyway.

Pros: I guess any reverse peak service is better than none. Plus, it’s free! For what it’s worth, the route runs a reasonable rush hour-only schedule, with an hourly service that connects to most reverse peak trains.

Cons: There’s just no escaping how stupid this thing is. First of all, the schedule is super padded, so there are long waits along the ride, especially at Newtonville and West Newton. This will change as traffic increases, but for now, it’s super annoying. The transfer at Wellesley Farms is also a complete mess, especially given how long it takes to cross to the other side at that station. It’s also funny that there are still plenty of trains that don’t stop at these stations, but you know, that’s not the peak so we don’t care about those people.

Final Verdict: The MBTA needs a plan to add a second platform to each Newton station, and they don’t have one. Spending the money to charter buses from Academy for this route is not the answer; this is a slapdash solution to a big problem. This bus represents a reluctance to invest in these stations – is it really so much to ask that Newton, a city of 88,000 people, gets bidirectional Commuter Rail service? The RailBus is pretty bad, too. 2/10