Soundings: Headway mode for Vineyard Transit Authority

For most hours of the day this summer, the Vineyard Transit Authority buses that ply Route 1 between Vineyard Haven and Edgartown will no longer run on a fixed schedule. The VTA has added a fourth bus to the route, and keeps in radio contact with the drivers to time their trips so that ideally, as two buses pass near the roundabout, the other two are departing from the endpoints.

In the transit business, this way of scheduling buses is called headway mode. What it means for riders on the Island’s most important commuter corridor is that the new service might not be as precisely predictable as before, but you should never have to wait more than seven or eight minutes for a bus.

Adding that fourth bus involved an expense, says Angie Grant, administrator of the VTA since 1996, but the good news is that public funding for transit systems has recently become more reliable. The model is shifting from funding in arrears to funding in advance, which means that administrators like Ms. Grant can spend more of their time figuring out how to serve their riders better and less worrying about what to do if their expenses aren’t covered.

No public service on Martha’s Vineyard has rocketed from nonexistent to indispensable with anything like the speed of the VTA. Year-round bus service here didn’t exist before 2006. In the fiscal year that ended just a few days ago, the VTA was on track for a record ridership of more than 1.2 million on its fixed bus routes.

Last August, the VTA carried 303,175 passengers, an increase of nearly 30 percent for that month since 2006. But even more dramatic is the doubling in ridership the VTA has seen in the dead of winter: to find a month when the service carried fewer than 20,000 people, you have to go back to February 2011.

Here’s another indicator that puts the growth of this Island service in perspective: At present, Massachusetts has only three public transit authorities operating seven days a week, year-round. They are the MBTA in Boston, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (serving two dozen towns and cities in the Springfield-Amherst region), and the VTA.

Visiting the website of the transit authority this week, I found this on the FAQ page: “Q: Do I need to bring my car to Martha’s Vineyard? A: No.” This little exchange should be a favorite for anyone who suffers the summer crawl through Five Corners in Tisbury or Upper Main in Edgartown. In fact, the VTA has an excellent page of advice for visitors interested in seeing the Vineyard in a single day without the hassle of bringing a car or the risk of renting mopeds and adding the hospital to their itinerary.

The VTA is a rural transit system for nine months of the year, and an urban system for three. Because it’s impractical to own two fleets of buses, and because the VTA has to be equipped to handle the peak load, there are times in winter when the rolling stock isn’t an ideal match for the demand — and Ms. Grant does hear occasional complaints in January about big buses with few passengers inside. But she rightly points out that even a bus with only half a dozen passengers is burning less fuel per passenger-mile, and putting fewer pollutants into our air, than if those riders were driving cars.

(The environmental benefits of public transit, by the way, are steadily improving: Today’s bus engines emit 85 percent fewer particulates than those the VTA was using just six or seven years ago.)

Looking to the future, says Ms. Grant, the VTA will continue to look for ways to improve its service to its more than one million riders each year. One of the biggest changes likely in the years ahead, she says, will be the jump to buses twice an hour on the system’s up-Island corridors during the busy season. “It’s a big jump,” admits Ms. Grant, “but it’s the next logical step.”

Meanwhile the seasonality is intense, the mix of users is diverse, and the challenge for the VTA is always to strike the best balance.

“This is an essential service, as much as we might not want to admit it,” Ms. Grant says. “We have a lot of ‘choice’ riders here, and we’re fortunate for that, but there is a transit-dependent population on Martha’s Vineyard. They might be elderly, they might be disabled, they might just not be in a position to own a vehicle because of the economics of it.”

In the end, the biggest group benefiting from the services of the Vineyard Transit Authority might be those of us who use the buses rarely or not at all. The next time you’re behind the wheel, inching into Edgartown one car-length at a time, consider how much more unpleasant your trip might be if that VTA bus ahead of you were three dozen individual cars.