Editorial: Poll: T likely to take big hit

More people will be heading back to work over the coming weeks. The roadways, which have been relatively traffic-free for the last two months, are likely to get crowded again. In fact, it might end up being even more congested than before, if polling data released Wednesday is on target.

According to the MassINC Polling Group, which has done outstanding work tracking behaviors and opinions in Massachusetts since the pandemic hit, residents they’ve interviewed are more likely to be driving or walking to work – and trying to avoid public transportation.

“In all, 35 percent of residents say they will ride the MBTA subway less than before, and 33 percent say the same of the commuter rail,” the pollsters said in a summary released this week. “Among the most frequent transit users, 44 percent say they will ride the subway less, and 45 percent expect to drive more. Young people and Boston residents are among the groups indicating the biggest increases in driving.”

The survey, conducted between May 5-13 and sponsored by The Barr Foundation, suggests that many of us who have been working at home will continue to do so. Forty-one percent of those surveyed told the pollsters that “they would prefer to work from home even after the state reopens.”

Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group, said that the survey “suggests we could see changes all across the system in terms of how people get around, with large swaths of the population planning to do things differently than before.” He also noted that “there are deep inequities in who can work from home.”

Of those surveyed who have worked from home throughout the crisis, a large proportion – 71 percent – hold an advanced degree. “Only a quarter of workers with a high school degree or less have worked from home all of the time during the crisis,” Koczela’s report notes.

For those who do rely on the T – and particularly for the men and women who work for the transit agency – there will undoubtedly be lingering concerns. James Evers, the president of the Carmen’s Union, wrote to MBTA general manager Steve Poftak last week noting that passenger volume has increased 20 percent in recent weeks.

“As the state begins to embark on reopening efforts, MBTA drivers and operators are increasingly concerned about what reopening will mean for increased passenger volume and, as a result, the increased risk of exposure in these confined spaces,” Evers wrote. He urged the MBTA to enforce the governor’s directive that passengers wear masks. “It is not enough to simply ask passengers to comply – it must be enforced,” Evers wrote.

But there are limits to what the MBTA can accomplish. Poftak told WBUR last week that enforcing the face-covering policy cannot really be done “in a police action kind of way” since people with medical conditions are exempt.

The MassINC poll indicates that potential MBTA riders are also spooked. Only ten percent told pollsters that they would “feel very comfortable” riding during peak hours. That number increased to a majority if the T were to adopt “precautions like requiring masks, installing hand-sanitizer dispensers, and limiting the number of passengers allowed on vehicles and platforms.

If there’s an “upside” to any of this, it might be that some people – especially those of us fortunate enough to live in the city – won’t be jumping into a private vehicle, either. Some are planning to turn to our devices – our feet –to get around. According to the MassInc survey, 53 percent of Bostonians said that “they plan to walk more as the state reopens.” And 64 percent think the city should dedicate more space on Boston streets to walking and biking.

- Bill Forry