When Does "Operational Efficiency" Mean a Better MBTA?

Above: Bus lanes in central London have improved operational efficiency of the bus network by increasing the number of people buses can move a given hour or mile [Photo: Andrew Nash]

Recently, a certain lobbying group has been arguing that the MBTA shouldn't be judged by how many people use it to get around, but rather by how many dollars it costs to run a vehicle for an hour or a mile. This cost per mile argument follows on the heels of their recently debunked assertion the that T is over-funded as compared to other transit agencies when looking at cost per trip. Those cost per trip comparisons didn't really make sense because they tried to compare the T to transit systems which provide vastly different services, which require different levels of investment to serve different populations (i.e., some agencies run only local bus or rail service, while the T does all of those, plus regional commuter rail, express buses, ferries, etc.).

So let’s address the cost per mile metric – it can be useful in certain circumstances but doesn't tell us much about the value of the service provided. Anyone who rides the T knows that the reason we run it is so that people can get from place to place, not so that we can spend the fewest dollars to run a vehicle for some time or distance, regardless of whether it serves anyone's transportation needs.

It's an axiom in business that you get what you measure. Doing better on some metric doesn't necessarily mean you're improving what you really care about. Keeping that in mind, let's consider some ways in which we could increase the T's "operational efficiency" as bound by the cost of T service per vehicle mile or vehicle hour.

Here are some bad ideas that would improve "operational efficiency":

  • We could (but shouldn't) eliminate the Transit Police. They don't move a single vehicle and you only hear about them when trains are delayed because the Transit Police are looking for a person who, say, assaulted a rider.
  • We could (but shouldn't) replace all Commuter Rail service with buses. Instead of one train you would need a bunch of buses and the trip would be slower. But if you're just looking at the math of "how many miles have been covered by how many vehicles for how many dollars?", then you'll think you have improved service.
  • We could (but shouldn't) get rid of all bus service in or near Boston, and replace it with bus service that drove at a moderate speed along a quiet highway somewhere. You'd get much higher average speeds than say the 1 bus running through Boston and Cambridge, so yay for lower cost per mile but no one would ride it.

However, there are ways to reduce those operating costs per vehicle hour or mile which would actually improve service:

  • We could replace subway cars more regularly, so that they don't break down as often - for instance, all the Orange Line cars are from roughly 1980 and haven't been upgraded since.
  • We could buy more new buses so that they would break down less often and we would have more in reserve.
  • We could give buses in high-traffic areas dedicated lanes, let them make traffic lights turn green - that's called signal priority, and let buses jump ahead of traffic where there isn't room for a dedicated lane on the whole length of the street. The most egregious place where buses should have signal priority is at D Street in South Boston, where the Silver Line, supposedly "rapid transit", waits over a minute at a light that's not even very busy.
  • We could introduce HOV lanes on highways which buses travel on. This would let express buses and cars with multiple people skip the traffic on 93, the Pike, Route 3, and so on. People who waited hours for a Braintree shuttle bus this winter saw the impact of not doing this. One upcoming project which cries out for a bus lane is the replacement of the Tobin Bridge to Charlestown that the 111, 92, 93, 426 and 428 buses use - that's over 20,000 people a day on those buses who could save time if the new bridge got a dedicated bus lane.
  • We could allow people to board buses and Green Line trains at all the doors and occasionally verify people have paid after they board. San Francisco's transit system MUNI did this; it makes buses and trolleys run faster and actually reduced fare evasion.
  • We could change the Commuter Rail system to use electric power, as is happening in California. Electric trains can accelerate faster, which would speed up trips and let us serve more people with the same equipment. It should be possible to do this one line at a time and get the benefits for each line as it's electrified.
  • We could build a train tunnel from North Station to South Station, the so-called North South Rail Link. That could make the Commuter Rail system more useful, for instance to riders who live north of Boston but want to get to South Station or Back Bay. It would also make it easier to do work on trains which run south of Boston, which currently have to make a roundabout trip to get to the only Commuter Rail maintenance facility, which is in Somerville.

As you can see, all of these useful changes either require political will or more money or both. So when people tell you that the T could improve its operational efficiency, tell them that you agree and you've got some ideas for how to do it.

Contributing editors: Ari Ofsevit, Jeremy Mendelson, Josh Fairchild, and Marc Ebuña