MBTA Bus

Podcast 29 - Transit Advocacy with Rafael Mares from the Conservation Law Foundation

We're joined in studio by prominent Boston transit advocate Rafael Mares, Vice President and Director of Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice for the Conservation Law Foundation. CLF has been instrumental in improving access and mobility for MBTA users, including holding the state to transit project commitments they've tried to wiggle out of.

We discuss the current state of transit operations and investment, the Control Board and politics, the fate of long-awaited projects such the Green Line Extension, the Big Dig legacy, and much more. This episode was recorded on May 16 in the studios of WMBR 88.1 FM in Cambridge, engineered by Scott Mullen.  Find Rafael Mares online at @RafaelMares2 or CLF.

TransitMatters advocates for fast, frequent, reliable and effective public transportation in and around Boston. As part of our vision to repair, upgrade and expand the MBTA transit network, we aim to elevate the conversation around transit issues by offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think: connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña @DigitalSciGuy, Scott Mullen @mixmastermully or email us here.

Late Night Mitigation: Designing a Real Overnight Bus Network

Check out the latest on NightBus here

Wondering what to make of the T's late night mitigation proposals?

We at TransitMatters often talk about critical issues such as service hours, frequency, on-time performance and overcrowding. So we’re pleased to see the MBTA recognizes these problems. The specific proposals they have put forth are all good ideas and easy to implement, but they are only small tweaks (which should have been done long ago) and do not make a dent in the growing backlog of service deficiencies (the service that's needed but not currently provided).

We believe there is a better option: a limited overnight bus network as we originally discussed here, which would be an extension of the T’s existing, limited and little-known early morning bus service. This network would operate hourly all night, every night, and be geared primarily toward getting people to their late-night and early morning jobs.

Read all about our useful and affordable plan on the Amateur Planner and CommonWealth Magazine.

Want to know more about what the T has proposed?

Let’s look at the service deficiencies that have been identified:

  1. Service ends too early and starts too late. The proposed changes would not change the hours of service. They would push service a tiny bit earlier in a few cases to increase capacity, but you still can’t get to a 5am shift (or home from a 2am shift) in most of the city.
  2. Bus frequency and on-time performance (reliability) are woefully inadequate. Adding trips (frequency) can relieve overcrowding *if buses are on time*, but does not improve reliability. A comprehensive "bus service improvement plan" is needed to address the persistent underlying causes of poor service, such as traffic congestion, bus bunching, missed trips, outdated fare collection policies and the lack of on-street supervisors and dispatchers.
  3. Still relying on the published schedule? On a typical weekday, Route 111 (serving the overwhelmingly low-income and minority city of Chelsea), sees 1 out of every 15 trips cancelled due to insufficient staffing levels. If 13 scheduled trips are missed every day on one of the city's most crowded bus routes, how will adding more trips to the schedule solve this problem?
  4. Low-income workers can’t access early or late shifts. Even while the recent Late Night Service only ran two nights per week and did not reach everyone, it filled a critical need of low-income workers in the restaurant and entertainment industries. The lack of daily service was a major deficiency, but the latest proposals don’t even attempt to solve that problem. Our proposal would end this injustice.

The recently eliminated Late Night Service served 13,000 passengers per night or 26,000 per week (which greatly undercounts the beneficiaries because most people don’t use it every single day and almost every user also travels on regular daytime service). Even with all of the mitigation options combined, and if they operate as planned, only 5,000 passengers per week would see improvements.

All the options they're proposing still don't make a dent in on-time performance, capacity or the growing backlog of service deficiencies. It is clear that the need for early morning service far outweighs the level of service provided, and that service starts way too late. It would actually be simple and affordable to provide hourly bus service all night on a skeletal network with timed transfer points, and the T should pursue this option instead of working around the margins.

Read more on why all night service is needed, and listen to Podcast 26 where we discuss the overnight concept (as well as in earlier episodes). Head over to the Amateur Planner for all the details on our proposal.

Podcast 24 - Rich Davey, Former MBTA GM & Secretary of Transportation

Former MBTA General Manager and MassDOT Secretary, Rich Davey joins us to reflect on his experience and share insight into the current challenges and opportunities facing the T.

Why has the service become so unreliable? Will we ever plan for and implement system upgrades? How can we better use our existing services and resources? Are the labor and management needs being met? How can the T communicate more effectively as well as advocate for itself and the needs of riders? Can we do effective regional planning and forge a working relationship with advocates and cities? How do we raise revenue, and should that be a priority? We finally put to rest the argument over the word annual: whether fares are legally allowed to rise by 5 or 10 percent. And much more.

Prior to running the MBTA, Rich Davey was the General Manager of the Commuter Rail operator. We talk about activating the Fairmount Line and some other ways to improve the Commuter Rail. How might more effective regional planning enable the Commuter Rail to address local and regional transportation challenges?

Transit Matters is a non-profit organization working for fast, frequent, reliable and effective transportation in Boston by elevating the conversation on transportation. By offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media, we can achieve a useful and effective transportation network because Transit Matters.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think: connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña @DigitalSciGuy, or email us here.

Podcast 22 - MBTA Raising Fares Again, Overtime Lies, Challenges and Opportunities

The MBTA fare increase proposals (presentation, summary) are unnecessary and not even helpful in closing the budget gap. This is the latest example to the way the Fiscal & Management Control Board is using misleading statistics to support an ideological agenda that has never worked. What happened to being visionary and taking a fresh look?

Short of major investment -- which is needed more than ever -- many simple changes could improve the user experience and help alleviate capacity constraints. For example:

  1. The transfer policy could allow unlimited use within 2 hours (instead of the current one-transfer limit) to offer new options for shorter trips, increase ridership, reduce congestion downtown and save money.
  2. All-door boarding on buses and trolleys means faster trips, more frequent service, lower fare evasion and operating cost savings.
  3. Expanding Zone 1A on Commuter Rail to all Boston stations as well as Waltham and Lynn would offer fast service for thousands of low-income riders while reducing operating costs.
  4. Many low-cost changes such as upgrading bus stops, stations and terminals would improve service quality and increase ridership.

UPDATE: See our Fares & Service fact sheet (the longer version is here).

All this and more in this week's show, recorded in the WMBR studio at MIT in Cambridge. Marc offers some insights from this year's TransportationCamp DC on how regional governance could address some of our management challenges, and former T General Manager Beverly Scott was there. We hear a little bit from the growing transit advocacy network, as organizations like TransitMatters start to pop up in cities across the country.

The Transit Matters Podcast is your source for transportation news, analysis, interviews with transit advocates and more. By offering new perspectives, uniting transit advocates and promoting a level of critical analysis normally absent from other media, we can achieve a useful and effective transportation network because Transit Matters.

Like what you hear? Share it around, tell your friends and colleagues, and subscribe to the blog and podcast (on iTunes) to be notified of new posts and episodes. Support our work by becoming a member, making a donation or signing up to volunteer because we can't do this alone. Let us know what you think by connect with TransitMatters on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Jeremy Mendelson @Critical Transit, Josh Fairchild @hatchback31, Jarred Johnson at @jarjoh, Marc Ebuña at @DigitalSciGuy, and or email us here.

Why Late Night (and Early Morning) Service Must Be Redesigned and Expanded -- Not Abandoned

Check out the latest on NightBus here

UPDATE: letter to the MBTA on late night service cuts.

The MBTA’s Control Board is planning a number of service cuts – including late night service – in the hope of reducing its budget deficit. While the MBTA needs managerial and operational reform, the proposed cutbacks in late night service would not even make a dent in the T’s structural deficit.  To the contrary, they push the T deeper into the negative spiral it so desperately needs to escape.

The core argument against late night service is that low and inconsistent ridership makes it too costly and too highly subsidized per passenger served to continue when budgets are tight.  But this seemingly slam-dunk fact misses the entire point of late night service and, to some extent, of mass transit in general.

Public mass transit is one of the prerequisites of economic growth in this region. Given the reality of our land-use patterns and the limits of our roads there simply is no other way to move the huge numbers of active people to and from home, work, shopping, and entertainment on a daily basis. 

But transit’s role extends beyond rush hour: as housing costs escalate and people are forced to move further away from employment, shopping, and activity centers, people need longer, more frequent, fully reliable, and permanent transit service over a wider range of hours.  Restaurant, entertainment, and hospitality businesses have been urging more late night service for years because they know how essential it is to their ability to attract customers and to their employees’ ability to access their jobs.  Late and early shift hospital and building service employees need the same transportation services – provision of which would be a small step towards the equitable opportunity for all that we still lack.  Even at the upper end of the employment spectrum, providing more late night transit service will also help to maintain the region’s reputation as an attractive place to start new digital and bio-tech businesses, and for the professional employees of those firms to live in.  

Overnight services – late night and early morning – are not frills but an essential component of the region’s economic infrastructure.  This is not a new insight. Boston used to have late night service. San Francisco (“All Nighter”), Toronto (“Blue Night Network), Philadelphia (“Night Owl”), Chicago, and of course New York all provide some degree of overnight transit; today, Boston is the largest city in North America without it – a lack that has and will continue to hurt our bottom-line and our general wellbeing.

It’s true that the MBTA’s current late-night service is not being used as much as was expected.  But we think this is not because the demand isn’t there – rather, it sometimes seems that the MBTA’s current late-night service was designed to fail.  Promises for additional outreach and marketing of the service were not fulfilled.  The routes do not connect efficiently nor form a comprehensive network and demand patterns were not restudied to see how they differ from daytime coverage.  The coverage area omits key low-income and environmental justice areas including large sections of Dorchester, Quincy, East Somerville, Everett, Malden, Lynn, and Waltham. 

Even where the service does go, its temporary nature has depressed demand – unlike the recreational Cape Flyer, potential night service users will only adapt their life or work to depend on it if they are confident it will be around for years to come.  Emphasizing the temporary nature of the service, cutting runs, and raising fares – all on top of an inadequate level of service – severely and predictably reduces ridership and raises costs – a destructive interaction. When service was reduced earlier this year, reduced ridership caused the net cost per rider to double from $7 to $14. A similar drop in ridership and increase in per-rider costwas observed when the previous Night Owl service (2001-05) instituted a higher fare.

In contrast, the specially designed early morning service that has been in place since 1960 and was expanded in 1999 is highly successful, including several trips running with standing room only – at or before 4 AM – even though it is poorly marketed and has many gaps. Its route structure can serve as a starting point for expansion to all night service.

The damage from eliminating late night service is bigger than the direct cost numbers.  Overnight service also supports daytime ridership because people can count on always being able to get home even if plans change.  Having an unpredictable work schedule, long commute, or infrequent transit connections can be very intimidating if it means you might suddenly find yourself caught past the end of service.  And people forced to buy a car for some trips are more likely to use it for others, further reducing T ridership and revenue. 

There has been some talk about replacing T services, including late-night services, with private businesses. We should remember that public transit, and late-night service in particular, will never pay for itself.  If mass transit were profitable the private sector would have already started demanding the right to provide it.  But in no city in the world have private firms done more than cherry pick the subset of routes and customers who can be most profitably served – often leaving people living along lower-income or lower ridership routes in car-dependent inequality.

Like most MBTA bus routes, the existing late night services have significant room for improvement, such as long waits, low on-time performance, poorly timed and inconsistent connections, and the need for a second fare when boarding a third vehicle. All routes lack coordinated connections with other lines, requiring long waits and making these pieces of the transit network minimally useful and largely unreliable. We support experimenting with flexible services, pulse point hubs, shuttles, community circulators, social service partnerships and other non-traditional service delivery methods which may be more efficient and effective for certain low-ridership services, but there are many high-impact changes that can be made even with traditional fixed routes.

Many of these changes would benefit transit service as a whole, especially buses – and especially late overnight services.  The current late night service is barely two years old.  Rather than drop it, the MBTA Boards should order that it – like other T operations – be radically improved and expanded to meet the latent need. Access to public transportation greatly benefits all citizens’ quality of life and allows greater and more equitably distributed levels of economic opportunity. It allows business to thrive and a regional economy to boom, even if the transit system itself is not profitable.  If we regularly give tax abatements and development assistance to large businesses, we can at the least provide some support for their employees as well.

[Thanks to Charlie Denison, Steve Miller and Gabe Distler for contributing content, editing, and to Stuart Spina for historical service information.  Photo via Flickr]

Podcast 20 - Advocacy Updates: Fares, Late Night Service, Commuter Rail, GLX and Service Planning to make the MBTA network more effective

Podcast 20 - Advocacy Updates: Fares, Late Night Service, Commuter Rail, GLX and Service Planning to make the MBTA network more effective

This show is focused on MBTA advocacy, with the full crew sharing our thoughts on some of the things in the media lately, and which we've been working on.

Fares increases are proposed again despite the absence of a vision for upgrading and growing our network. It's hard to ask people for more money without real improvements. Some say we should give discounts to low-income riders and raise fares for everyone else. We explore why a two-tier transit system is a terrible idea that will lead to a death spiral and actually impact the poorest riders most. Also, if a transit fare is not a tax, is it a fee?

The MBTA board (FMCB) has proposed eliminating up to 28 bus routes, largely without any analysis of what these routes do or how they operate.  A better approach is to figure out why some routes are expensive and/or attract low ridership, such as poor service quality (on-time performance, frequency, connections) and many seem to be designed to fail. The existing late night service is one example, but rather than get rid of it, service should be vastly improved and expanded to full overnight service (don't forget the early morning needs!). Commuter rail come up too.

We talk about the importance of good service planning, the different levels of planning, and how we can not only make small routine changes but also design a better network. Aside from service cuts, no routes have changed since 2008 and a comprehensive review has never been done, even though travel patterns have changed a lot since the 1964 creation of MBTA. Most routes do not meet basic service standards like crowding and on-time performance. How can we plan for upgrades?

The Green Line Extension is way over budget and horribly mismanaged, largely due to schedule pressures, not enough MBTA staff to oversee this massive project (due to austerity) and as a result contractors scamming the T. Are we learning the lessons as the FMCB looks to cut the budget even more? We explain the importance of carrying out the GLX plan which was approved through an extensive public process, and how proposed project reductions would actually cause us to spend more in operating costs to run the line.

Podcast 18 - Transit Operations & Public-Private Partnerships with John Attanucci

We sit down with longtime transit consultant John Attanucci at the MIT Transit Lab to discuss some of the deficiencies in our transit network and how we could better design and manage it. We also learn about existing private transportation services and how they might help fill critical gaps in the MBTA network if the T remains unable to add or change its services. And we touch on the revenue question.

Fun fact: The single most important factor affecting bus reliability is leaving the starting point on time. What will it take to have 95% of all trips leaving at their scheduled time (or for the most frequent routes, at an even interval)?

Don't miss this month's Beer & Transit with former Governor Michael Dukakis. Full details and link to RSVP at transitmatters.info.