FMCB

MBTA Ridership Increased 15 Percent Since 2004: T is more crowded than ever

A review of daily passenger statistics published by the MBTA shows that ridership has skyrocketed. Ridership on the subways and trolleys is up over 20 percent in just ten years.

This confirms what we all know: the service is slower, more crowded and less reliable than ever. Our best transit services, the Red and Orange Lines, now see an astonishing 30 percent more riders than in 2004, yet both lines operate almost exactly the same number of trains today.

Source: MBTA Bluebook

Source: MBTA Bluebook

** Important Notes:
(1) These numbers obscure fare increases and service cuts that have hurt ridership, especially on buses, ferries and "contracted bus" lines.
(2) Bus ridership varies by route. Many have seen increases over 20 percent.
(3) Commuter Rail ridership counts are likely inaccurate. CR has been subjected to significant fare increases and now costs less than driving in most places. 
(4) Green Line counts are lower than actual ridership because of unknown numbers of passengers entering via the rear doors. Overcrowding prevents ridership growth.

None of this is news to regular riders. Our failure to invest in system upgrades causes frequent delays, breakdowns, and overcrowding, as well as increased traffic congestion which delays buses so much that planners now routinely lengthen scheduled bus travel times. (Given the same number of available buses and drivers, that means fewer trips.)

However, the T's Control Board has repeatedly described ridership as "basically flat" when lamenting rising costs. T Spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said, “It seems fair to characterize less than 1 percent average annual growth as flat.”

Instead of downplaying the impacts of our transit network, to which many hardworking employees dedicate their careers, MBTA officials should be trumpeting soaring ridership as evidence of the importance of transit and the need to upgrade it to meet the needs of our rapidly growing region. No major investments have been made to the system’s core since the 1980s and we're feeling the consequences of our shortsightedness. If we don’t start investing now, the problem will only get worse, and it will only cost more when we eventually decide to expand and maintain our critical infrastructure.

The Frontier Group's Tony Dutzik did a similar analysis and goes into more detail on the impacts of housing and commercial growth as well as comparisons with other large cities. As he reminds us, these large increases in ridership come despite repeated fare increases, service cuts and declining service quality. If we made some investments in the system, ridership would increase even more. 

Instead, we're looking at more fare increases and service cuts without any hope of real reforms or revenue. Let the T know they should stand up for the truth and develop a real plan for major service improvements.

Podcast 23 - Alon Levy, Pedestrian Observations

We sat down with urban transit student and author of the popular Pedestrian Observations blog, Alon Levy, well known among advocates for his knowledge of best (and worst) practices in urban planning and transportation.

In a time of short-sighted cost-cutting and privatization efforts, it is refreshing to hear smart and effective ways to use our existing transportation assets. We spend some time debunking the myth that new technology like the Hyperloop or personal rapid transit will solve our problems. Instead, we know how to address our challenges using existing technology, for example, modernizing commuter rail, increasing core system capacity and upgrading the network to serve modern travel needs. Using electronics before concrete. And of course, we cover the MBTA's Control Board and the ongoing mess, including privatization, late night service, the Green Line Extension, North South Rail Link, and try to learn why construction costs so much.

And much more.

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.

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 16 - Former MassDOT Secretary James Aloisi on the state of transit in Boston

Podcast 16 - Former MassDOT Secretary James Aloisi on the state of transit in Boston

Former MassDOT Secretary James Aloisi joins us to share his thoughts on the MBTA fiscal and management control board - how focusing on the bottom line distracts from improving and expanding our transit network - and how we can achieve a robust, efficient and egalitarian transportation system in an era of public sector austerity.

What reform could the T make to improve service? What does revenue mean and how do we get there? What can cities do? Can the private sector or “innovation” help us use real-time data more effectively to create a better regional transportation network? We review lessons from past political struggles, including the “four constituencies” of any project and challenges of trying to do things differently within structures designed to preserve the status quo.