service changes

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.

Major changes coming to Commuter Rail schedules

Major changes coming to Commuter Rail schedules

Image via Flickr

We recently learned of major schedule changes coming to the Commuter Rail, including service reductions on several lines leaving long gaps between trains. The new schedules, effective Dec 14, were designed without any public consultation. If you have feedback on the changes please contact the MBTA and your elected officials.

Transit Matters believes a frequent, reliable and comprehensive regional rail network is an essential component of a transportation system that provides access and opportunity. The current Commuter Rail system falls far short, so we sent the following letter to the MBTA, MassDOT and others asking for the changes to be postponed until they begin a public process. ...

A Muddled Call to Arms by the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee as MBTA is Forced to Consider Fare Increases

It may soon cost you more to walk through these gates, but a fare increase shouldn't be the only option on the table.

As the looming fare increase and service cut proposals gain more public awareness in the wake of yesterday's MBTA board meeting, Boston residents, and perhaps the Commonwealth itself, are forced to mull over what options are on the table to deal with the growing gap in the MBTA's operating budget.

Eric Moskowitz from the Globe lays out the situation accurately and succinctly:

If the T does nothing, it faces a projected $161 million deficit for the fiscal year that starts July 1, as costs such as utilities, health insurance, and federally mandated paratransit service rise faster than MBTA revenue, the chief sources of which are fares (about $450 million a year) and a percentage of the state sales tax (worth nearly $800 million).

The T faced a similar situation last year but avoided a fare increase by implementing one-time measures such as selling future parking revenue to investors for a lump sum. The T has also tightened pension eligibility, streamlined labor costs (including switching from two operators to one operator on multiple subway lines), auctioned surplus property, and sold ads on everything from station walls to its website.

The T last raised fares Jan. 1, 2007.

Just in time to be a part of this discussion, the MBTA Rider Oversight Committe has released a plea to riders to speak to their representatives and advocate for better MBTA funding, which will hopefully run in tomorrow's Metro:

Riders, now is the time for us to stand up and speak out. The T’s red ink is much worse than you think. Next year, without increased funding, your bus or train could be the one that stops coming. Do we want the transit system we can afford or the transit system that we need? Rally round, and get engaged! Come join us at the public meetings and support the MBTA. Help us by calling your local and state representatives to insist they finally address the T’s funding gap. Fellow riders, it’s our T. It’s time for us to defend it.

In their letter, they speak to the better senses of the public, as does much of the press, trying to inform and arm the public with information to help advocate for a better solution, but many of the more radical options have been left out of the conversation, at least outside of twitter.

The last time New York City had to face these issues a few years ago, local politics included more vocal pushes for alternative funding vehicles to prevent a massive fare increase and service cuts. (They happened anyway because New York politics is a mess and has been one for a while.) Beyond typical ignorant ranting of government largess and inefficiencies, there were calls to start congestion pricing, tolling East River crossings, and even tax local businesses' payrolls (which has not gone over well).

Suffice it to say, all of these seem to be third rail topics that neither the press nor local advocates are willing to propose. While the ROC and others, including Secretary Davey himself, are pointing at the Commonwealth's legislature for relief, the fact remains that none of them are standing behind a unified message of what to ask for from the legislature in terms of bridging the funding gap, especially considering the Commonwealth is already trying to deal with a tight budget for every other state agency.

From my experience on twitter lately, it seems riders are more concerned with the platform experience more than the funding mechanisms behind the MBTA, more quick to bash it for inefficiency and waste than grant the agency a shadow of a doubt and look into reports about the funding situation. Advocates and members of the public in the know need to step up, do a better job to make the facts and options more accessible to riders, and stand behind a more cohesive message.

All I'm seeing is repeated messages of what we don't want and what we don't feel comfortable bringing up. I'll start by throwing my weight behind moderate fare increasescongestion pricingparking reform (market pricing), and better long-term real estate deals on MBTA/state owned property. Perhaps we could get started on making public-private partnerships to assure funding, quality construction, and well-capitalised reconstruction of ageing stations and the Green Line extension, because simply selling naming rights of stations to corporations is really selling out the system.

MBTA Steps Up Its Game, Shares (In)Visible Results

This morning, the General Manager's twitter account pointed riders to an album of photos on Flickr covering the painting that happened at the Davis Square station this weekend. They also added a few photos of the continued work on the spot repairs they have been doing to the floating slabs along the Red Line, the primary project causing the ongoing weekend service outages of the Red Line north of Harvard.

Before Rich Davey was General Manager of the MBTA three years ago, photos of work on the T were few and far between. Months after I started tweeting about the MBTA (prompted by the phenomenal 2009 derailment of the Red Line, which I experienced personally on a train) and in May 2010, shortly after Davey took office, the MBTA created their twitter account to directly address customers in real time.

Davey was able to sporadically update riders with photos covering things like his visit to Korea earlier this year to tour construction of the first cars in the MBTA's new order of bi-level commuter rail cars.  This wasn't nearly enough to assure the public of the work that it does and was far less than what the MTA in neighbouring New York City has been doing with Flickr to cover weekend work.

It's good to see the MBTA has ramped up their own behind-the-scenes coverage of work, instead of having to be at the mercy of the press to cover their overnight and weekend work. This is photographic evidence to reassure the riders and general public that work is being done to the system, especially work that is invisible, but important, to riders. Now it's up to the press, blogosphere, and twitterverse to get the word out.

At the same time, does it really matter that there are photos of work if trains are still late and the MBTA is unable to affect perceivable changes to service quality? Most riders will see these photos and immediately ask, 'Why is my Orange Line train delayed?'

Transit Construction During the Great 'Recession'

I'm currently killing some time before heading off to a discussion at the Museum of the City of New York on the challenges facing ongoing and planned transit construction projects in the New York City metro region during these trying economic times. Boston has it's own projects that have been stalled (or in an extended design and environmental review process) for quite some time until this most recent MassDOT/MBTA Board of Directors meeting: the Orange Line infill station at Assembly Square, the Green Line Extension to Route 16 (the current project only extending to College Avenue, one stop shy of the legal requirement for the project to reach Medford), the Blue Line extension to Charles-MGH, further Blue Line extensions beyond Wonderland, drafting and design of new Red and Orange Line cars.

Thinking on that and a political comic from 1938 on the then titled 'recession' that I came across at the MCNY, infrastructure investment has always proven to be a means of driving economic recovery by putting people back to work and providing improved mobility for commerce during down economic times and after economic recovery.

The Obama administration is two years late in offering such a solution, instead having opted to deal first with the politically unpopular healthcare reform he initially promised during his campaign. Nevertheless, the Obama administration, the Federal DOT, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood have outlined a budget for a more 'balanced' transportation budget, improving the budget ratio between transit and roads from 20:80 to 24:76.

Even more unfortunately, the mass transit funding debate often gets overshadowed by the high speed rail funding debate, the latter of which is currently being played out on the national political stage with sweeping action and unfortunately dramatic rejections of funding. Within mass transit funding, there are significant issues between expanding service and improving network access within cities, the former enabling more suburban settlement farther from city centers and the latter strengthening networks within cities and making them more resilient to network failures (i.e. medical emergencies, police activity, and disabled trains).

Will we 'win the future'? Maybe. But we've already lost a lot of time and money propping up companies rather than the physical infrastructure that enables us to live, work, and play.

The Apparent Illogic in Reduced Train Service

Updated: Yesterday, the Boston Globe published an article on changes to the commuter rail schedule the MBCR plans to enact during the next snowstorm. A volley of angry tweets followed the article yesterday, subtly noting the apparent illogic of reducing train service to improve train service.

We all know by now that much of the MBTA's and MBCR's is well beyond their rated life cycle and many have missed the mid-life overhaul that would've kept them running more reliably up to the day of their replacement. (Of course the reasons for this are largely ignored and squarely placed on the MBTA for its inability to budget for capital expenses but that's for another post.) With that, many troublesome pieces of equipment are nonetheless scrambled into service in order to have the necessary capacity to move the many thousands of commuters who flood platforms every rush hour.

The problem is that much of this equipment isn't worth running for the number of delays (and angry commuters) they produce. From an operations perspective, the most logical move would be to remove those trains from service to properly repair them and prevent them from delaying other trains or stopping service entirely. This reduces the number of trains that run, increases the headway between trains, and makes trains more crowded (which produces its own delays), but if the remaining trains that run are more reliable, the occurrence of equipment-related delays goes down and everyone gets to where they need to go with fewer frustrations. Additionally, by increasing headways and reducing the number of trains running, riders along the line are more insulated from momentary delays. This, of course, only makes it harder to get passengers moving again when there are delays not related to equipment failure, like medical emergencies or police action. The ultimate solution is replacement of failing trains and repair of various track and wayside components. All of that should start coming in with MBTA's 2012-2016 Capital Investment Plan [PDF]; the depth and breadth of the CIP and whether or not it is fully funded are entirely different matters.

The Globe article itself is scant on the details of how the MBCR will 'devote more staff time and financial resources to maintaining coaches and locomotives' and how, if at all, it relates to this reduced inclement weather schedule. For improved fleet maintenance, reducing the number of trains at all times would make the most sense, but it's likely MBCR has extra stock that it can scramble into action in order to maintain cars like the control car on Ms. DelBono's cancelled 6:45 train. The new commuter cars set to start arriving in 2012 on north shore lines should provide the additional stock MBCR needs to have a buffer of working equipment while adding extra rush hour capacity.

National Context on Weather-Related Problems

One tweet yesterday from an incredulous Bostonian asked why any commuter in the Boston area would ever care about the performance of other railroads in regards to the presentation the MBCR delivered yesterday, as obtained by the Globe. The issues other railroads in the Northeast are experiencing provide a context for the issues that have plagued the Boston area commuter rail network, the very context many riders are lacking when they're standing at platforms waiting for their trains that makes them feel victimized by their transport operator.

This isn't to excuse the lack of communication by the MBCR with regard to its delays and cancelled trains, but instead to point out that even operators like the Long Island Railroad and MetroNorth Railroad with their modern equipment aren't immune to track conditions or don't also have to cut service due to aging equipment.

Communication as a Service to the Customer

The MBTA's at it again with their signs. This time they had a template, but still managed to turn an opportunity to communicate with its riders into a  block of blithering text. Even worse is the fact that the text comes roughly from an MBTA press release that was verbose, redundant, and awkwardly phrased to begin with. These posters, which were first sighted Wednesday evening, were posted in few places around Alewife and Park Street stations, including on some blank A-frame sign boards next to another sign with poor body copy. The other signs present at the station posted construction updates on the switch just south of Alewife. (Photos at the bottom of the post.)

General Manager Rich Davey has stated his focus is on safety and customer service, and he reiterated this on a recent visit to Springfield. If he and the MBTA are serious about customer service, it's imperative that they get their act together and work on communicating with their patrons. It was said at the first meeting with the GM over three months ago that the MBTA does not do enough to tell its own story, to advocate for itself, and essentially keep riders informed. However, one would be hard pressed to find improvement in the communications side of customer service if many of those methods communicate very poorly to begin with.

I've focused a lot on signs and posters mostly because they're a passion of mine, but also because they are the perfect test for the agency's ability to communicate critical customer service-related information to riders efficiently and conspicuously. A family of four visiting from out of town managed to miss a sign that was right next to them at Park Street. When I asked them their thoughts on the sign, they noted that the reason they didn't notice the sign was because it simply wasn't conspicuous enough. Surely there are better ways of engineering the signs to be more conspicuous than having MBTA crew dress up like the American stereotype for a terrorist and walk around with the signs.

As of this posting, there still isn't a conspicuous notice about the emergency response drill on the main MBTA page and no immediate indication from the main page that such advisories even exist. Further, there is no information available online on the construction updates at Alewife. When all is said and done, the MBTA needs to work on communicating efficiently and clearly, in their signs, press releases, and other communication methods. If they don't, their attempts at informing riders will go unnoticed and the agency will continue to look like a bunch of bureaucrats doing an amateur job of serving the greater Boston area.

As usual, I've included my own revisions below, linked to PDFs of the revisions.

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