Podcast 28 - Commuter Rail Modernization & why the North South Rail Link matters

We're joined in studio by Brad Bellows in this conversation to talk about the state of Commuter Rail and what the North South Rail Link can do for our region. Brad is an architect, board member of the Association for Public Transportation, and a member of the North South Rail Link Working Group which is leading a renewed push to see the connector finally built. 

This episode was recorded on April 19. [Our apologies for the long break, we've been busy advocating for better transit. More shows are in the pipeline. If you're interested in helping with podcast editing and blog posting, please email]

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, 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.

The Case Against MBTA Fare Increases -- And How to Move Forward

The MBTA fare increase proposals (presentation, summary) are unnecessary and not even helpful in closing the budget gap. We summarized all the feedback we've received and proposed alternatives to increase ridership and revenue and reduce operating costs.


  1. MBTA fares have more than doubled since 2000, far outpacing inflation and exceeding even the increase in housing prices. Meanwhile the state gas tax has increased only 3 cents and no longer supports the cost of road maintenance, but MBTA riders are being asked to pay their own way.

  2. Commuter Rail fares and parking fees are some of the highest in the nation despite very infrequent service. Record rents and declining wages are forcing large numbers of people out of the city, to places where Commuter Rail is the only transit but is unaffordable. Low ridership has been cited as a motivation for further service cuts, yet when a day trip costs $84 for a family of four, the Commuter Rail is not living up to its potential as an effective regional transportation network.

  3. Ridership is up over 20 percent on all major lines as the city’s population has increased 10 percent in ten years. Trains and buses are slower, more crowded and less reliable than ever. All major rail and bus lines operate over capacity every day and the system does not effectively serve many trips. Failing to increase service by 20 percent is essentially a service reduction. Riders cannot be expected to pay even more without major upgrades such as increased capacity, faster service and new lines — give us a system worth paying for.

  4. Higher fares turn T riders into car drivers and make traffic congestion even worse, unless accompanied by major service improvements or a gas tax increase to make drivingless appealing. With gas prices approaching 11-year lows, commuters see transit fares rising and service quality declining and make the obvious choice. Rather than continue the death spiral of service cuts (yes, eliminating late night service = service cuts) and fare increases until transit is no longer effective and streets are completely gridlocked, now is the time to reverse course and invest heavily in public transportation, including maintaining or lowering fares.

  5. No major investments have been made to the system’s core since the 1980s and we are now paying the price as the MBTA slowly falls apart. The MBTA has made significant progress on reforms but the promised revenue in “reform before revenue” remains elusive. No efficiencies will ever fill the $7 Billion budget gap -- and that's just to reliably run what we have now, without desperately needed upgrades. If we don’t start investing now, the system will only get worse, and it will only cost more when we eventually have no choice. Riders are not responsible for chronic underinvestment and cannot be asked to shoulder the burden of ever increasing debt service payments.

  6. Soaring housing costs and declining wages are forcing many people to move to places with poor transit access. We have repeatedly cut service and raised fares on these "low ridership" services, while ignoring others with great potential.

  7. Governor Baker said there should be no new taxes or fees — apparently not including T riders. The agency’s 4% cost growth is in line with the Governor’s call for a 5% increase in state spending elsewhere. So why is the MBTA Control Board subjecting T riders to a higher standard?

  8. Good transit provides many benefits to all of society — even those who never use it. Public transportation supports dense, vibrant communities where everyone has access to basic needs and the freedom to move around the region. Last winter showed us just how important the MBTA is to the entire state’s economy: without the T, all of our favorite stores, restaurants, institutions and entertainment venues would be unable to attract sufficient customers and employees. Imagine a transit system with the resources to run excellent service every day and make people actually want to use it.

  9. Traffic congestion on our streets and highways is worse than ever because of our failure to upgrade and expand the transit network. Boston EMS ambulance response times have increased 16 percent since 2009, the Boston Fire Department takes one minute longer to respond to calls, and buses spend much of their trip stuck in traffic. Only by expanding transit so it is useful for more people will we create space for essential services and emergency vehicles. Fare increases only put more cars on the road.

  10. Over 100 years after the first subway construction in Boston, the region’s poorest, most underrepresented neighborhoods still lack rapid transit access. Communities such as Chelsea, Roxbury and Mattapan have the longest trip times (often slower than walking) and least reliable bus service. These riders are also most heavily impacted by rising fares, often cutting back on groceries or skipping social events due to the cost of transportation. Special attention should be focused on bringing fast, frequent and more affordable transit to our most vulnerable riders.

  11. Riders are doing their part to support vibrant communities, reduce traffic and address climate change. We should reward - not punish - those who use the MBTA by maintaining or lowering fares across the system and investing in faster and more effective service. Our transit network is a valuable public service, not a profitable business, and it's time we started treating it like one.



Many simple changes could improve the user experience and help alleviate capacity constraints until service can be expanded. The T should experiment with several options in an effort to upgrade service and reallocate inefficiently used resources, and as alternatives to (or mitigation for) a fare increase. In other words, what improvements are we getting for the higher fees?

  1. Instead of a single transfer, allow unlimited transfers within 2 hours on bus, subway and Commuter Rail, to permit trips through downtown and between non-downtown points. Currently it is impossible to go from Roxbury to Chelsea, Everett to Brighton Center, or Roslindale to Brookline (just a few examples) without two fares or a very long trip with a transfer downtown. Removing the barrier would allow riders to make more efficient trips and access more jobs while increasing ridership (and revenue) and reducing congestion in the downtown transfer stations. An unlimited transfer — think of it as a 2-hour unlimited pass — is in effect on transit systems across the country such as Portland, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

  2. Implement all-door boarding on buses and trolleys. Pass users could board at any door and special fare inspectors would conduct occasional inspections, issuing a fine to riders who haven’t paid. Up to 30 percent of Green Line and bus travel time is spent sitting at stops while riders line up in the cold waiting to tap their card. Keeping buses and trolleys moving means faster service, more frequent service, more evenly spaced trains/buses, reduced fare evasion and lower operating costs. All-door boarding is now standard practice on nearly all North American light rail lines and San Francisco has expanded it to all buses.

  3. Reduce Commuter Rail fares on off-peak and weekend trains. As record numbers of urban dwellers leave the region’s core to escape soaring rents, the Commuter Rail has the potential to dramatically improve their quality of life. Yet commuter Rail fares are too expensive, even off-peak trains operate with hundreds of empty seats that could offer a fast new service to riders of all income levels. Thousands of riders endure long trips on crowded buses or limit their economic and social opportunities because of transportation costs. Many more drive choose driving over the high train fare, adding thousands more cars to our streets every day.

    • Extend Zone 1A (subway fare) to include all stations within 12 miles of downtown Boston, roughly the distance to Braintree, Waltham or Lynn, or anywhere within Route 128. It is expensive to provide very frequent service on slow, crowded buses to places like Hyde Park, Roslindale, Waltham and Lynn while train cars run empty.

    • Heavily discount Commuter Rail fares during off-peak periods and on weekends. Chicago and Philadelphia have seen large ridership increases with their $8 unlimited weekend (Chicago) and $12 unlimited (Philadelphia) off-peak passes.

    • Integrate fares between subway, bus and Commuter Rail so that riders can pay with a CharlieCard. Issue transfers valid between the Commuter Rail and a subway or bus line. Add a credit card payment option.

  4. Coordinate bus connections at terminals, stations and transfer locations. Improve scheduling of connecting services and hold buses and trains for close connections during times of less frequent service.

  5. Upgrade bus stops, stations and terminals to improve service quality and comfort, allow more efficient bus and passenger circulation and increase ridership at very low cost.

  6. Implement transit priority measures on city streets for faster, more reliable and less costly bus and trolley service. Faster service and increased on-time performance were among the top requests from participants in the GoBoston 2030 transportation planning process. Many simple signal modifications and street design changes would help meet these goals.

  7. If fares do increase, offer free and discounted passes for low-income riders through social service programs such as SNAP, WIC and MassHealth. Expand student pass programs through cities and university groups. However, the availability of low-income discounts must not serve as a justification for fare increases.


Speak up at a public meeting, submit comments and contact your representatives. Your city and state elected officials need to hear from you; remind them that the MBTA benefits everyone in the state and we must make up for our past mistakes. Otherwise the death spiral of high fares and poor service will continue -- more breakdown, delays and late trains/buses -- until our once-proud transit network falls apart for good.

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]