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MBTA Fare Hikes: Where Idealism and Pragmatism Never Meet

A few weeks ago in this space I mentioned Jay Walder’s lecture to a group of transpophlic students at the Kennedy School of Government where he presented the Cerberus of budget balancing tactics for cash strapped transit agencies: raise fares, cut service, increase efficiencies. The first two almost always get press—streamlining data storage or eliminating redundant administrative jobs don’t make for good headlines—and, if you live in the Boston area, you’ll no doubt have seen grumblings about the MBTA’s 23% general fare hike which will be rolled out this summer. (The elimination of four lonely bus routes will has only been mentioned tangentially.) Subway riders will shell out $2.00, bus riders $1.50, and a monthly pass will go from $59.00 to $70.00. Outrage has come from the usual suspects like the T Rider’s Union (who took over a public MBTA meeting clad in superhero garb) and LivableStreets Alliance, a local progressive transportation advocacy group.

But I just can’t really muster up any righteous indignation on this issue. Alright, the MBTA should have balanced their books and lobbied the State House to change the outdated funding techniques which are based on tax revenues projected during headier times. And yes, raising transit fares hits low income neighborhoods especially hard since higher income households are typically car commuters. And yeah, it would have been great if salaries had risen parallel with inflation rates and real costs of living instead of stagnating in the post-Reagan era so low income families wouldn’t have to shell out an increasing proportion of their income towards a transit system that hasn’t seen a capital improvement in decades.

It’s going to sound cold, but these uneven consequences are an intractable aspect of the current transit vernacular. Maintenance, engineering, consulting, accounting, benefits, pensions, etc. are all financially chained to a timeline; it only stands to reason that as those expenses grow the other side of the ledger needs to balance and fare hikes are the simplest and, in many ways, the most appropriate technique to accomplish that. And it completely sucks, but it’s the way  transit is paid for and will continue to be paid for.

Until it’s changed. And there are ample opportunities to change funding mechanisms (some of which have been discussed in this space in the past) but they require complete reconceptualizations of systems and bureaucracies and languages that have been entrenched in every major metro center through the country. There is a dusty linearity here, a mildewed inequality that only starts to run afoul when fare hikes are penciled into administrative schedules like President’s Day and Halloween because no one really considers alternatives—just gripes.

In the end, $2.00 for a subway ride will do minimal damage to most family and personal budgets. (I pay $`104 for a subway pass in NYC—talk about exorbitant). But eventually the nominal price hikes for transit service will catch up to higher and higher cuts of the population unless the prevailing economic realities of the American working class change or transportation administrators rethink how we pay for our buses and subways. Go ahead and guess which one is easier.

As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

For some reason, no one wants to run transportation agencies in the Northeast. The departure of managers like Jay Walder, former MTA general manager, and the impending vacancy of MassDOT’s Jeffrey Mullan –apparently over a pay squabble with Governor Deval Patrick—shouldn’t come as a surprise: running these systems is a big headache. There’s never enough money to run subways and buses on time, not to mention the harsh winters that accelerate the wear on buses and stress on stations while simultaneously draining the budget. Clearing tons of snow doesn’t come cheap.

Walder’s replacement hasn’t been found yet, but looking for a luminary with a résumé like his —he’s credited with introducing the Oyster card in London and pushed for a tap version of the MetroCard  (coming in 2015, hopefully)— is going to be left up to a task-force headed by New York’s Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch and is quite the order.  Commissioner Mullan’s job description is broader but relatively easier; more highways, less subways. His replacement is Richard Davey, a sort of Jay Walder-lite, and he is leaving his post as the chief of the MBTA for the commissioner’s desk at the Massachusetts Transportation Building, across the Boston Common from the State House.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Jay Walder, Former MTA Chief (Copyright NY Daily News, Xanthos)

Davey isn’t taking over until September 1st, and he’s inheriting a mess of disappointment, anxiety, and general disdain for the Bay State’s infrastructure. Commuters from the West hate the tolls, Bostonians don’t like the prospect of bus and subway fare hikes (there hasn’t been one for the past five years), and there are parking lots doubling as thoroughfares in the suburbs to the south and north. Davey’s office is a crosshair of discontent making a typically easy target for public griping –public transportation—even easier to find.

Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT

-Richard Davey

The news isn’t all bad for soon-to-be Commissioner Davey: the shape of the Massachusetts economy is sturdier than the country as whole and unemployment numbers are far below the national average at 7.6%. That means that while Bay Staters may dislike any impending cost increases to their daily commute, they are in a better position to afford it. That won’t be reason enough to refrain from protest should any combination of an unholy trinity occur: toll increases, fare hikes, and gas taxes. These strategies are not levers for the sake of pulling: transportation costs for single drivers commuting from the suburbs outweighs costs for those taking public transportation as a proportion of income and the savings incurred by carpooling would make any frugal commuter from Framingham or Swampscott squeeze in the backseat between Ashley from accounting and Jackson from HR.

 As Richard Davey Prepares to Take Reign at MassDOT, a Lack of Continuity at Northeast Transportation Authorities

Richard Davey, left, Incoming MassDOT Commissioner with Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), center. (Copyright Governor's Office)

Davey is also appreciably realistic and honest about the state of transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts (bad), the implications that has for the economy (also, bad), and the brand of strategies that need to be in play in order to shore it up (rough). But Davey has to equivocate like any holding political office–and running buses and trains in a major American city is a unique political act. “Reform is the status quo now at MassDOT,” he told WBUR’s Meghna Chakrabarti in an interview last week, referring to that department’s efforts to streamline operations and find savings before it went looking for new cash. Remaining mum on anything outside of a general fare increase is a shrewd but obvious reference to Governor Patrick’s failed bid to add $0.19 to the state’s paltry $0.235 gasoline excise tax, a move that would have raised $500 million annually and gone a long way towards disarming the debt bomb ticking away at 10 Park Plaza.

Overseeing a public transportation system, as Davey did for a little more than a year, is slightly worse than a thankless job. Subway and bus riders assume –just like pedestrians and motorists—that there infrastructure lacks considerable complexity in providing service at a high level and low cost. Straphangers have taken on an odd brand of roundabout logic regarding transit: the subway has been there because it’s always been there and –this is critical—it will never not be there. Complaints about efficiencies and delays sound more like an amateur chef criticizing the saltiness of a dish at Le Cirque or O Ya; a problem with a blunt, linear solution. The reality is overwhelming and complex – unless, of course, maintaining personalities, budgets, complaints, politics, and equity while simultaneously attempting to keep one’s job sounds like the managerial equivalent of making grilled cheese. Riders often neglect the basic thermodynamic logic behind a public transportation infrastructure: it is a system, and systems are inherently inefficient. Davey will, hopefully, go a long ways towards “squeezing every ounce of savings [he] can out of the organization”, but more importantly (and potentially more hopelessly) he can also educate riders, drivers, and walkers on what exactly goes into his job, a position that has remained a black box for most American cities.

Of course, these are still difficult times to get anything done in Massachusetts transportation when there is still the echo of overdrawn budgets reverberating through the Big Dig tunnels. It is harder still when you consider that the design and implementation dysfunction at that very same project may push the bottom line even higher. Davey discusses that project with the same tenor a cheater might save for a particularly terminal infidelity: “Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” Admitting institutional mistakes, even if the missteps were on someone else’s watch, is especially satisfying coming from a transportation official where colossal successes and failures are almost always cut from the same cloth, and only the former ever find an owner.

Was it mismanaged? Yes it was. Was it overpriced? Absolutely. But you know what, we have to manage the situation and that’s what we’re going to do.” -Richard Davey 

Chakrabarti’s interview with the commissioner-nominee, his first after Gov. Patrick’s announcement, centered on the one question he says will define his tenure: “What kind of transportation system do we want?” The crystalline rhetoric (what other answer could one have besides “good” or “great” or “really great”?) isn’t pointless. If Davey’s position is geared towards educating Massachusetts residents on the subtle and unglamorous issues facing infrastructure then he will have not only taken his predecessor’s path to its logical extension but also conducted an exhibition in bureaucratic pragmatism, a task only slightly more simple than fixing the Green Line.

Transit News Roundup (6/17)

Transit News for the week of 6/17/11 and there’s some good stuff (thanks as always to Bernie Wagenblast):

- Where’s the bar? Metro-North posts which trains have bar cars and which ones do not, finally solving the last conundrum facing the homeward-bound drinker (via The New Haven Register)

- It seems like some transit agencies just understand the concept of intuition. Google, in all its infinite wisdom, is attempting to change that mindset and showing that the big winners are the riders. (via StreetsBlog)

- And the expansion of smartcard uses continues: cyclists can now pay for bike parking with them. Now they just need to get them to do, well, everything else. (via SecureIDNews)

- And the movement towards videoscreens EVERYWHERE continues! (via Chicago Sun-Times)

- The French and the Dutch are arguing over what music should be played in Brussels’ subway stations, can’t we just agree both of them are awful and play some BRUCE?! (via Times Union)

- Leaving political ads off the T? I’m just going to say it’s probably a good idea. Who knows what would have happened if Rep. Weiner was from Brookline instead of Brooklyn? (via Boston Globe)

- SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY

It’s STATION DOMINATION…with advertising. (via Boston Globe)

- And from our friends in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle), what happens when the guy who runs an entire transit application leaves to work for Google in, um, Zurich? They don’t know. (via Seattle PI)

Green Line Extension Workshops

This is a little more pragmatic, and oddly paradoxical, appendix to a post on improving the Green Line; apparently the luminaries at the MBTA are way ahead of me in organizing an extension of the Green Line. There are some station design workshops coming up in June that should give people a real chance to influence how these stations are going to look and operate. The dates:

June 7th from 6PM – 8PM: College Avenue Station, Tufts University, 51 Winthrop Street, Medford

June 9th from 6PM – 8PM: Ball Square Station, Somerville High School Auditorium, 81 Highland Avenue

June 13th from 6PM – 8PM: Lowell Street Station, Somerville High School Auditorium, 81 Highland Avenue

June 15th from 6PM – 8PM: Gilman Square Station, Somerville High School Auditorium, 81 Highland Avenue

June 22nd from 6PM – 8PM: Union Square Station, Cummings Elementary School, 42 Prescott Street

June 23rd from 6PM- 8PM: Washington Street Station, Cummings Elementary School, 42 Prescott Street

June 30th from 6PM – 8PM: Lechmere Station, Kennedy/Longfellow School, 158 Spring Street, Cambridge

So quite the range of dates here and pretty geographically varied. The Green Line extension for those who don’t know —and I just recently became informed— is a proposal that would run the Green Line through Cambridge and Somerville where subways are essentially absent. East Cambridge and Somerville are both blue-collar neighborhoods that need access to transit outside of bus routes which, while expansive, are intermittent and shut down service early. The MBTA’s graphic is below:

 Green Line Extension Workshops

 

 

 

 

The extension will do what transit does: increase incomes, raise home values, and create jobs along its corridor. It’s a wonder why we don’t invest in this stuff more often.

To the Museum!

You can get most places in Boston taking the bus or the subway, you just can’t always get there without transferring a couple times. To go from MIT in Cambridge to Fenway Park, you can take the Red Line train to Park Street and transfer to the Green Line to Kenmore Square. You could also take the #1 bus to Beacon Street and Massachusetts Avenue—and walk another 0.6 miles. Or you can walk 1.3 miles, which would probably be a shorter trip that either of the previous options. Either way you won’t be getting to that game on time if you don’t give yourself a good 30 minute window, and that’s with one of the most urban integrated stadiums in the world.

Connections between points of interest in a city as small as Boston should be a cornerstone of transit planning, but current transportation strategies are based around short-route buses which tend to lose a few thousand dollars a day on average and effective, but still lacking, subway systems. In Boston, where subway systems are the oldest in the United States, it’s difficult to criticize only the planning policies; city plans and locations of interest change every generation, but buses have flexibility in routing with low capital sunk costs (signage, small stations). They can change.

The poorly made map below —poorly made by me, not the luminaries over at Google— shows how one would get from Back Bay, my neighborhood, to the three major museums around Boston: the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Museum Map

The green line is the transit route: from Copley to the Museum stop, then after running around two of the better museums in the country, you get back on the train to Park Street, switch to the Red Line to South Station, and switch again to the Silver Line; then do it again on the way back. Or you could drive, which is the blue line. But you really, really don’t want to drive here.

Alright so the museums are on opposite sides of Boston, a city that has a unique geographical layout that prohibits pragmatic and predictable transit planning. It is not so unique as to prevent visitors from seeing three different museums in one day without —it depends on where your starting point but let’s use Copley Square station as an origin and endpoint— making a total of six single seat trips. Going from the Museum of Fine Arts to the Institute of Contemporary Art could take as long as hour depending on train frequency, overloaded Green Line trains, and the ambiguity of the Silver Line.

I used this example because it’s the most visually identifiable and its geographical contrast is severe. If we were going on pure self-interest I would have complained about the lack of any direct connection between Copley Square and Harvard Square; two centers of population and financial health. What needs to be considered is this:

- Boston’s aesthetic and tourist geography has changed. If we, like all great cities, want our tourists to ride mass transit without confusion and frustration, then we need to make our bus routes, and eventually our subway maps, more fluid. This isn’t to say that change we change mainlines where low-income and vulnerable communities need them most; we need to eliminate bus lines that lose money due to low ridership and create long haul routes that go between incubators of culture, commerce, and education.

- Contrary to current urban planning vogues, clustering of social institutions can be successful if done in the right way. Vienna’s Museumstrasse and Los Angeles’ burgeoning Museum Mile —funded by the billionaire philanthropist and art patron Eli Broad— can be seen as both long-term and emerging arts agglomeration projects. Museums, unlike restaurants, universities, and pedestrian squares, don’t necessarily benefit the neighborhoods they reside in; if they’re old they are products of institutional wealth in places like New York’s Upper West Side, and if they’re new they are built with neo-industrial infusions where the museum complexes become neighborhoods unto themselves. The latter is an option for a much-maligned and now defunct urban planning theory, “city beautiful”, to have a self-aware revival.

Wien Museum To the Museum!

- Buses and transit are receiving some ingenious influxes of new technologies, but the concept of the bus route hasn’t been revisited for half a century. Bus routes should be able to be fluid based on demand and need, especially for low income and disadvantaged people. We have sophisticated traffic engineering programs that can monitor everything from highway peak load to intelligent traffic signaling, isn’t it time we developed these smart programs for transit?

Buses Just Don’t Make Money

Cities and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPOs) don’t create transit authorities to make money; they’re there to serve the people. That being said, it’d be nice if our public transportation systems at least broke even. There’s not a large-scale (more than 200,000 people) transportation system in America that has a balanced budget solely from fares. Las Vegas maintained near neutral budgets with their effective bus system but then shot themselves in the foot (or buried themselves in the desert, if you like) when they built that stupid monorail.

 Buses Just Dont Make Money

The MBTA is a relatively typical transit agency: an above average subway system with a middling, bordering on subpar, bus system. The latter is what this post is about.

The average cost for a bus ride in Boston is $0.71. Now that is based on National Transit Database (NTD) 2008 calculations so let’s just say with inflation and potential changes in demographics it’s $0.75*. The cost to run a route ranges, but let’s take a basic example: the 59. We have a map below:

59 bus route Buses Just Dont Make Money

Now it goes from Needham to Watertown, so the expectation is that the ridership will be a little less robust than if it was downtown or along a population line so I’ll give two incarnations of the calculations below. Before I do that, let me explain what I’m doing here: these are basic calculations performed on Excel based on the National Transit Database spreadsheets and the MBTA’s schedule. The terms are self-explanatory except for “farebox recovery ratio” which is the percentage of costs covered by just the fares that passengers pay. So here are the first set of numbers:

excel 21 Buses Just Dont Make Money

This bus route loses $3,117.20 a day. Does it even matter how much that is over a year? That’s $3k every day. Now here’s something interesting: we can adjust these numbers to create a budget neutral bus route by increasing the average fare (not pictured here) until that 21% magically becomes 100%:

excel 100 Buses Just Dont Make Money

So the budget neutral fare here is $3.37 which is more comparable to commuter rail prices than bus fares. Is that too high a fare? Most likely yes. Public transportation demographics are especially sensitive to price spikes for individual rides. Low income and minorities dominate urban transportation systems and demographics among monthly pass holders, who by definition pay lower per ride fares, tend to reverse that trend though not in volume. An increase to $3.37, or the introduction of a variable rate model, would be an increase of nearly $2.00; beyond prohibitive for the typical T rider.

 Buses Just Dont Make Money

So what do we do? There’s a lot of answers and I’ll most likely be going through a few of them in detail in later posts. I’ll describe the two sides of the spectrum right now though.

1. We charge what it takes to neutralize the budget through fares instead of concessions and subsidies. I don’t think anyone expects the riders to cover the entire MBTA bill though; there’s a reason we pay sales taxes, gas taxes, etc. So let’s say we have a fare hike to $2.50, comparable to New York’s system. It’s a lot, and it will price out low income and minorities while bailing the MBTA out of its crippling debt services, but some one has to lose out in every scenario and raising fares is the simplest and most effective way of doing that. User fees are brutally effective and unquestionably fair.

2. We leave the fares where they are and leave the MBTA to their regularly scheduled fare hike calendar. Public transit is a necessity in a city; urban areas are by definition land scarce and personal vehicles costs are at a premium. By artificially suppressing mass transit fares the MBTA is able to effectively, and appropriately, subsidize those who cannot afford to suburbanize or use private transportation. These fees are better absorbed by those who can afford them through innovative finance vehicles such as congestion pricing and variable tolling. Commuters are a demographic that can and should bear a large portion of transportation costs. They benefit immensely from the agglomeration economies in Boston but do not pay the premiums of living in a densely populated area.

These are two options on either side of the gauntlet and each have clear cut losers and winners. Fare pricing isn’t simple, but it’s something we all deal with on a daily basis whether we like it or not. What’s the answer here? No one’s really sure, but with the MBTA suffocating from debt, letting fares and  user fees stay stagnant can’t be an option much longer.

*This takes some explanation. Because fares aren’t uniform across the board the calculation of average fares is more complicated than it sounds. Seniors, children, and the disabled receive significantly discounted fares and the weight of monthly, weekly, and daily passes count depending on trip volumes which is a tedious exercise at best. The NTD databases are excellent though, so I’ll trust those guys.

Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

I actually didn’t see this until today, but apparently the T is posting locational data for subway trains (except for the Green Line, because apparently no one with any clout really cares about it). Check out this picture:

 Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

Now has anyone actually seen this thing in action? I honestly don’t go to the Back Bay station that much because it’s in the middle of no where; a basically empty triangle between Copley and the South End. The introduction of this sort of technology has been something we’ve all been waiting for but the problem is that there’s no sort of rhyme or reason to the installation of these thing. Back Bay is essentially a second-tier commuter station that steals a minor market share from South Station and doesn’t do the same volume as a place like Kenmore or Park Street.

Subway systems —and cities in general, but that’s a concept for a different time— obsess over the novel technologies, typically bypassing the introduction of mundane, but hyper-efficient, solutions. The Silver Line, which technically isn’t a subway but is treated like one by the MBTA, does this perfectly at a couple stations as does the entire San Francisco MUNI system. A simple yet devastatingly elegant solution to a problem that was solved by GPS more than a decade ago:

dsc0078 lg Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

Imagine that: a bus stop (technically a “Bus Rapid Transit” stop) that tells you when the next bus is coming. Is the MBTA honestly saying that they can’t put these in every subway station to earn the ephemeral praises of a winter-weary and exhausted public? And then maybe, someday, our subways can look like this:

 Imagine Knowing When the Next T is Coming. Except the Green Line. Ugh.

That’s the Japanese Yamanote line; we’re the red arrow and those numbers, yeah those numbers are how long it will take you to get to a given station. Technically the Yamanote line is a commuter rail system that girdles Tokyo’s main centers, but it operates much the same as the expansive subway system does (don’t look at it too long, it will definitely give you a headache). Boston invented modern American subways; can we please catch up with the rest of the world?

The T: Really Safe, but not, um, that Safe

The MBTA released its crime statistics for 2010 and things apparently got more dangerous for the citizens of Boston. That’s right, 987 “serious” crimes between the subway lines, buses, and commuter rails. Oh, and the ferries. Which no one really cares about. Serious crimes entail all the big ones you can think of including that most nebulous of infractions: assault. Now assault can mean more or less anything that involves physical (and in some cases, non-physical) interaction that is, um, unwanted. So yes it involves the all too common Svedka-fueled brawls and the tragically desperate “subway groping”, and apparently most of those happened on the Red Line.

fares charlie The T: Really Safe, but not, um, that Safe

What they don’t tell you is that there are 360,000,000 trips a year made on the T (just to make Boston feel small, the NYC MTA has 3,000,000,000 a year) which means that you have about a 1 in 360,000 chance of being assaulted. Funny things that could happen to you and have better odds than you getting assaulted on the T:

  1. You dating a supermodel: 88,000 to 1
  2. You striking it rich on Antiques Roadshow: 60,000 to 1
  3. You dying in an explosion: 100,000 to 1. Which is kind of scary.
  4. Chance of dying in an airplane crash: 357,000 to 1. Also scary.

There are more funny ones, but you get the point. But just to make sure you know how scary it is:

Snakes on a Train

 Snakes on a Train
NEED I SAY MORE?!

(I’m sorry for the most uncreative title ever)

Charlie Goes to Bed Early

Boston’s subway system (“the T”) closes somewhere between 12:30 AM and 1 AM starting up again around 5 AM. It’s only 4 hours, but it’s a big deal to the people that use it, especially for those between 18 and 30.

Just so the 297 million Americans who don’t live in the Boston area know, it’s a bar culture up here. Bostonians, and urbane New Englanders in general, are a self-conscious bunch and there are floating theories as to why: insecurity springing from their neighbors to the southwest, the harsh, salt-stained winters, or maybe just the general ethnic homogeneity. Clubs, typically cathedrals of self-worship, just haven’t made a dent in the mainstream drinking community up here. Bars close at 2 AM, and from the Keystone soaked streets of Allston to the, um, Leffe washed cobblestones of Cambridge, the city spits out a few thousand revelers every night into an unprepared transit infrastructure.

 Charlie Goes to Bed Early

So why isn’t the T open 24 hours? It has everything to do with track, and a concept that is novel to Bostonians: “express”. Express tracks are what allows New York’s subway system to run 24 hours a day, utilizing reduced service instead of no service. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think of those extra rails as simple expediters and that’s because they’re not.

Express tracks are an ancillary, providing riders with a faster way to get to work but also supplying transit managers an alternate route for traffic in case of a disabled train, station emergency, or general repairs. Boston doesn’t have them. And for those of us that have experienced “express” on the Green Line, the conflation of  speed and service just doesn’t jive with the MBTA logistics structure. There you have it; the reason the T can’t run 24 hours. Scream it from the Prudential Building, please.

 Charlie Goes to Bed Early

And that’s what we’re stuck with: a subway system that doesn’t cater to the drunk and privileged because the original city planners who introduced the United States’ first trolley car system didn’t realize that not adding a parallel set of tracks would hinder the social lives of pseudo-urbanites who inundate Boston every weekend and drive home drunk because the subway needs to be fixed so that a wide spectrum of incomes can get to work in the morning. For shame.