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Category Archives: Subways

Joe Lhota’s Smart Pragmatism at the MTA

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota’s interview on this morning Brian Lehrer show (listen here) wasn’t exactly earth shattering: he talked about the potential fare hike scenarios, expressed his desire to make the MTA into the best transit system in the world (again), and offered some vague visions of the future. These interviews don’t really rise above local politics, though you’d be forgiven if you considered New York City transit policy a regional issue with national implications. Mr. Lhota was speaking to the daily riders who are worried about rising fare costs while simultaneously trying to convince them that the MTA is still one of the most effective transit systems in the world, not to mention one of the cheapest in the post-industrial world.

But then Joe threw some in this corner of the blogosphere a pretty significant bone: he talked about lengthening stations as an alternative to significant capital programs! And modernizing signal structures!

I’ll be honest that I’m not sure how lengthening stations improves service (I’m assuming Second Ave. Sagas or Cap’n Transit probably has a better idea than I do) but the fact that Mr. Lhota offered up something that is not only pragmatic but also achievable in such a hostile funding climate was sort of revelatory. Listen, everyone wants more service and better service and cheaper service, but at the end of the day that just isn’t a reality. Yes, Albany has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from dedicated MTA coffers, and yes, City Hall hasn’t increased transit funding since the first Clinton administration, but unfortunately there is no financial capacity to do anything additive outside of the Second Ave. subway.

Modernizing the MTA with incremental improvements like fixing the signaling structure (which would make trains come more frequently for all you rabble rousers out there) is a great step in the right direction and shows that Joe Lhota understand his constraints and is able to work within them with elegance and nuance. We’re all upset about the fare hike but I’m ok with an extra quarter going towards real improvements in the system.

Now if only Albany would stop messing everything else up for transit riders we could actually get somewhere.

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.

Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

There’s been a lot of griping about the coverage the Occupy Wall Street protest is getting in widely read media outlets in the United States and abroad. Some consider it the reconstitution of the pacifistic protests of the 1960′s; coherent message was left to the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, the youth were there to simply stop a war and it didn’t matter if they had signs saying different things. The lack of media coverage, for them, is simply another chapter in the saga of man-against-money and a sign that the editorial boards at the Times, Post, Picayune, and Tribune are too deep in the pockets of financiers to see the boiling discontent in Southern Manhattan. Others, however, see reality.

It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic. Because protesting against abstractions is a difficult task without professional propagandists (no, the Tea Party groups are not made up of savant sloganeers) most turn to symbols and the canyon down on Wall Street is the most tangible embodiment of excess the protesters can think of (rather than, say, Westport or Stamford or, um, Towaco) so they gather, MacBooks in laps, and espouse whatever it is they espouse.

Occupy Wall Street Anti B 007 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Photo: The Guardian

It’s easy to make light of people “doing” something from the comfort of a desk; bloggers skirt risk catholically, the internet provides universal anonymity. The Occupy Wall Street participants are active and dedicated and charmingly unorganized. They are there because they see the world, as many good minds do, in terms of fair and unfair, the latter coming around a lot more than the former lately.

It’s inarguable that income inequality and poverty are burgeoning problems in this country and much of the blame can be laid at the doors of misplaced priorities and a favorable regulatory schematic.

Unfortunately the protesters, who’s hearts are undoubtedly in the right place, are chasing the tail and not the head. Rising poverty and stagnant opportunities weren’t caused by financiers anymore than the hostage crisis was caused by President Carter, the cascading scenarios dictated the results rather than the individual actors. The mystifying belief that financial institutions stole cash out of our hands (TARP fund aside—do you want to imagine what would have happened without that? Didn’t think so.) is conjured heuristically—relative deprivation is a strong emotional argument.

Since this is a blog on urban problems let’s get to the main point: the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. Public transportation maps and playfully informative Census renderings  make it unnervingly easy to look at correlations between transit access and incomes in a city like New York or Los Angeles. The consummately talented info-artists over at the Center for Urban Pedagogy  made this (screenshots are the best I can do because embedding something this beautiful is beyond my coding skills. I really, really encourage you all to visit the site; it has statistics on every neighborhood in NYC and the income distributions are stunning, visually and informationally):

Screen Shot 2011 09 25 at 10.08.26 AM 1024x546 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Bed-Stuy

Screen Shot 2011 09 25 at 10.15.34 AM 1024x548 Wall Street, Public Transportation, and Protests

Statisticians would warn me against weighing one variable too heavily especially in something as mercurial and fluid as a city, but neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Astoria are frustratingly uncluttered. In the most extreme cases you can walk 15 blocks and never see a subway stop. For a neighborhood in New York to be this barren is indicative of disproportionate access to integral urban services like transit and the potential benefits that come along with it.

…the current economic mess we find people—rather than institutions—in today is a symptom of significant underinvestment in urban infrastructure, especially in poor and predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

There are systemic issues in policy and investment that are manifesting themselves in poorer people and deteriorating faith. Wall Street has, of course, made mistakes that fed failures in the mortgage market and retirement funds, but greed is an equal opportunity vice and the myriad anecdotes of overextended credit backed by promises of a quick profit find the hands of the protesters pointing back at themselves. The anger at bankers and equity gurus and hedge fund managers is about one thing: inequality. The thought that income gaps are best solved by making the top come down is burning a candle without a wick. The passion and cause can be directed towards a more meaningful vector; leveling the playing field through access to public goods is achievable and supremely important, asking billionaires to turn over their paycheck isn’t.

Trains on Your Schedule

Getting around in cities all over the world has remained relatively the same over the last half a century: we get picked up by buses or subway cars and, after a few stops and the inevitable delay, we disembark and step onto well-stamped concrete or pavement. The evolution of public transportation -outside of the meteoric rise of information technology- has been a boring, straight line, but the systems themselves, those systems cannot be reduced to linear conclusions. Transit maps, while a feat of utilitarian beauty (and now, interactive dynamism), are views from 30,000 feet where lines are perfectly straight and bank at distinct angles rather than gradual turns. That level of analysis can’t define rider demand at the individual level and demographic mapping from sources like the Census and Immigration Bureaus aren’t granular enough to predict demand sources on an individual scale.

mta kick vign maps 1024x500 Trains on Your Schedule

Demand based transit planning has always been a conundrum for the luminaries at transit planning administrations across the country. Transit theorists borrow a term from economics in calling public transit demand “lumpy” because it faces peaks, plateaus, and nadirs on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. More buses and trains in the mornings and afternoons, less in midday. The lumpy economic theory is good for broad analysis. There are obviously more riders going to and coming from work in cities that have large populations using transit to get to work and most of them arrive around 9 AM and leave around 5 PM. In cities like Boston where a major demographic population is students, the schedules have more flexibility: some students have their first class at 10 or 11 AM —oh, how I miss being a student— and leave their designated zones much earlier or much later than their professional counterparts.  Still, typical demand based model are employed: 9 and 5 are peaks, all other times are not.

A potential 3rd way for transit planning may exist at the crossroads between internet startups and industrial ingenuity. The two paths represent a divergent means to similar end: provide a consumer a product while altering traditional precepts concerning supplies. The dissolution of boundaries between supply and demand allowed Japan to become a behemoth in automotive and electronics manufacturing and spurred some business savants to base a multi-billion dollar industry off the collective desires of the American public.

Japan’s reinvention of Fordism-era stock rooms, dubbed the “just-in-time” or JIT economy, allowed a land-scarce nation to become the lynchpin of Asian automotive production. Instead of storing parts onsite and paying housing fees for things that may not be needed for days or weeks, the pioneers at Toyota designed a system where parts were delivered only as they were needed. The desired effect is a streamlining —see: less costly— of supply chains and almost non-existent onsite storage costs, a strangely high cost item for auto-manufacturers. This is where we can see the mercurialization of supply but the true abstraction of demand comes from a team of stateside innovators.

The emergence of demand based services like Groupon and Living Social aren’t based on novel economic ideas driving consumers. For consumer demand sites that use a “trigger” to determine when a deal goes on and when it doesn’t —Groupon requires a given amount of people purchase the “groupon” before it is actually offered, hence the playful moniker— the concept is tangentially and, potentially, unconsciously based off the keystone economic theory of market equilibriums. One caveat to this theory is that corrective forces for a glut of demand, which typically include prices increases because when more people want something they’re rationally apt to pay more for it, don’t find a home in these companies; prices for the “groupon” remain flat for the duration of the deal.

 Trains on Your Schedule

What does that have to do with public transportation? Unless you’re riding SEPTA or some of the older systems in Europe and Asia, you now use a card, not a token, to pay your fare. Those cards produce time stamped records of riders and generate volume records that feed into a central database and those receipts are used for the demand models that have been discussed earlier in this essay. What if, instead of those ridership statistics (displayed with graceful practicality in the National Transit Database) going towards long-term demand models they were applied dynamically and geared towards deploying buses and subway cars where they were most needed any time of day. Riders would swipe, tap, or insert their cards and, for the purposes of illustration, the mercury inside a sort of demand thermometer would rise until a train or bus is deployed on its efficient track or route. Instead of subway cars perpetually packed at 5 PM because of linear deployment schedules, there would be a smoothing of the deployment process coupled with real-time ridership numbers.

Would the difference in operating costs run expenses past the burgeoning weight of MTA salaries and benefits? If there was a chance to run fewer trains or buses due to a dynamically produce demand model, would Jay Walder be able to balance his books a little easier?

Broad brushes never end in masterpieces for transportation planning. To say that all we need is a Groupon-based transit-on-demand system is ill-intentioned simplicity and may end up damaging routes that don’t serve very many and at the same time those that need the most. Equality will always be the foil to efficiency and pulls that turn to pushes are inevitable when the only options you have on the table are fare hikes, layoffs, and service cuts. There is opportunity, though, for a dynamic alternative where instead of using swaths of populations as our starting points, we begin the process with a single rider swiping a single card riding a single route. We exist at the center an ever-rising pinnacle of innovation, not just with technology but also in ideas. Transportation planning has not just been a footnote to those advances; it’s been near the center, where it belongs.

 

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.

Build This, Not That (NY/NJ)

Serving in an executive capacity in the public sector (or private sector, for that matter) is essentially about making choices that a majority will disagree with. Defunding schools for lack of adequate test scores will enrage parents while pleasing fiscal disciplinarians; the previous an unquiet majority and the latter a sometimes obfuscating din. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, known for his prodigious build as much as for his significant fiduciary and politicking talents, made what amounts to a typical executive decision: he funded —or rather re-funded as it was on fiscal life-support— one project while defunding another.

The now revived project of Xanadu, an homage to Coleridge’s palace of Kubla Khan or perhaps the more sinister palace of opulence of Welle’s Citizen Kane, is a 2.4 million square foot entertainment complex that includes an indoor ski slope, a skating rink, and an indoor water park. The project that was defunded? The ARC Tunnel, an infrastructure project (map below) that promised to connect New Jersey and Manhattan through a series of capital construction and improvement to stations and tracks throughout both states. The deal that Gov. Christie gave the new developers, who are renaming the complex “American Dream@Meadowlands” which I can only assume is an homage to the conflation of resurgent patriotism and Twitter, a charitable financial package outlined here:

The new developer, the Triple Five group, will invest more than $1 billion in the seven-year-old project. And Gov. Chris Christie has agreed to provide low-interest financing and to forgo most sales tax revenue for a period of time… The administration is offering a financing package of $180 million to $200 million, with the developer able to use most of the sales taxes they collect to repay the loan, rather than contributing the money to the state budget. (NYT, 4/28/11)

 Build This, Not That (NY/NJ)

The decision is fair enough in the political sense; Gov. Christie decided to offer a private development company a sweetheart deal because it was taking over a project that had been orphaned by its previous developer who had already dumped more than $1 billion into it. Government investing in private industry is as old as organized government in general, but the timing of these two events is leaving many in the transportation world at odds with New Jersey government.

The ARC tunnels finances are significantly more involved than the project-formerly-known-as-Xanadu; projects put it somewhere between $9 billion and $13 billion, a number rivaled only by Boston’s fiscally disastrous but functionally  fantastic Big Dig Project. However, because of this project’s transformative potential the US Department of Transportation was offering nearly $4 billion in Federal grants, a record for an infrastructure project. That wasn’t the only funding that Gov. Christie was going to receive from the DOT either:

In addition, [Secretary of Transportation Ray] LaHood essentially offered to write Christie a blank check from his department’s Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program for a multi-billion-dollar loan to cover cost overruns and the $775 million Portal Bridge South leading into the new tunnel. (Link to story here)

The remaining $4 to $7 billion is nothing to be scoffed at of course, with Boston on the hook for Big Dig payments for the foreseeable future Gov. Christie was right to look hard at the fiscal realities of the faltering economy and diminishing tax receipts. Projections, even if taken with a grain of salt, throw considerable weight behind building the project however, for reasons ranging from increased home values for corridor residents to the creation of 44,000 new permanent jobs in the region. The ARC tunnel could have reduced commuting time considerably as well, and as Bostonians well know, the travel time between suburban home and downtown Boston pre-and-post-Dig are worth any cost overruns.

It seems almost inappropriate in a time of forced and severe austerity for millions of Americans that Gov. Christie has decided to fund what amounts to a temple to profound consumption and, just a year before, defunded a project that would have improved life and finances for millions. Though if people aren’t happy with the defunding of the ARC tunnel, they can always go skiing in Xanadu.

 Build This, Not That (NY/NJ)

Cool Concepts | Charles Kumanoff and the Free Subway

Transformative ideas in transportation are rarities and often lack the earthshattering impacts that advances in other sectors do. Technologies bound forward, of course, the development of the automobile, closely followed by mass produced aircraft changed the architecture of how we travel and the velocity of our lives in general. Those were ideas separate of roads and rails though, feats of human engineering that changed the way we picture infrastructure as an auxiliary effect rather than an instantaneous shift. Open roads existed before Ford; blue sky existed before the Wrights.

Circumstances, both in the economic situation that many metropolises find themselves in as well as the expanding lines of traffic that citizens, have forced ingenuity and crazy, scary, completely unheard of ideas are becoming increasingly attractive. New York City faces a debt burden of billions and traffic, while not mirroring the levels of Moscow and Mexico City, still strangles mobility. It also houses its share of creative, often unreasonable ideas to attack issues with boundless impacts and reason is exactly what a man like Charles Kumanoff lacks.

Kumanoff is a Harvard trained mathematician who turned his skills towards traffic theory once the appeal of applied numbers lost its glint. He never lost his passion for obscure and risky quantitative analysis though, and by peering into the books of every relevant transportation statistic from some of the most complex systems in the world Kumanoff thinks he has a solution for New York’s mounting issues: make public transportation free.

The idea is a feat of molecular gastronomy: deceivingly simple to consume while scientifically confounding. Kumanoff believes the now-defunct congestion pricing plan proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg could have changed the landscape of the city significantly if the price points were nearly insurmountable rather than just a nuisance. Charging the majority of drivers who commute downtown every day —typically to more lucrative careers than their subterranean counterparts— $20, $30, $50 would create mass transit utopias with a peppering of the rich who could still afford to pay a premium to drive themselves. Those fees, along with the omnipresence of subsidies, would eliminate the need for transit fares and the masses would rejoice.

Before you start throwing your Metro Cards out the window you should know that Kumanoff’s idea has received little attention outside of pedestrian advocacy groups and dismissive smiles from transit kings like Jay Walder, the CEO of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. Politically, the idea is a non-starter with representatives from wealthy suburbs voicing the concerns of the well heeled as well as Upstate where transformative ideas for the Metropolitans sound the alarm of disproportionate state funding.

We’re not quite there yet. Ideas that challenge convention, and in this case serve as pure iconoclast, are dismissed effectively and sometimes prematurely. There are ideas that are not dispatched cleanly though; a botched administrative surgery perhaps. Kumanoff’s idea, a compact death knell like a particularly shrill whistle blow, has only been muted and ignored rather than cut off. Cities like New York will need fresh looks at their mass transit system as long as billion dollar debts exist and service cuts and fare hikes become more and more unsavory. Kumanoff’s ideas, as wild as they come, may not be the whole answer but he’d say they are certainly part of the equation.

NB: For an excellent piece on Charles Kumanoff, check out his essay in Wired magazine.

 

City/Subway

Most of the time here at Radials we focus on discrete issues facing transportation and urban planning, but from time to time the abstract becomes important and fascinating. I’d like to take some time and deal with the mercurial aspects of mass transit because while riding in a aluminum box with 50 strangers may seem mundane, the implications are forgotten too easily.

Travel trends towards the unconsciousness in a city. A routine is set and we tend to only think dynamically when we are forced to: during a service interruption, construction, a water main break. Even then we are directed towards our destination with detailed placards outlining the easiest route home now that our realities have been altered. We know what side of the track to wait on because we’ve always stood on that side going one way and the other side coming back. It’s less about direction than muscle memory.

That’s interesting but like most routines it becomes a banality after it’s done enough. What line we take home gets ingrained in our brain stems and it becomes as natural as breathing, just slightly more expensive.

There’s been a glut of excellent books on cities and what they do for us lately. Rybczynski Makeshift Metropolis, Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City, and Owen’s Green Metropolis represent a new interest in novel views on where most of us live. Each one takes a different path towards urban analysis —historical, cultural, and environmental, respectively— and while there is mention of transportation theory and planning, predominantly in Glaeser and Owen’s books, the anathematic necessity of mass transit is not given proper due.

What is terribly fascinating about mass transit in the city is that it reflects very little of what a city is. I sense some disagreement in the air; so let me explain what I mean.

Cities —and I understand that more learned urban theorists will disagree fundamentally with me here, but I’m talking about the personal facets of cities— are essentially bound by individuals who consider personal space their biggest luxury. Apartments, offices, taxis, even that self-contained sphere of the treadmill, they all represent an urbanite attempting to escape the constant buzz of anonymity en masse.

The subway and the bus instantly take that fantasy away; we realize that our space is not our space but the conflated discomfort of hundreds of other riders. The city is an anonymous place, to be sure, but it is a series of random individual events rather than one extended journey. And we definitely never stand close enough to a stranger that we can identify a cologne or lack of deodorant.

I was riding the Q with my girlfriend the other day when 3 athletic —we wouldn’t find out how athletic looking until one took his shirt off— young guys came on the train and announced that they were “Black Guys Dancing on a Moving Train”. The talents were on par with any breakdancing group you’d see in Union Square, or more likely Times Square, but the added degree of difficulty was the fact that they were, indeed, on a moving train. Life in a city is like life anywhere else, with an added degree of difficulty. We deal with social nuance on a constantly shifting basis and often one experience after another. Exhaustion is a general outcome for most of us, but at least most of us can go home after a long day and revel in the departure of anonymity.

Some days are harder than others, and sometimes we’re on a moving train.

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?