Massachusetts’ public mass transportation system is about to go broke.  It is being dragged down by over $8.6 billion of debt (including an inappropriately huge chunk of the Big Dig costs), decreasing federal aid, and the unwillingness of state government to raise revenue.  The MBTA’s capital spending plan lists $3.7 billion worth of projects needed for safety or reliability, while the agency only gets to spend between $200 and $300 million a year.

Like transit systems around the country, the MBTA is caught in a downward spiral.  Cultural changes and hard times have increased demand, which is growing at a faster rate than highway vehicle travel.  But decreasing revenue means less service and higher fares. According to the American Public Transportation Association, more than 80 percent of the nation’s transit systems are considering or have recently enacted fare increases or service cuts, including reductions in rush-hour service, off-peak service and geographic coverage.  Locally, T riders are facing potential increases of 25 cents for each bus/subway ride, about $120 a year.  But these cutbacks drive away riders and reduce revenue while also setting the stage for public criticism and reduced public support, which further undermines efforts to get political support for the desperately needed investment.  The result is an increasingly unreliable and unsafe system, with anti-government right wingers crowing that “the government can’t do anything” or attacking the very idea of non-car transportation.

Somehow, the fact that mass transit needs subsidy is a disgrace.  The fact that our highways and car industry is massively subsidized is simply good capitalism.

The ultimate solution will require bold political leadership.  Until that emerges, the only way out of this trap is to find low-cost ways to increase ridership. Just as with roads, user fees such as gasoline taxes and trolley fares won’t cover the system’s full costs – although the share of operating costs born by riders in Massachusetts have dramatically (and regressively) increased from one-quarter to one-half of per-ride costs.  But increased usage will help create a more favorable political climate for demanding real solutions.  Spikes in the cost of gasoline and the increased congestion of our roads promote some amount of increased transit use, but the T needs to (and is trying to) go beyond passive strategies.  One approach is to make it easier for people to get the “last mile” to/from their homes and destinations to/from the T when they commute, socialize, or shop.  As our population ages, this will have increasing political relevance, but it needs to start now and have a very inclusive vision of who it might impact.

“Safe Routes To The T” (SR2T) is a strategy for making it safer and more inviting for people to walk, bike, or car-pool to and from train, trolley, subway, and bus stations and stops.  It would work with the expanding Hubway Shared Bicycle System, which is most accurately seen as an extension of the public transportation system.  And it would work with municipalities to extend the catchment area within which people might leave their cars at home, reducing local congestion, pollution, and car accidents.  One of its appeals is that using the T can save people a lot of money.  The American Public Transportation Association reports that Massachusetts residents who use public transport instead of a car can save $13,575 annually – the second highest amount in the nation (after NYC).  Needing to use a car requires money that could be better used in other ways, especially if you are poor – the poorest fifth of Americans who do own cars have to spend nearly double the national percentage of their limited income on automobile ownership.

And focusing on increasing pedestrian and bicycle access to public transit is a strategy that works.  A recent survey of people using the MBTA’s new “Park & Roll” bike parking areas shows a significant increase in their use of the T since the creation of the bike sheds.  The planned expansion of bike parking facilities at other commuter rail, trolley, subway, and bus stations should continue this growth and hopefully create a broader constituency for the needed revenue reform.


Escaping the Whirlpool

Despite widespread understanding that internal reform can only go a very limited distance in solving MassDOT’s problems, and despite the implied promise in the “reform before revenue” slogan that cost-reducing consolidations and performance improvement would lead to future funding, no new revenues seem forthcoming – even though the entire economy of eastern Massachusetts depends on the continuation (if not the expansion) of a functional public mass transit system.

Worse: the federal deficit reduction agreement, which radically cuts spending but doesn’t raise any revenue even by closing loopholes on the richest of the rich, means that little new money will be available from Washington.  The Green Line extension has already been postponed, despite its rapid completion being legally required.

So how can we escape this downward spiral into collapse?  Lawsuits help – although the repeated delays of the legally required Green Line expansion shows the limits of that approach.  (My favorite example of the limits of legal strategies was the Legislature’s refusal to fund the voter-mandated and state Supreme Court validated “clean elections” reform of 1998  – destroying our states’ best chance to reduce the stranglehold of money over elections.)

Obviously, intense lobbying and advocacy directed towards Legislators and Administration officials is also important.  However, they’ve shown themselves unwilling to do much about revenue issues no matter what the purpose.  So they need to be pushed — good media outreach and public education is also a necessity.  But given the lunatic right wing’s current ability to veto anything except a continued semi-insane drive towards self-destruction, it will not be easy to mobilize an effective campaign.

Expanding Ridership

One thing that is possible is to implement relatively easy-to-do, low-cost ways of increasing T ridership.  The more people who use T subways, trolleys, buses, and trains, the larger the constituency for political action to improve conditions.  In addition to good marketing, this requires three things:

  • making the on-vehicle ride better;
  • making it easier to get on and off the vehicles, to pay for the ride, and spend less time waiting;
  • making it safer, easier, and more inviting to cover the “last mile” from your home to the T, or from the T to your destination – in the process expanding that “last mile” to enlarge the catchment area within which people are likely to use one of the T services.

How can the ride itself become more pleasant? It takes more money than we’ve given MassDOT to really keep the ancient cars on each of the T non-interoperable lines properly maintained.  But there are short-money tactics that can be done: operational improvements like keeping the seats and floor clean, or making sure T employees are friendly and helpful, or improving the signage at stations and stops.

It is also possible to make it easier to get on or off the T.  At a minimum, this requires tight coordination of bus and subway schedules to minimize transfer waiting times.  As General Manager, Richard Davey supported opening up the T’s computer system to allow Smart Phone developers to create “when is my bus/train/trolley coming” apps which radically improved the “waiting for a bus” experience.  Perhaps the T could also experiment with creating a mini-van service covering routes unable to support a full-size bus; or increase efforts to facilitate “car-pool to the commuter rail station” programs, or making it even easier to buy/refresh/use the electronic payment Charlie Cards in more places.  The T, or local communities, need to install more (and bigger) shelters at bus stops along with adequate lighting to make them feel safe at night, and build more curb extensions at bus stops to make it easier for people to move directly from the sidewalk into the vehicle.

Equally important is making people feel safer when going to or from the T and expanding the “catchment area” within which people consider the local T-stop to be within reach.  Over much of the past half century, the focus was on expanding car parking at T stations.  But this is a relatively high-cost strategy – new car parking spaces cost between $10,000 and $30,000 each!  And finding space for mostly single-occupancy cars is not easy, especially in urban or even suburban “village center” areas where increasing car traffic also makes it more dangerous and less welcoming for walkers and cyclists.  (Using cars to cover the “last mile” from home to the T also has negative environmental impacts:  nearly 90% of automobile pollution comes during the first mile of cold-start travel – which is a good portion of the typical drive to the station.)

Walking & Cycling:  Safe Routes To The T

The most effective, low-cost (and environmentally positive) way for the T to expand ridership through bigger catchment areas and more inviting access is to support walking and cycling to (and on) its vehicles.  People are likely to walk up to ½ or even ¾ of a mile to get to a trolley or bus stop.  But up to 53% of the American public is estimated to live within 2 miles of a public transit route, so including bicycles stretches the potential riding population enormously – up to 4 or 5 miles in some situations.

A survey done for Washington, D.C.’s Metro found that over two-thirds of riders would consider riding their bike to the station but, after distance, were discouraged by “uncomfortable crossing conditions at intersections”, “high traffic volume and speed”, and lack of awareness of “a safe walking or biking route.”

Many commuter rail stations now have some number of bicycle parking racks.  But few of them are covered, close to the station, and well lit for night-time safety.  The T has used some of its federal stimulus money to improve bike parking facilities, but more needs to be done.  Perhaps the T could buy secure bike “lockers” and allow local bike clubs to keep the revenue in exchange for managing them. The large number of bikes crowding the bike cages at Alewife and Forest Hills, even though they are not staffed or fully secured, shows the latent demand.

But even with parking, the trick is getting to the transit pickup point.  As with the Safe Routes To School program, a Safe Routes To The T program would work best if advocacy groups were given small grants (or contracts) to train local community groups about doing a survey of the area around their transit stations (trolley, subway, and rail) and bus stops.  Are there missing curb cuts or uneven (or missing!) stretches of sidewalk?  Are there dangerous intersections lacking crosswalks or walk signals?  Where can bike lanes be installed – or, even better, buffered bike lanes, physically-separated cycle tracks, or off-road paths?

And while the standard design process requires numerous traffic counts, complicated future demand analyses, and very expensive infrastructure changes, in reality many of the problems revealed by these surveys can be significantly improved with low-cost, easy-to-do, “temporary” solutions.  Paint, stop signs, way-finding signage, planters, flexible or winter-removal bollards, street lights, and even Jersey barriers can change the shape of intersections, expand sidewalks, reduce speeding, increase safety, improve aesthetics, and make roads invitingly multi-modal for people of all ages and abilities just as well as traffic lights, full-depth reconstruction, and expensive bridges.  Despite the by-the-book, over-designed, ultra-conservative, car-centric approach drilled into traffic engineers, the financial reality of our times requires transportation agencies to embrace a “do what you can with what you’ve got” strategy.  This does not mean making roads less safe – given how long it will be before the “proper” changes can be funded and completed, doing as much as we can as cheaply as we can right now is actually a huge step towards increased safety!  And, in reality, these non-standard solutions are probably just as safe as the official ones!

Some of this will be the responsibility of local municipalities, but it would be worth the state’s money to provide both technical assistance and small planning grants to incentivize local action – with the requirement that the municipality work with residents to compile a list of “quick and easy” temporary improvements as well as the standard designs.

It Works!

Best of all, experience around the country shows that expanding bicycle access works both to increase ridership and raise fare revenue.  The passenger line between San Francisco and Silicon Valley installed 4 bike spaces in each train in 1992.  They now include 24 and sometimes 48 spaces.  Significantly, over half of a recent ridership jump of 7% was credited to bicyclists and the $60,000 start-up cost was repaid in fare box revenue within 6 months. Demand for on-train bicycle space became so great that Caltran started renting pairs of bike lockers for the price of one to encourage cyclists to keep bikes at both ends of their trip rather than bring their bike on board.  (click for more…)

This is not just a “sun belt” strategy.  In a study of 20 U.S. cities representing a cross section based on size, geography, and other factors, it was found that climate did not appear to be a major factor in bicycle use — think Montreal!  (See page 11…)  The Federal “NonMotorized Transportation Pilot Program” should be releasing its report in later 2011.  And it is possible to learn from the experience of others.  In Promoting bike-and-ride: The Dutch experience(Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Volume 41, Issue 4, May 2007, Pages 326-338)Karel Martens writes that “Dutch measures to promote bicycle use in access trips have been generally successful.”  In particular, the establishment of bike rental stations at the “activity end” of rail road trips has allowed the bike-and-train combination to replace trips previously made by car.  The Dutch Cycle Federation estimates that every rental subscriber “generates about 4.5 extra train trips per year, especially outside rush hours.”

And It Works Here, Too

In the early summer, I distributed a few hundred postcards on bicycles parked in the new T cages at Alewife and Forest Hills.  The cards asked recipients to go to a web site and fill out a questionnaire.  Fifty seven people responded.  While the numbers were small, the results were very consistent:

  • Bike riders aren’t all twenty-somethings: 58% of the respondents were over age 35.
  • Bike riders are not all cycling fanatics:  46% considered themselves relatively new cyclists.

Most significantly:

  • 54% bike to the T more frequently since the installation of the bike cages, and
  • 95% now use the T relatively frequently, compared with only 63% before the installation of the bike cages.

And they had lots of suggestions for improvement:

  • the most frequent request was for even more bike parking space and cages;
  • they didn’t like the current two-level bike racks because the top is hard to use, and the bottom is squeezed;
  • several people mentioned the need to remove abandoned bikes that are clogging the racks, to provide a secured tool set, to place a trash can near the door, and to install a water fountain;
  • and a great suggestion was to include the Bike Card in the T’s employer-based automatic Charlie Card renewal system.

It’s About Money

Massachusetts’ transportation agencies suffered for decades as a patronage dumping ground.  And then, just as the Big Dig was taking off, Republican governors decimated the professional staff on the grounds that the private sector didn’t need oversight from bureaucrats.  (I’m still waiting for the Globe article pointing this out as a key reason for Big Dig cost overruns and continuing construction problems.)  And then injury was added to insult as a hefty portion of the Big Dig debt was shifted on to the MBTA, dumping the system into a hole that, barring major financing reform, it will never escape.

As Paul McMurrow pointed out in a recent column, the T is nearing collapse: “After closing a $130 million gap this year, the T is facing a $160 million deficit next year. Over the next four years, the agency is projected to rack up $900 million in cumulative deficits. And it’s not just the T’s worst-in-the-nation debt load that’s to blame. In 2016, when its annual deficit hits $330 million, basic operating costs will eat up nearly 90 cents of every revenue dollar available to the T.”

Why are operating costs high?  It’s not about pensions or featherbedding – a former side effect of the patronage function of the T.  Those headline-grabbing issues have been mostly dealt with.  Today, it’s really about the system:  every line of the jerry-rigged T system has non-sharable equipment.  Trains built to last 25 years are now 30 or even 40 years old.  The remaining staff is rather creative, but it simply takes longer and costs more to fix antiques.

Trying to hide from the anti-government tornado destroying increasing swaths of the county, the Patrick Administration retreated from its campaign promise to find new MBTA revenues.  And then, as if in retribution for not being able to use the Transportation agencies for patronage purposes, the Legislature suddenly became righteous about cost-cutting efficiency and demanded “reform before revenue.”

MassDOT, under the leadership of unfortunately departing Secretary Jeff Mullan, has does an amazing job of consolidating previously non-collaborative (if not outright hostile) agencies into a coherent whole – even if the dysfunctional old culture still has a hold on some of the staff and some of the organizational dynamics.  (It seems a little pathetic that we live in a society where corporate salaries have become so high that someone earning $150,000 is legitimately considered underpaid, and that support for public schools has fallen so low that even public sector leaders feel they need to send their children to exorbitant private schools.)  Fortunately, incoming Secretary Richard Davey has a great track record and is likely to continue the pattern of managerial excellence.  And perhaps MassDOT can now move from initial reorganization to refocusing its operations in line with the requirements of the Healthy Transportation Compact that was an integral part of its founding legislation.

But ultimately, we need to provide better funding for mass transit, here and across the nation.  We need to proudly announce that we believe in public action using public funds for the public good – that we are totally willing to pay taxes to create a society that serves everyone rather than just those rich enough to pay.  Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, has an aging population – the number of local seniors will jump to 75% by 2030.  A report issued by Transportation for America projects that “by 2015, 45 percent of seniors in the Boston area, roughly 232,000 people, will lack access to nearby bus or rail transportation.”  Although nearly 1/3 of Americans do not drive, our nation invests less than 20 percent of its overall federal transportation dollars in public transportation.

As with so many issues, we need to begin reframing public understanding and rebuilding the political base for progressive change around transportation policy.  Urban transit is not merely about serving either the inner city poor or the well-off suburban commuter.  It is about long-range savings for the entire society, giving each of us more options about where and how we live.  It’s about getting the most value for our tax dollars while making our communities more livable and our health better.


Related Previous Posts:

SHAPING TRAVEL CHOICES: The Four C’s of the Behavioral Context

GOING MAINSTREAM: Overcoming Discouragements to Walking & Bicycling

THE THREE LEGS OF TRANSPORTATION REFORM: And Why MassDOT Has To Start Standing On At Least Two Of Them

FIVE STEPS TO MAKE GreenDOT REAL: From Promise to Impact on Transportation and Climate

HIGH STATUS BUS RIDES: Does Bus Rapid Transit Make Sense for Us?

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