MBTA RIDERSHIP generally trended downward over the last three years, with officials saying the available evidence suggests a portion of the system’s riders are taking fewer trips on the T and replacing them with alternative modes of travel.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she didn’t think riders were abandoning the T, just shifting to ride-sharing services, bicycles, and their own two feet when those options saved money or were more convenient. “There is more competition,” she said. “Choice is a good thing.”
Ridership overall on the Red, Orange, and Blue subway lines dropped 3.6 percent between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2017, but the downturn was probably more pronounced because the first year included the winter of 2015 when the subway system was shut down for a period of time. Comparing just the last two years of the three-year period, ridership on the subway lines was off 3.3 percent – 2.4 percent on weekdays, 5 percent on Saturdays, and 2.9 percent on Sundays.
Bus ridership was off 6.5 percent over the three years. Buses carried roughly the same number of people during the first two years of the period, but then carried a lot fewer passengers during the third year – 5.6 percent less on weekdays, 9.9 percent less on Saturdays, and 9.14 percent on Sundays.
Green Line passenger levels, which dipped when the Government Center station was under construction, rebounded in the third year to previous levels. Commuter rail passenger traffic remained largely unchanged over the period.
Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of strategic initiatives at the T, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday that the passenger data was pieced together from a variety of sources, some of which were more reliable than others. But she said the trend line is probably pretty accurate and matches what’s happening at transit agencies across the country.
She said public transit does best in attracting passengers when it has a dedicated right of way during periods when congestion is high or alternative modes of travel are more expensive. On the subway lines, for example, passenger levels at peak travel periods increased slightly over the last two years while dipping more dramatically at off-peak times. She noted weekend passenger traffic generally fell more dramatically than weekday traffic.
Paget-Seekins said it’s difficult to pinpoint what has caused ridership to drop, but she said the likely culprits were the fare increase of July 2016, growing competition from other forms of transportation, and a wide variety of other factors.
The MBTA’s monthly link pass, which allows holders to take unlimited rides on subways and buses, increased in price from $75 to $84.50 a month in July 2016. Paget-Seekins said link pass sales held steady among those who purchased them through their employer, but dropped roughly 10,000 a month for those who purchased the pass on their own.
Paget-Seekins couldn’t quantify the impact of Uber and Lyft on the T, but she said it was logical to assume the companies were drawing riders away from the T. She said T surveys indicate about two thirds of the transit agency’s customers use ride-hailing apps and about one-third use ride-hailing apps instead of riding the T.
Bus ridership fell on many routes, but it was unclear why. Paget-Seekins said the T’s analysis suggests there is some correlation between a bus route’s on-time performance and passenger levels, and an even bigger impact from the number of riders on the route who pay reduced fares. Geography was also a factor, with routes serving areas north of downtown Boston (East Boston, Chelsea, and Revere) seeing passenger levels rise. The Blue Line, which serves the same area, also saw higher ridership.
Jeffrey Gonneville, the chief operating officer of the T, said the 116 and 117 buses, which serve East Boston, Chelsea, and Revere, are examples of routes that routinely had poor on-time performance until the transit agency invested time and resources in addressing the problems. Those two routes now have improving ridership – the 116 was up 7 percent between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017 and the 117 was up 9 percent.
Paget-Seekins and members of the control board said there were also broader factors at work that may influence passenger levels at the T, including unusually low gasoline prices and a shift toward more people working from home.
Joe Aiello, the chairman of the control board, said it’s too early to panic about ride-hailing services stealing passengers away from the MBTA. He said Uber lost $2.5 billion last year. To turn a profit, he said, the service would have to raise its fares significantly. “It’s not clear where that industry is going,” he said.