THE MBTA SPENT MOST OF MONDAY struggling with what the future holds – on ridership, service expansion, and vehicle purchases and maintenance – and came away without a whole lot of clarity.
For example, the MBTA’s current strategic plan calls for increasing the capacity of the transit system to accommodate more riders as the region’s population grows and the economy expands. But Laurel Paget-Seekins, director of research and analysis at the MBTA, told the Fiscal and Management Control Board that population and ridership are no longer moving in sync. She said the region’s population is growing but people appear to be using the T less.
Data indicate ridership is growing slowly during peak travel times, but declining on weekends and at off-peak times on weekdays. In the 14 communities that make up the T’s core bus and rapid transit service area, the number of MBTA trips per resident was 252 in 2016, which is lower than the 256 in 2008 when the state and country were entering the grips of a recession.
T officials said there are many possible reasons for the decline in passengers and the disconnect between population growth and ridership, including cheap gasoline, the rise of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, the unreliability of MBTA service, and weekend and even weekday bus diversions around construction work on the system.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the T’s reliability problems are not the sole cause of the downturn in ridership. “Don’t get me wrong, we need to have better service,” she said. “But there are a lot of other factors involved.”
The region’s population growth is also shifting, which can affect transit service. Jennifer Slesinger, the program manager for the T’s long-range planning initiative, Focus40, said the fastest population growth during the 1980s and 1990s was in the developing suburbs around Boston. In the early 2000s, she said, Boston’s population began picking up steam and between 2010 and 2015 the growth there actually outpaced growth in the suburbs.
She said the denser population in the city’s core communities should make it easier to provide transit service there, but the high cost of housing is squeezing out many who rely on public transit and the rise of ride-sharing apps is making it easier for many residents to cut down on the use of buses and subways.
Slesinger highlighted several geographical areas that probably warrant better transit service. In Boston, she singled out Kendall Square, the Seaport District, the Longwood area, and Logan International Airport as areas that deserve better service so employers can more easily draw workers from farther away. She said Everett, Chelsea, City Point in South Boston, and the area around Blue Hill Avenue are locations where transit service is constrained, while communities such as Framingham, Norwood, Waltham, Woburn, Brockton, Salem, and Lynn “have a higher transit propensity than what is currently provided.”
Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, said the agency is preparing to unveil a 15-year plan covering the purchase of fleets (subway, bus, commuter rail, ferries, etc.) and repair facilities. He offered up few specifics on Monday, but said the T needs to decide how it intends to replace 40 locomotives and many of the coaches on the commuter rail system, how it wants to maintain the new Red and Orange Line cars that are coming, and whether the transit system should be electrified to increase speed and reduce emissions.
Gonneville said the T is also going to explore options other than direct purchases of vehicles or maintenance facilities. He and other T officials said leases, vendor financing, and public-private partnerships all need to be explored.
All of these cross-currents make it difficult to plan for the future. Pollack offered one example of fast-changing conditions. She said Lyft’s transportation policy manager predicted at a conference in Boston in late September that autonomous vehicles will handle a majority of Lyft riders within five years and private car ownership will be a thing of the past in 10 to 15 years. “I wouldn’t bet the future of the T on that, but I wouldn’t bet against it,” Pollack said.
Asking riders what they think are the system’s priorities doesn’t always work. Slesinger said online surveys of riders and stakeholders suggest their priority is expanding T service, while in-person interviews with actual T riders indicated their priority is service reliability. “Who you ask and how definitely skews what we hear,” Pollack said, noting that she believes groups “stuffed the ballot box” with the online surveys.
Steve Poftak, a control board member, said the T needs to do a better job of evaluating ridership potential for new services. He said many advocates are pushing regional rail, the conversion of commuter rail into more of a subway-like system. He said he was sympathetic with the goals of regional rail, but not convinced it would produce a major increase in ridership. He said pilot projects might be one way to test whether regional rail projects would attract more riders.
Paget-Seekins asked the members of the Fiscal and Management Control Board if they wanted to set a specific target for T market share in transit services. Based on existing, imperfect measures, she said, the T’s overall market share is currently declining.
She said increasing market share during peak travel periods (when the T’s ridership has been rising) will depend on making capital investments in the subway system and finding dedicated rights of way for buses so they can move more quickly through increasingly clogged streets. Paget-Seekins said peek weekday service currently accounts for 35 to 40 percent of the T’s overall ridership.
During off-peak periods, when the T has been losing riders, Paget-Seekins said the T may have to offer more attractive fares to get people out of cars.
Most of the control board members said they favored setting a ridership target for the T, but they didn’t know what it should be. One of the board members, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, said she was tired of talking about dedicated bus lanes. She said the T shouldn’t invest more money in buses until the agency comes up with a way to move buses through traffic more quickly. She said only one community, Everett, has implemented a dedicated bus lane so far. “I think that’s shameful,” she said.