Inaction is not an option with TNCs

Massport poised to take meaningful action

THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TALK, and a good deal of concern, about the impacts of transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft on traffic at Logan Airport and in surrounding communities and roadway systems. Now, for the first time, we’ve moved from talk and concern to meaningful action.

Acting Massport CEO John Prankevicious took center stage last week with the roll out of a timely and creative plan to tame and manage the negative impacts of the explosive use of TNCs as the preferred way to get to or from Logan Airport. Prankevicious and his staff developed a plan that will hopefully be the first in a series of initiatives designed (in part) to increase the use of more sustainable modes (Logan Express and public transportation) for access to and from the airport.

The numbers are truly jaw dropping.  In the mere two years since Massport allowed TNCs to provide service to Logan, they account for 30 percent of airport ground transportation mode share. Last year that meant 12 million trips to and from Logan.  Five million of those trips either arrived or departed Logan empty – a term known as deadheading.  Deadheading is perhaps the worst form of mobility – a vehicle without a passenger adding to urban congestion, traffic delay, and air pollution with zero productivity benefits.

This increase of TNCs at Logan Airport has come partly at the expense of the taxi industry, which is no surprise, as few believe that industry is capable of surviving much longer.  TNCs have also reduced demand for public transportation and for leisure travel parking.  You can understand the advantage that TNCs have over leisure travel parking – it is much less expensive and just as (or more) convenient. And leisure travelers typically aren’t able to expense their parking costs, so the TNC is significantly more affordable.

As for public transportation, the MBTA has itself largely to blame for its inability to fully compete with TNCs for airport market share.  The Blue Line lacks basic transit connectivity, leaving thousands of potential travelers along the Kendall Square/MIT/Harvard/Alewife corridor without an easy transit connection to Logan.  This is hopefully about to change, but the T needs to put real money in this year’s revision to the capital investment program in order to commence engineering and environmental work on the project.

Massport could help if it directed a certain number of its shuttle buses leaving the Blue Line station to proceed directly to the terminals and bypass the consolidated rental car facility.  Today’s required stop for all buses at the rental car facility delays and frustrates travelers who take transit, and is another barrier to increasing transit ridership.

The MBTA also needs to work closely with Massport and MassDOT to improve the too often sub-standard service on the Silver Line.  Allowing Silver Line buses to use the Ted Williams Tunnel ramp would shave precious minutes off the trip.  Why this hasn’t been done yet is beyond imagination, and continues to be an irritant with elected leaders and activists who have been promised a solution with nothing to show for it.  Other fairly straightforward improvements, such as effective traffic signal priority at D Street and reliable countdown clocks at South Station, would go far to attract riders to transit.

Some folks have interpreted Massport’s initiative as antagonistic to TNCs.  I don’t see it that way. I’ve got nothing against TNCs.  I, too, use them (sparingly, mostly Lyft) and they clearly have a role to play in our mobility ecosystem.  That role, in my view, is not yet clearly understood or definitively formed, which is partly a result of uncertainty and volatility in the TNC business model.

Can there be useful and mutually beneficial synergies between TNCs and public transportation?  Yes, particularly as we re-think paratransit service delivery models and try to unlock the “first/last mile” barrier to getting more people onto intercity rail.

This is not about being against TNCs.  This is about managing TNCs like any other regulated business in a way that reduces negative impacts on people, communities, and overall quality of life in Greater Boston.  And yes, I’d be in favor of treating taxis the same way, even though the reality these days is that taxis have a diminishing impact.  We should be treating all vehicles for hire the same way, and Massport should consider amending its proposal to do so.

Not all of the TNC growth is being poached from other modes.  A considerable amount of the growth is also organic – net new trips to and from Logan.  Those net new trips are helping congest the limited Logan roadway system, as well as local streets in East Boston.  The problem has reached a level of severity that requires prompt and effective action. The Logan Airport roadway system (like all roadway systems) is finite.  The stresses on that system (and curbside activities at terminals) can be seen every day, as gridlock frustrates all travelers whether they are in a car, on a shuttle bus, or in a TNC or taxi. This gridlock is causing delays that are adding to passenger stress and will inevitably cause some travelers to miss flights. Current conditions are simply unacceptable and Massport, which has a duty to be mindful of customer service for all travelers, is right to take action.

Traffic conditions in East Boston have also become horrendous. Daily backups at the Sumner tunnel clog local streets and pollute the air. The exit ramp from Route 1A to East Boston is chronically backed up to a point where it causes traffic and safety issues along a portion of both the state highway and Logan’s roadway system itself.

MassDOT has totally dropped the ball on its obligation to manage state highway and tunnel traffic in this area. Its forecast for tunnel traffic was off by the enormous factor of 47 percent, leaving one to wonder what models are being used and who is paying attention to real-life conditions.  An error of that magnitude deserves investigation and reform.  The reality is that MassDOT’s highway division has no strategy or plan to manage and reduce traffic congestion in this area.  Remarkably, inconceivably, they are still entertaining the idea of widening Route 1A, a project that if ever undertaken will do nothing but exacerbate the situation. In the meantime, they refuse to entertain a road pricing pilot or traffic management techniques of any kind within a radius of the tunnels.

Massport has stepped into this vacuum as best it can, wisely planning to use the revenue from increased TNC fees to invest in a more robust high occupancy vehicle alternative to and from Logan.  Its Logan Express service needs a long overdue refresh, and parking capacity needs to match demand in Framingham and Braintree. New additional locations will be identified as Massport looks to expand the service to reach new riders.

Logan Express has historic roots in Massport’s response to the parking freeze that was put into place in the 1970s as a response to traffic congestion.  In those long-ago pre-TNC days, a freeze on parking was deemed essential to limit vehicle trips to Logan and encourage use of high occupancy vehicle alternatives.  Massport opened Logan Express sites in Framingham and Braintree in 1986, and the service has continued and expanded ever since. Revitalizing Logan Express is an important tool in the traffic management toolbox.

Meet the Author

Inaction is not an option.  Massport has a duty to ensure that its road system isn’t fated to permanent gridlock.  It also has a duty to all travelers to provide a high level of customer service. Massport, the MBTA, and the city have a responsibility to East Boston, to ensure that its local streets are safe and not also mired in traffic congestion.  TNCs have an obligation to act as principled corporate citizens.  That means working with state and city officials to collaborate on effective approaches to reducing vehicle miles traveled in the Greater Boston inner core.  Uber and Lyft must accept reasonable constraints and fee structures that enable the public sector to manage traffic conditions and invest in more sustainable forms of travel.  I applaud Massport for stepping up in an area where it’s hard to make everyone happy, but tough decisions nevertheless need to be made.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and serves on the board of TransitMatters.  He is a principal at TriMount Consulting.