Another clue on declining T ridership

New Census data offer another clue about why transit ridership is falling all across the country, including at the MBTA.

The data indicate 8 million workers nationally are now doing their jobs primarily from home, according to a report in Governing. For the first time, telecommuting narrowly edged out public transportation when respondents were asked how they get to work. Driving remains far and away the most popular way of getting to a job.

Telecommuting has been gaining in popularity, with 5.2 percent of workers saying they worked primarily from home last year. The number of telecommuters would probably be even higher if occasional telecommuters were included. The biggest growth was at private companies, with 4.3 percent of all private wage and salary workers working from home last year, up from 2.7 percent a decade ago.

Driving remains the primary way workers go to their jobs, with Census data indicating more than 75 percent of workers commute by car, a percentage that’s virtually unchanged from a decade ago.

Taking public transit, meanwhile, took a slight dip to 5 percent and has been showing little or no growth for some time. At the T, ridership has been declining for several years, primarily on weekends, at off-peak periods, and on buses. T officials have been cautious in assessing what’s causing the drop, partly because there are multiple potential explanations.

Telecommuting is clearly one cause. Other likely culprits include the rise of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft, relatively low gas prices, and the unreliability of transit service. Several recent reports, focused primarily on the West Coast, suggest increasing numbers of lower-income workers are buying cars and abandoning public transit.

The decline in ridership raises profound questions for the MBTA and its strategy for the future. For example, does it make sense to expand service at a time of declining ridership, or should the focus be on improving existing service in an attempt to reclaim lost riders?

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, in an interview earlier this year, said workers have a number of commuting options to choose from and are probably using a combination of all of them — taking the T some days, driving others, riding a bike when it’s sunny, or working from home when it’s raining. In the future, she said, autonomous vehicles may figure into the equation as well.

So far, the T’s peak-period service hasn’t seen a decline in ridership, so the transit agency is pushing ahead with plans to improve service on the Red, Orange, and Green Lines. T officials are also pushing dedicated lanes and synchronized traffic lights to improve bus service, which has seen the biggest decline in ridership. Commuter rail is a bit of a mystery — ridership appears to be growing, but the T’s assets remain underutilized.

“We’re not smart enough to know what the future is going to look like because it’s a moment of real disruption in transportation,” Pollack said. “The disruption of the last five years has been [ride-hailing apps]. The disruption of the next 10 years may well be autonomous vehicles or something else we don’t even know about yet.”



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