T ridership drop in ’13 was anomaly

Causes were fare hike, service cuts, interruptions

Commonwealth Magazine recently opined about the reason why the MBTA experienced a slight dip in ridership between 2012 and 2013 (Download: “Boston’s public transit conundrum,” March 12, 2014). Contrary to the opinion that reliability was the main culprit and that drop in ridership is a harbinger for things to come, a deeper review of the facts reveals other factors.

First, let’s look deeper at the national trends. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) recently published its 2013 annualized trip data which showed overall growth in transit ridership in the US and a decline in Boston. Taken on its face, some have said that there is cause for alarm at the MBTA, that we in Boston are an outlier. In fact, others who dug deeper found these conclusions misleading. A commentator, Randal O’Toole, reviewed the 2013 transit trip numbers and found that the increase in transit trips in New York City was 123 million. But the total national increase, as reported by APTA, was just 115 million. In other words, apart from New York City, there was no increase at all, on average, across the country. APTA quickly responded that some other individual cities did have increases, but in fact most experienced decreases.

For the MBTA, ridership reached a 65-year high in 2012. While 2013 was down approximately 1.9 percent, or 5.8 million trips, 2013 was still the second-highest year since 1946.

While it would be easy to look to reliability as the anecdotal concern for a drop in ridership, this, too, is misleading. First, subway vehicle reliability was better in 2013 than in 2012. Commuter rail on-time performance was better in 2013 than in 2012. Yes, we have the oldest cars in America on the Red Line and we need to improve vehicle reliability on several lines, but the facts are the facts: vehicle reliability was better in 2013 than 2012.

Customer satisfaction has improved with real-time data, both on mobile phones and at our subway stations. One of the top “reliability” complaints from customers over the years was not knowing when the next train or bus was coming. To date, 40,000 customers have subscribed to T-Alert email & SMS real-time notifications. In addition, work continues to include Green Line data in these alerts, with completion expected at the end of 2014.

Indeed, the drop in ridership is due to three things: increase in fares, services cuts, and, most especially, extraordinary interruptions to service. 2013 was the first full year of targeted service cuts and a substantial 23 percent fare increase. As a result, analysts predicted a 5.3 percent year-over-year drop in ridership, not something we were proud of, but measures we needed to take to shore up the urgent fiscal situation that preceded the enactment of the transportation finance law in August 2013.

However, undoubtedly the most significant impact to ridership was the extraordinary service interruptions, both planned and unplanned, during 2013.

• There was an unprecedented service shutdown from the afternoon of February 8, 2013, through February 10, 2013, due to a major snow event. Storm Nemo caused a decrease of 2 million trips compared to the previous year.

• The MBTA was completely shut down on Friday, April 19th while the region was in a manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. This was the first total shutdown of the MBTA on a weekday in a generation, eliminating approximately 1.3 million trips that day.

• With 2012 a leap year, there was, of course, one more day in 2012, accounting for another 1.3 million trips lost trips in 2013.

• The MBTA had multiple weekends of alternative bus service on the Red and Orange Lines to accommodate work on the Longfellow Bridge and the construction of the new Assembly Square T Station. These essential improvement projects affected weekend ridership while protecting full service during weekdays.

Given what occurred in 2013, it’s fair to say a 1.5 percent drop was, indeed, better than expected.

Rather than a conundrum, I believe that the future is bright for ridership growth on the MBTA as we implement the largest capital investment program in the T’s history.

New service, stations, and commuter parking lots are opening across the system. More trips were recently added for the Worcester commuter rail line and late-night weekend service was launched in March. An all-new, two-track, accessible Yawkey Station opened this year and Assembly Square Station will open later this year, the first new MBTA subway stop in a generation. Commuter garages at Beverly and Salem will open in 2014.

Seventy-five new bi-level commuter rail coaches with more capacity are being introduced into service and we’ve begun to introduce the first new locomotives in 30 years into service this spring. (Incidentally, locomotive failure is the No. 1 reason for a commuter delay.) When this acquisition is complete, 40-50 percent of the fleet’s engines will be new.

And, to mitigate the delay in opening the Green Line extension (an unfunded Romney Administration requirement), the MBTA will be adding new off-peak service on January 1, 2015.

New Red and Orange Line cars, while a few years away, are coming and will allow for ridership growth. The new car configuration of the Red Line will be designed to carry about 5 percent more passengers with the same number of vehicles. Today, the Orange Line could run better headways but can’t because of fleet constraints. We expect to run three to four more six-car-consists during rush hour and improve to four-minute headways from current five-to-six-minute headways as we expand the Orange Line fleet from today’s 120 cars to tomorrow’s 152 cars. And, in both cases, new cars equal fewer breakdowns.

And, we’re funding a diesel multiple unit (“DMU”) pilot for the Fairmont corridor and the Silver Line extension to Chelsea, both key services to transit-dependant populations that are expected to increase service levels and ridership. We expect both projects to capture new ridership.

Finally, fare increases are now statutorily capped at 5 percent on a bi-annual basis. Small, predictable fare increases should have little, if any impact on future ridership.

Meet the Author
There is no doubt we can always improve our performance and that the next administration needs to remain firmly committed to these transit investments that will grow ridership. However, I believe that there is no conundrum. The slight dip in 2013’s ridership was an anomaly but the investments we are making will ensure that the T is poised to grow and flourish for years to come.

Richard A. Davey is the Massachusetts Department of Transportation secretary and CEO.