A tale of two transit systems

Means-tested T fares could be disastrous

OUR FUTURE, ROBERT KENNEDY ONCE SAID, lies beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control.  This was an optimistic view of our ability to anticipate (rather than predict) the future, and act decisively upon it.  Anticipating the future – understanding trends, changing paradigms and preferences, shifting demographics – is easier to do than ever before because we have unprecedented access to data that helps inform decision making.  So there’s no excuse for failing to act decisively on the growing threat that we are moving, slowly but surely, toward a stratified transit system.

We decry the growing income inequality that manifests itself as a Tale of Two Cities – one for the haves, and one for everyone else.  Yet we may be fast approaching a Tale of Two Transit Systems – one for the voiceless in society, and one for the wealthy and connected.  And we threaten to exacerbate the problem by using well-intentioned mid-Twentieth Century approaches to maintaining equality.  Allow me to explain.

We live in a time when innovation is sweeping across all sectors of society.  It is an inescapable part of our times, and a good thing, too, because it offers unprecedented connectedness, widespread dissemination of information, and in certain sectors (health care most notably), groundbreaking opportunities to improve people’s lives.  Innovation has also come to transit mobility, in a variety of forms.  We have the potential to use data to offer real-time scheduling information, improve routine and programmed maintenance, and make bus trips faster and safer by the use of traffic signal priority systems.  (In Greater Boston, we are barely scratching the surface making use of these and other innovations – but I digress.)

Transit innovation is also coming through the adoption of new business models that essentially take the form of private sector micro transit.  This includes high-end bus transit providers like Bridj, and larger service providers like Uber Pool and Lyft Line.  People who can afford to pay a bit more are able to enjoy, for the first time in our history, a viable alternative to the T and to taxis – and they are using those alternatives more and more frequently.

There’s nothing wrong with Bridj or Uber Pool – it’s hard to be critical of innovation that is designed to take advantage of a clear need, and fills that need with a quality service. The private sector cannot be criticized for innovating.  The pubic sector has the responsibility to regulate these alternatives, to be certain that everyone is playing by fair and appropriate rules.  But it is also the duty of the public sector to understand the implications of the emergence of private sector micro transit, and respond to it in a smart and strategic way.  The very future of a quality, sustainable public transportation system is at stake.


Because a public transportation system cannot succeed if it is not egalitarian.  What does this mean in practice?  It means that you want to ensure that people from all walks of life and all income brackets are sharing and using the system.  You want people on the same bus who are wearing shirtsleeves and who are wearing cufflinks.  That is the recipe for success, because such a mix means that all citizens have a vested interest in a functioning, well-maintained, reliable public transportation system.

An egalitarian public transportation system is a sine qua non of a highly functioning urban society.  A stratified public transportation system, on the other hand, becomes an expression of government’s failure to anticipate and respond to the future.

Now we are engaged in a debate about whether, and how, to raise MBTA fares once again.  In a state that is so tax and fee adverse – the state that could not even support an inflation-adjustment to the gas tax – how can this be? The answer is self-evident: in an auto-centric society, where the economic and civic importance of public transport remains undervalued, you can raise fares on T riders with impunity.

Some well-intentioned folks seem sanguine about a fare increase, thinking that the T can raise fares just on those who can afford to pay more, and not on the really poor (however one defines that).  Means-testing T fares has become, for some, the safety valve that assuages their conscience and appears to respond to the inequity of once again hiking public transportation fares.  This well-intentioned drift toward means-testing is mid-20th Century old think, and it fails to respond to the reality of today’s mobility marketplace.  That marketplace now offers people of means quality micro transit alternatives, so while in the past those riders had nowhere to go, they now have viable alternatives.  Means-testing transit fares – old think – simply does not anticipate the future.

Consider this: once the cost differential between a regular T fare and a private sector micro transit alternative is no longer significant – in other words, when it costs about as much to take Bridj or Uber Pool as it does to take the T – then those who can afford to leave the T for private sector micro transit will do so. They will leave behind a T that will be used almost exclusively by those who are riding it as a result of necessity, not choice.  And once that happens, the T is destined to fall into a black hole it won’t be able to get out of, because the people who have voices in the halls of power will be gone.

I’m the last person in the world who wants to see fares increased on those who can least afford to pay them.  That is why I’ve called for no fare increase until such time as the T can show demonstrably improved service quality.  In the meantime a lot of money can be made available without raising anyone’s taxes, fees, or fares by shifting some T debt and shifting some highway dollars to transit.  Why we won’t embrace these strategies is beyond me, but they exist and they would enable the T to get a lot of work done to improve service and justify a future fare hike.

To those who argue that we need the money badly, and that fares are fair game, I say:  well, we do need money for the T – about $7 billion by the estimate of the T’s new Fiscal Control Board.  Raising fares – a 5 percent hike raises about $23 million – doesn’t even begin to address this $7 billion gap.  And to those who say that we do not have a strong fare box recovery ratio in Boston – in other words, that fares do not cover a fair share of the total costs – as I’ve written before, that is just plain wrong:

“There is a false premise that continues to hang out in the fog as a misleading beacon – namely that the T’s fare box recovery numbers are significantly below national equivalents, and therefore justify a fare increase. This allegation has been disproven in several reports, most recently by the Frontier Group, and in a 2011 report commissioned by A Better City and authored by the respected former New York transportation commissioner Astrid Glynn.  Both reports make one salient point: Direct comparisons between transit authorities are virtually impossible given significant differences in service types, districts, and service areas.  The Frontier Group has reported that when compared fairly and accurately, the MBTA ‘often falls in the middle of the pack among US transit agencies.’ The T is even a leader in one area: The fare box recovery ratio for the Green Line light rail service is the highest in the nation.”

As I’ve said before, asking T riders to pay more for the same quality of service is ineffective policy and morally wrong. Until and unless we have before us a comprehensive, credible plan to deal with the $7 billion state-of-good repair gap, we should put a halt to fare increase talk. And when the time does come to implement a new fare increase, lets figure out a way to help those who can least afford it through methods other than discounted fares.  Discounting fares only takes money away from the T.  Instead, we should be thinking creatively, perhaps using earned income tax credits or having the state subsidize fares for those who qualify for SNAP or similar programs (ideas recently offered for discussion by Josh Fairchild of the advocacy group TransitMatters).

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Let me leave you with one final thought. We are all in this together, but won’t be for long once we push well-off commuters to private sector micro transit. A fair and equitable mobility system that everyone uses ought to be a pillar of a thriving urban experience.  Once we lose our egalitarian transit system we lose the whole ballgame.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.