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).

Meet the Author

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.

  • Aubrey

    Distance based fares are the answer

    • bakgwailo

      Yeah, cause that is how Chicago, NYC, Philly, Baltimore etc, do it. In fact, we had exit fairs before, and they were all removed, wonder why. Perhaps the real answer for the state to revert forward funding and offer the MBTA debt relief.

      • Aubrey

        Why would I care how those cities do it? A pile of money sinks using hundred year old equipment. Successful systems like Tokyo, Hong Kong, London and Berlin have distance based fares.

        • bakgwailo

          So first of all, Boston is the oldest out of the lot of the ones I listed (speaking of 100 year old equipment). Second, NYC is considered to be pretty much the best in the world, although perhaps London will catch up now that they are attempting 24/7 service. DC also has distance based fares, and it is a POS worse than the MBTA. Perhaps one should look at the real reason the MBTA is the way it is – hint, its nothing to do with fairs or structures and entirely to do with Forward Funding, the Big Dig and its unfunded legally required remediation obligations, and the general dysfunction of the T’s management.

      • anonymouse

        NYC did it specifically to promote suburban sprawl, which at that time was actually a good thing, given the empty farmland in Queens that was getting rapid transit, and the ridiculously overcrowded slums in Manhattan. And don’t forget, Boston had some distance-based fares on rapid transit until the 2000s: the Quincy and Braintree stations required two tokens to enter, and the Riverside line also had a higher fare.

        • bakgwailo

          Which I already said we had and got ride of ? I would also love to see the source on the NYC comparison that shows why they did what they did and have decided to keep it that way until today (when Queens is certainly not farmland). You can say the same here, just at a smaller scale, too.

      • Holly Martin

        Distance-based fares further punish the working poor who are being gentrified out of the city and away from their places of employment.

  • bob

    one thing about these private operators is that they are trying to play by a different set of rules. the T has to comply with the Americans with disabiities act. the private operators are trying to ignore this, the T has operators with Comercial drivers licenses, Uber and others don’t the T has insurance that is sufficient to cover one hurt in an accident, do Uber drivers have anythingc more than minimum coverage? the T vehicles are inspected daily the private operators maybe once a year, do these matter, well not until you need them and find out they do not exist.

    time based fares can also be used as I experienced in some other countries. a $1 gets you 20 minutes on as many vehicles as you need $2 gets you 40 minutes and so forth. or whatever time/cost works out best

    • joebeckmann

      ADA Compliance is regularly funded, rather than punitively assigned, and the MBTA has a history of hiding horrendous cost overruns behind reasonable options, as they did when they estimated the North Point station to “cost” $150,000,000 to make it “comparable” to Green Line stops in Brookline with a piece of tar and some wooden ramps.

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  • joebeckmann

    We already have tiers – I’m over 70 and get a discount; some employers cover some or all fares out of parking fees; and there are many, many options to create adequate incentives to make individual fares low for regular travelers, and higher for occasional riders, particularly for short distances. This is an absurd argument based on ideology rather than user response or motivational marketing. To compare the T with Uber is to mix a bus with a minicooper.

  • Excellent points. There’s an age-old business dilemma wherein you want to charge rich people more for your product because you know they
    can afford it, but at some point they’ll shop elsewhere. Now that Uber
    & Lyft have introduced cheaper taxis and brought them to places
    traditional cabs have long ignored, for a group it’s actually cheaper
    and easier than the T. So at what point do you lose them?

    I have a lot more on this topic so I’ll just share a link to it:

  • Distance-based fares, much like low-income fares, is a concept that sounds good but has serious problems. Most importantly, consider who lives in the city center vs those who are being pushed further out. It makes sense for Commuter Rail, except that as the distance increase and the fare rises, it approaches or exceeds the cost of driving and parking (so you lose riders and increase traffic congestion). Gateway cities like Lynn, Brockton, Lawrence and Worcester need to be considered as well: lots of low-income people living there too, and in my opinion you shouldn’t be relegated to the BAT bus to Ashmont because you can’t afford the fast Commuter Rail.

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