Can we hold off a return to carmageddon?

Transit advocates urge action on MBTA fare structures

IT’S LIKE WATCHING a highway pile-up in slow motion. 

That seems to be the appropriate car-centric metaphor conjured up by a trio of op-eds in today’s Boston Globe that say we are heading for big trouble if action isn’t taken to address ways that the coronavirus pandemic has upended commuting patterns and practices. 

“One thing is certain: Commuters can’t go back to Boston’s world-class traffic congestion,” writes C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association.

Or can they? 

“Traffic, for all intents and purposes, is back to about 2019 levels on most roadways in Massachusetts at this point,” state highway administrator Jonathan Gulliver told the Department of Transportation board in late June. 

In some ways, the problem looks even more daunting today than before the pandemic, since traffic congestion has returned even as a chunk of the workforce continues to operate remotely from home or on a modified hybrid schedule of only heading to the workplace for some part of their week. While fewer people may be commuting to work each day than before the pandemic, more of them seem to be driving. 

Webb references a recent MassINC Polling Group survey that showed 92 percent of Kendall Square employees have a strong desire for a more flexible work schedule and 79 percent expect to work from home at least a few days a week. The survey showed a big drop in daily MBTA commuters but a slight increase in the percentage of those using the T to commute two to three days per week. Webb urges the T to “embrace this as the future of commuter behavior” and develop new fare options adapted to the changing work world. 

Rick Dimino of the nonprofit A Better City echoes that, saying the T’s monthly unlimited ride pass structure may no longer work well for a lot of former users of the program. “Increasing flexibility of existing passes or offering discounted rates could make the difference between driving to work and taking the commuter rail,” he writes

Five leaders of the advocacy group TransitMatters zero in on commuter rail fares. While commuter rail ridership is rebounding from its almost complete collapse at the height of the pandemic, it remains far below previous levels. One way to significantly boost ridership — while also promoting transit equity for lower-income residents — would be to make commuter rail significantly cheaper, write Ethan Finlan, Jarred Johnson,  Matthew Petersen, Jim Aloisi, and Matthew M. Robare.

They say the T was short-sighted in ending temporarily reduced fares between some inner-ring communities like Quincy and Lynn and Boston. And the cost of the longer commuter rail ride from Worcester to Boston, they say, is greater than the comparable costs of driving, surely not a recipe for increasing ridership. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Left out of the three essays was much detail on what such changes would cost and how they’d be paid for. The T is flush with federal aid now, but at some point down the road it will have to reckon with how to offer pre-pandemic service levels with fewer fare-paying riders. 

Getting more people back on the subway and commuter rail would surely be a good way to alleviate roadway gridlock while also lessening planet-threatening emissions. Getting the numbers to work on the various fare changes that could help boost ridership will be the challenge.