MBTA ponders its role in ‘mobility marketplace’

Could the T become the payment platform for everything?

THE MBTA’S OVERSIGHT BOARD took some tentative steps on Monday to begin exploring the transit authority’s role in a fast-changing “mobility marketplace” where ride-hailing apps, taxis, bikeshares, car-sharing companies, and eventually automated vehicles will all be vying for riders.

In a presentation to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, three MBTA staffers suggested the agency’s fare collection system, which is currently under development, could become the integrated payment platform for all of the travel options. A single payment system would allow customers to carry just one card, while the T’s system would allow users who lack credit cards to purchase fares with cash.

The staffers also said the T could play the role of regional convener for discussions about the new mobility marketplace and could become a service generator for companies delivering passengers to and from T stations.

The overall tone of their presentation was that the T would be better served cooperating with rather than competing against other forms of mobility. Evan Rowe, the T’s director of revenue, noted the agency already uses Uber and Lyft to provide a higher quality service to paratransit customers at lower cost.

David Block-Schachter, the T’s chief technology officer, said it might make sense financially for the transit authority to subsidize ride-hailing apps that deliver customers to T subway and commuter rail stations. In a similar vein, Rowe said, it might make sense to place bike-share terminals at T stations.

“I don’t think anybody knows where this is going,” Rowe said.

Laurel Paget-Seekins, the T’s director of fare policy and analytics, said the transit authority’s presence in the market is far greater than the other forms of mobility. The MBTA, the nation’s oldest transit authority, provided 382 million trips in 2017, Paget-Seekins said. By contrast, the much newer ride-hailing apps provided 55 million trips and Hubway and Blue Bikes provided 1.3 million trips inside the T’s service area in 2017.

Paget-Seekins said online mobility companies operate with new business models and create new choices for consumers. But she pointed out that ride-hailing apps and car sharing companies don’t necessarily reduce congestion and may contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

A May survey by the T of a group of its regular riders indicated 46 percent used a ride-hailing app in the last month, most often for infrequent trips, off-peak trips, or social-recreational purposes. State transportation officials often say the numbers indicate the T may lose some trips to the ride-hailing apps but not the riders themselves.

In other states, the attitude toward ride-hailing apps has been more aggressive. New York City, for example, has placed a one-year moratorium on the licensing of new ride-hailing vehicles and Chicago has upped fees on Uber and Lyft rides and funneled the money to the Chicago Transit Authority.