Shadow transit agency
When these three transportation policy wonks talk, the MBTA listens
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LOOKING AT THESE THREE GUYS, you wonder what they have in common. Marc Ebuña is a 30-year-old information technology worker who dresses fashionably, lives in Jamaica Plain, and sports a Fitbit. Ari Ofsevit is a 33-year-old graduate student studying engineering and city planning at MIT; he lives in Cambridge, bicycles nearly everywhere, and seems oblivious to fashion. Andy Monat is the grownup of the group, a 40-year-old software developer from Melrose who owns two cars and at press time was about to become a father.
What unites the three of them is a fascination with data and transportation. They have found a way, in their spare time, to advocate for change at the MBTA in a radically new way. Instead of testifying before the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board or knocking on doors at the State House, Ofsevit, Monat, Ebuña, and a handful of other like-minded individuals from a group called TransitMatters make their case using analysis, logic, and data—usually the MBTA’s own data.
This loose confederation of self-described nerds, launched initially in 2009, has become almost a shadow transit agency. They don’t just advocate for pet projects and policies; they actually roll up their sleeves and dig into the data. That’s what sets them apart; they know what they’re talking about.
The early design for a new North Washington Street Bridge, which runs from Charlestown into the North End, offered nice bike lanes and pedestrian sidewalks. But Ofsevit and others raised the alarm that the bridge also needed a dedicated lane for the buses that carry thousands of people into Boston and often end up being stalled in traffic. A dedicated bus lane is now part of the design and likely to be one of the first of its kind in the state.
The MBTA scrapped a two-year experiment with late-night (until 2 a.m.) service on Friday and Saturday nights in March 2016. It was too little bang for the buck, officials said. But now TransitMatters is pushing a pilot project that would usher in all-night service every day of the week using buses. State transportation officials were initially resistant, but that hesitancy has evaporated in the face of data showing the new service will cater to low-income employees who often have no way of getting to work in the early morning or home late at night when the T is shut down. It hasn’t hurt that Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea, and Revere are backing the TransitMatters plan.
Perhaps the most interesting exchange between the T and TransitMatters was the debate a year ago over how the transit system shuts down at night. Ebuña, Ofsevit, and Monat, using T data and some personal sleuthing, discovered that a well-meaning system designed to prevent any passenger from being stranded was wasting a lot of time and money, as much as $3.8 million a year by their estimates. They said the cause of all of this waste was the decision to put subway lines and the buses that connect to them on hold, often for close to a half hour, waiting for the system’s last Green Line train from Heath Street to arrive at Park Street Station.
Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer and now its deputy general manager, could hardly contain himself when TransitMatters laid out its concerns in an article in CommonWealth. He fired back that the article was full of errors, particularly the assertion about the Green Line train. He also said the cost estimates were way off base. “The shutdown is a deliberate, impressive, and well-synchronized process, which is managed by dispatchers each evening,” he said.
Nearly three months later, however, Gonneville informed the Fiscal and Management Control Board that he was moving up the departure time of that last Green Line train from Heath Street by 10 minutes to “allow for a more prompt release of other connecting trains from the downtown core.” He also acknowledged that the last train from Heath Street typically carried only one passenger on weekdays.
At the T, which rarely admits a mistake, there is a growing sense of respect for TransitMatters. Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, says he appreciates what the group does. “They are an organization composed of very, very smart people,” he says. “I’m delighted that they’re incredibly public spirited and that they dive into very, very specific technical matters and supplement the good work the T does on a regular basis. I hope they keep at it. We’re a better T because of them.”
James Aloisi, a former secretary of transportation and the senior statesman on the TransitMatters board, says he is amazed at how much time his young colleagues put into what, for them, is a sideline. “That’s the thing I’ve found remarkable,” he says. “It’s a shared passion. It’s indicative of a new generation that thinks very differently about their own personal mobility and the importance of mobility to their lifestyle.”
Ofsevit grew up in Newton, attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then returned to the Boston area, where he worked for the Charles River Transit Management Association before heading back to school at MIT. For the past six years, he’s been tracking every mile he travels, logging distance and mode. The data convinced him it would be more cost-effective to buy a car rather than renting one or using Zipcar for his frequent weekend hiking and skiing trips. “It’s just really nerdy, but it’s kind of cool at the end of the day,” he says.
Monat grew up in Indianapolis, so public transit really didn’t show up on his radar screen until he moved to Boston after attending Rice University in Houston and working at a software development firm in Austin. Now he’s into public transit big time, but like many of his colleagues he’s still a novice when it comes to Boston politics. On a recent visit to the State House to meet with Rep. Kay Khan of Newton about the Auburndale commuter rail station, he discovered he didn’t know how to get into the building.
“That was actually the first time I had ever been to the State House, which is kind of funny,” he says. “You just go around the side entrance. The front is always closed, right?”
I interviewed Ebuña, Ofsevit, and Monat at CommonWealth’s offices. What follows is an edited transcript of our two-hour discussion.
COMMONWEALTH: How did you guys meet?
ANDY MONAT: I met Ari first. He was speaking at a Livable Streets Alliance event, talking about the Longfellow Bridge, about how he had done his own bicycle and pedestrian counts because the ones the state had done were not believable.
ARI OFSEVIT: I biked across that bridge every day to work and I was thinking, boy, they’re saying there are 80 bikes going across every hour. But every time I got to the light at the other end of the bridge, there were 15 cyclists there and that light fires 40 times an hour. I did the quick math and said it’s a lot more than 80 bikes, so I decided to sit on the bridge one morning and just count the bikes. It turns out they were using 10-year-old, outdated data.
CW: Andy, how did you come in contact with TransitMatters?
MONAT: Around 2010, the T was coming out with the arrival information for the subways. So I spent a couple of days and put together a fairly basic website (www.mbtainfo.com) that lets you check arrival times on your phone. Bus information was added later. I set up a Twitter account and started communicating with people about various transportation things and I think that’s how I met the TransitMatters people.
OFSEVIT: The T was one of the first transit agencies to make its information available. We need to give the T some credit there. We yell at the T a lot but they did the right thing on that. Transit agencies are generally very protective of their data.
CW: Marc, you’re a cofounder and president of Transit-Matters. How did TransitMatters come about?
MARC EBUÑA: I made a name for myself through Twitter when I first moved to Boston because the MBTA at the time didn’t have a Twitter account. I was listening to people complain about the T and I tried to connect frustrated people to articles and newspaper links or whatever to help them understand why their commute is so screwed up but also who to complain to about this stuff. I started a blog in 2009 that was originally called Transit On The Line. Somewhere in the middle of 2010 I changed it to TransitMatters.
CW: TransitMatters, which is a nonprofit, has raised about $8,000 over the last two years. Do you take a salary as president?
EBUÑA: We’re not paying any wages. I work on TransitMatters unpaid full-time and work part-time on the side for my personal expenses. I do put my IT skills to use at TransitMatters, but I see my work here as a transition out of IT—a critical part of my career pivot into public policy.
CW: What makes you guys do this kind of work in your spare time?
EBUÑA: My natural personality is wanting to fix things. I get angry and then my coping mechanism is to try to fix the problem to get over the anger. For me, simply knowing that there are places that do it better has made me make the leap beyond simply being angry and frustrated and wanting to bring that external expertise and knowledge to the public.
OFSEVIT: I see something that’s not working and my first inclination is not to be angry but to think, why isn’t this working and how can we make this work better? I call it constructive frustration.
MONAT: You look at all the benefits we get from public transportation. It’s hugely important to the economy and education. You get access to jobs. It’s a big deal for people in poverty. If we did a better job at this, think about the additional benefits we could get.
OFSEVIT: We’re all at relatively young places in our lives so it comes down to what is our vision for the next 10, 20, or 30 years. The road system served Boston relatively well for 50 years, and the Big Dig bought us some time and definitely made the city better and more livable. But we’re getting to the point where rush hour is five hours in the morning and five hours in the evening. Boston is one of the best places to live. You have natural amenities, cultural amenities, and a really strong economy. But if the traffic gets worse and the roads continue to be overburdened, none of that is going to be accessible.
CW: How would you describe what you do?
MONAT: People have used the term technical advocacy.
EBUÑA: The big thing we do is look at the small things. We sweat the small stuff and try to make a difference. I also have an issue with the way the T presents itself. It’s often not willing to talk transparently and honestly and clearly about its challenges. These guys have been focused on the T’s operations, but in my view you can make all the operational changes that you want but if you can’t communicate them to the rider then what difference does it make?
OFSEVIT: I would say it’s real politick.
CW: Give me an example.
OFSEVIT: The North Washington Bridge is falling apart and needs to be replaced. This is a city of Boston project. They came out with their design that said it’s going to be a multimodal bridge. It had a nice, wide sidewalk with a view of the city and they had a separated bicycle facility—a 7-foot cycle track, which is fantastic. And they showed a bus in free-flowing traffic. I happen to know that a bus in free-flowing traffic on that bridge going into the city is the exception rather than the rule. Roughly 50 percent of the people who use the bridge ride buses. And they were going to continue to have them stuck in traffic. So I’m looking at this bridge and saying, it’s bicycle and pedestrian friendly, but it’s going to be terrible for transit users. So when they had a public meeting, we got six people to show up and press for bus lanes. It turns out nobody from the city had thought to talk to the MBTA. Nobody from the MBTA had talked to the city.
CW: So they ended up putting in a bus lane?
OFSEVIT: Yeah. And once we got across the kernel of the idea, people were able to jump on it. The T wanted the bus lane to go back as far as possible so buses coming from Route 1 would have a clear path into the city. The Boston Transportation Department looked at it and said we can take out the 12 parking spaces here and give the buses a clear path all the way into Haymarket Square. So now the buses will come across the Tobin Bridge and have a straight shot into Haymarket. Instead of sitting in traffic, they can move into downtown quickly. This does two things. One, it will provide a much better experience for riders. The other thing this will do is, if this works, and I don’t see any reason it won’t work, is allow us to point to this as a concrete example of what can be done. So the second and third time we do bus lanes it will be easier.
CW: Is a lot of your motivation driven by anger with the T?
EBUÑA: I didn’t grow up to be angry at the T and to assume malevolence. I come from the world of information technology, which has a lot of parallels with transportation. They’re both sort of a back-end infrastructure service. Nobody cares what you do as long as it’s not broken. The moment that it’s broken everybody is wondering why you haven’t been doing that thing you were supposed to be doing. So I empathize a lot with not just the T as an organization but with everybody who works there because I know what it’s like to work in a department that is an after-thought for most people.
OFSEVIT: There is malevolence and there is incompetence in the current state administration, but I think this goes way back. If the T doesn’t want to do something, they will make it cost so much that they can say that it’s not worthwhile. As far as the competence of the organization goes, I think there are a lot of really good people working at the T. But I think there are some internal structural issues and management issues. And there are some people who work for MassDOT and the T itself who really could [pauses]. How do I put this?
EBUÑA: Accept a retirement package?
MONAT: Benefit from following some new ways of thinking?
OFSEVIT: Yeah, following some new ways of thinking. One of my favorite things to say about transit agencies is what [sports columnist] Bill Simmons wrote, that every sports team should have a vice president of common sense. This would be someone who would say for any decision, like trading our most popular player or raising the price of beer $3, what are you, nuts? I think that could be brought to transit agencies, where you have someone, internal or external or a group of rider advocates, someone who could come in and say this is going in the wrong direction.
CW: Do you feel like the T is resistant to change?
EBUÑA: The underlying reason the T puts up a lot of resistance is the fear that there’s going to be a backlash from stakeholders. If we shut down the system minutes earlier, the fear is we’re going to be leaving people out in the cold, which is why our proposal on how they shut down the system dovetailed into our overnight service proposal. What if we could save some of that money spent extending rail service for a few extra minutes at X millions of dollars? Why not put that money into running an overnight service network for the people who are out and trying to get home. But the pushback, again not necessarily malevolence, but the T pushes back on different types of equipment and pilots because there is an uncertainty about where the money is going to come from. There’s this operational thinking that’s not only siloed by line and by district but heavily focused on cost-cutting. There is anxiety about using the money we have today in a way that is strategic and efficient because there is always the concern that the budget may not be as liberal next year.
CW: On late-night service, it seemed like your biggest achievement was changing the terms of the debate. Instead of talking about college kids, you talked about the people who work at the airport, restaurants, bars, and other businesses that are open at night.
OFSEVIT: Overnight service, when it ran with trains, the T said no one used it. But it was wildly popular. If you got on a train at 1:30 in the morning at Park Street, there were 50 other people in the car. It was used by a lot of people, but it was serving the wrong population. It was serving drunk college kids. It wasn’t serving people working at restaurants washing dishes.
MONAT: It was like 25 percent of the workers who live in Chelsea leave for work before 5:30 in the morning, which is a crazy statistic. A quarter of all the workers in Chelsea go to jobs too early to be able to use most of the existing transit.
OFSEVIT: Most other cities have some sort of skeletal late night service, but Boston doesn’t. I think it’s Boston, Houston, and Atlanta that don’t have that kind of service. What we’re saying is this shouldn’t be about Friday and Saturday nights. This should be 24 hours a day.
CW: Do you think the T needs more money?
EBUÑA: Yes. What underscores all of this is equity and resiliency and all of the other issues that are going to be challenging for us in the latter half of the century. You cannot reform your way to a water-resilient subway system.
OFSEVIT: That’s what the Big Dig was all about. If we still had the elevated artery, a lot of what we see in South Boston and the Financial District would not be happening because traffic would be so bad and it would be a lot less desirable. We’re getting close to a half-century beyond the [start of the] Big Dig now and we really need to be thinking about the next 20 to 30 years. At least for the first few years of this decade, Massachusetts has grown at the same rate as the rest of the country for the first time in 100 years. A lot of what TransitMatters does is look at those small operational pieces, but we also have that larger-scale view of what we want to do in the long term. How is the region going to look in 10 to 20 years?
EBUÑA: That was the chief argument with Auburndale and why we intervened to try to change the conversation about the way they were redeveloping that station. What is service going to look like on the Worcester Line in 20, 30, 50 years? If we do build regional rail, the station we were designing was not going to work.
MONAT: In my mind, good transit produces economic development. Do we want to buy more economic development or don’t we? And that’s what investing in regional rail is.
CW: Does the T ever say thanks—like with the Auburndale station?
MONAT: I am naïve in the ways of government, I guess. I thought that some day not too long after that the T would make some announcement that we’ve looked it over and that project plan was mistaken and we’re going to reorient it this way. I’m not sure to this day there’s been any public acknowledgment of that.
CW: You’re right. I had to chase after them to find out the original design was being scrapped.
OFSEVIT: This was not malevolence. This was incompetence. We went to a public meeting on the station and asked the designers whether they had talked to rail ops. After a bit of back and forth, it turned out they hadn’t talked to rail operations. They went and talked to rail operations and rail operations took one look at it and said there’s no way we can run this. I don’t know if they’ve said so publicly, but it’s now going in the right direction.
CW: Do you think part of the problem with the T is that the folks there just don’t have enough bandwidth to deal with everything?
MONAT: Absolutely. There are departments in the T that are drowning in the amount of work they have to do and ridiculously understaffed. So, yeah, when someone comes to them and says you should do something that looks like more work, even if it better accomplishes your mission, they say why are you bothering me.
OFSEVIT: It’s sort of a spend money to make money thing. Right now, if there’s an old way of doing something that works but is inefficient, if you start doing that more it just makes it more inefficient. That’s one of the problems with the South Station expansion that the state is advocating for. It takes the current operating structure of North and South stations, which are the chief constraint on capacity on the commuter rail, and it just makes it worse. It means that every train you run has to pull into North Station and then pull out. It’s time consuming. What it really means is that that train can make only one trip during rush hour.
CW: Are you saying the folks at the T are lazy?
OFSEVIT: I don’t really blame people at the T who are overworked and probably under-compensated and have seen budgets cut. The T is really in a place where they are trying to put the service on the road every day. In their defense, that’s something that’s hard to do, especially with the political process here and the aging fleet. There needs to be someone saying, what’s this going to look like in 5 to 10 years, and 10 to 20 years? There probably needs to be better strategic planning at the agency. That’s an area where we need to be more active.
CW: Do people at the T view you guys as pains in the ass?
EBUÑA: I think that depends on the person and the department.
OFSEVIT: When we’re making work for someone, they probably don’t like us.
CW: But when the T puts all of its data out on the table, isn’t that an invitation for people like you to use it?
MONAT: Auburndale was a good example of that. You get the data, but we’re not in a position to just call up and get a meeting with the transportation secretary or the T’s general manager to listen to our ideas. Sometimes that means you put it out in a public forum where people can think about it. The T is a large organization. Different people at different times see things differently. Our goals are in general alignment with theirs. Our goal is to get better service for riders and improve the region.
OFSEVIT: And, if possible, save money while doing it. I don’t think any of us are averse to saving money, but we’re also not averse to spending money in the long run. We look at the most efficient use of funds.
CW: Isn’t it easy to whack the T?
OFSEVIT: It is really easy to go on Twitter and to say something either mean, angry, or snarky at the T. I’ve done it myself.
EBUÑA: We all continue to do that.
OFSEVIT: Yeah, we all continue to do that. It’s pretty easy to write a blog post about something you see on the T. It’s hard to write a blog post that actually has good data behind it. There are places for everything, but we don’t want to be making snarky comments on Twitter. Hopefully, we’ve sort of graduated from that to the more analytical stuff.
EBUÑA: The snark does have its use, and that’s getting people to recognize in your Twitter post that it validates an experience they have. It’s a level of humanity that allows us to relate to other people. That’s something the T could learn. Other agencies do have a level of humility that relates well to their customers.
OFSEVIT: Look at BART. [Bay Area Regional Transit]
EBUÑA: BART, LA Metro, Chicago Transit Authority. It’s a level of humility, saying we are not an infallible agency. We do make mistakes and we recognize that there are citizens out there who are trying to make a difference and we appreciate it. That would be a nice response.
OFSEVIT: LA and San Francisco wrote transit haikus at each other on their Twitter accounts and it was informative, it was funny, and I think it humanized them. It made people realize that there are people behind this big machine that gets you to work.
EBUÑA: That’s the problem. We recognize that there are people who work at the agency, but a lot of people don’t and that makes it easier to vilify them as an incompetent, malevolent, monolith.
CW: Jim Aloisi, the former secretary of transportation, is on the board of TransitMatters. What role does he play?
EBUÑA: He’s been an asset to TransitMatters because of his past relationships and familiarity with the MBTA staff and being able to get us in a room to have some conversations. There is a respectful but somewhat tense relationship with some of the T staff. We’ll casually crack jokes but it feels like you have to cut the tension with a steak knife in some of the rooms in which we have meetings.
CW: Aloisi is also someone who is familiar with Beacon Hill and the political process. He must know the backchannels.EBUÑA: In many ways he is the backchannel.
OFSEVIT: Part of politics is knowing when to push and where to push, and where to lay off. That can be hard for us.