Subway ridership rebounding, but still lackluster

Survey of T riders finds 56% believe system is not reliable

RED LINE RIDERSHIP appears to be rebounding, with the number of average weekday trips now trending back to the same level it was prior to the June 11 derailment at the JFK/UMass Station. Customer satisfaction with the T is also starting to rebound, although it’s still not very high and remains well below historic levels.

Despite the short-term gains, the T’s subway system remains mired in a ridership slump. T data indicate the number of trips on the subway system has been stagnant or declining even as the local economy has surged. The T is now spending billions of dollars to upgrade service and capacity on the Red and Orange lines on the assumption that a better, more reliable subway system will attract a lot more riders. Right now, however, a T survey of its own riders indicates 56 percent believe the system is not reliable.

The Red Line, the T’s busiest subway line, provides a good case study. The derailment at the JFK/UMass station in June and the three-month effort to restore service to previous levels took its toll on ridership and customer confidence. Red Line weekday trips, which averaged 246,000 in May, steadily declined after the derailment, falling to as low as 222,000 in August.  In September, the latest month available, the number of trips was back to 246,000.

While the numbers are rebounding, they are still low, particularly for a line that serves some of the area’s strongest employment centers at a time when the economy is strong. In September 2018, the number of average weekday trips on the Red Line was 256,000, 4 percent higher than it was a year later.

The Orange Line is also struggling to make gains. Over the last year, the average number of weekday trips hit a peak of 217,000 in October 2018, declined to a low of 182,000 in December 2018, and then rebounded to 216,000 in September 2019.

For the subway system as a whole, the number of average weekday trips on the Blue, Green, Orange, and Red Lines was 697,000 in September 2019, nearly 5 percent lower than a year before.

A monthly survey of riders by the MBTA suggests the agency has a lot of work to do. The latest survey, in November, indicated riders gave the T an overall rating of 2.78 out of a possible 5. That number is up from June, when it plummeted to 2.5, the lowest level since the monthly survey began in June 2016.

But it’s clear attitudes toward the T have not recovered since the June derailment. The overall rating has hovered between 2.5 and 2.91 since June, after being above 3 every month since the survey began more than 3 ½ years ago.

The November survey indicated 45 percent of T riders were somewhat, very, or extremely satisfied with the T, while 44 percent said they were somewhat, very, or extremely dissatisfied.  Eleven percent were extremely dissatisfied, while only 3 percent were extremely satisfied.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed disagreed when asked whether the T provides reliable public transportation services, with 19 percent strongly disagreeing. Thirty-five percent agreed that the T provides reliable public transportation services, but that support was fairly tepid with 3 percent strongly agreeing, 12 percent agreeing, and 20 percent slightly agreeing.

Meet the Author

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.

Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, issued a statement highlighting efforts to boost capital improvements. “With the overarching goals of increasing ridership by delivering safe and reliable service, the Authority has laid out an aggressive capital plan for investing billions of dollars in system-wide improvements, including $2.06 billion for the Red and Orange Lines.  The improvement program includes signal and power upgrades, which will lead to faster, more comfortable trips as well as less crowding on platforms and in stations,” Pesaturo said.

He said the upgrades will reduce the time between train arrivals to 3 minutes on the Red Line and 4.5 minutes on the Orange Line, which will increase capacity by 65,000 riders on the Red Line and 30,000 on the Orange Line.