T board struggling with ridership estimates

Some on board say poor data hampers decision-making

AS THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board explores the addition of new services and stations, the agency is bumping up against what appears to be a recurring problem – generating accurate estimates of future ridership.

On Monday, for example, a state official was giving a presentation to the control board on a $50,000 study to update a 2010 environmental review of a project to connect the Red and Blue Lines by extending the Blue Line 1,500 feet from Bowdoin Station to Charles/MGH on the Red Line. The Red and Blue Lines are the only two that currently don’t intersect.

Scott Hamwey, manager of long-range planning at the Department of Transportation, said the 2010 study had predicted Red Line ridership would grow from 210,000 weekday trips in 2006 to 250,000 trips by 2030. According to a chart generated by Hamwey, the Red Line estimate was way off; the line handled 260,000 weekday trips in 2017. Blue Line ridership was forecasted to grow from 60,000 weekday trips in 2006 to 72,000 by 2030. Ridership on that line is currently at 68,000.

The reliability of ridership data also came up when the board was discussing how to frame a study on the future of the commuter rail system. Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the control board, asked what the T was doing to improve its ridership estimates and fellow board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt interjected that she could not make an informed decision about the commuter rail plan without better ridership forecasts.

Her comments were reminiscent of some she made in December when the board was discussing ridership estimates for a proposed West Station at Allston Landing. State officials want to hold off on building West Station until 2040 because ridership projections suggest the station would only be serving 250 commuter rail riders and 2,900 bus riders by 2040.

“I don’t see how that’s possible,” said Tibbits-Nutt at that meeting. “There’s a traffic problem there now.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack acknowledged in December that the state’s computer model wasn’t perfect. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you the model is perfect, especially in 2040,” she said. “It’s the only model we have.”

Hamwey said the state is trying to develop more ways of estimating future ridership. In addition to the state’s model, he said, a regional dynamic model is being developed to guage how land use changes could affect future ridership. He also said the Metropolitan Area Planning Council is developing a separate model estimating transit ridership. Officials at the council could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The commuter rail study also plans to study a number of foreign and US transit systems, including Toronto, Barcelona, Paris, London, Manchester, Berlin, Melbourne, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Hamwey said apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult but sometimes instructive. He noted Philadelphia has similar land use and demographics as Boston, but is able to operate a fully electrified commuter rail service at far less cost per mile and per passenger. Pollack said one of the reasons the Philadelphia service is cheaper is because it serves areas where population density is greatest while the T often extends to more sparsely populated areas.

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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.

Brian Lang, a control board member, suggested Hamwey might want to include Singapore in his study because of the higher ridership on its transit system – more than 3 million rides a day. Pollack caution that the comparison to Singapore could be skewed because of the much higher population density of the island state.

Lang pushed back, saying the goal of the study should be to explore best practices at the most successful transit systems. He said a lot depends on the willingness of the state to invest in new infrastructure.

“Let’s look at the best and figure out what we need to do to be the best,” he said.