T just doesn’t understand college students

Paltry university pass sales reflect marketing failures

EARLIER THIS WEEK, CommonWealth reported on the paltry sales of the MBTA’s university pass and the transit agency’s confusion about how to tap Boston’s student market. As a recent graduate of Northeastern University and one of the 12,500 students who purchased a student semester pass in the fall of 2016, I have a few suggestions.

First, the pass is too expensive. The pass offers an 11 percent discount off the list price, bringing the cost of a four-month, local bus and subway pass down to a whopping $300. That is a hard value to justify to new riders. The pass program costs the same as 10 rides per week, suggesting the target customer is someone who commutes to either work or school. Northeastern is moving further and further from its roots as a commuter school and continues to build on-campus housing for students. Other universities in the area provide meaningful transportation for their students across and between campuses, such as Boston University’s “The Bus,” which runs along Commonwealth Avenue (alongside the B line) and up Massachusetts Avenue (serviced by the 1 Bus approximately every 10 minutes).

If too few students need the MBTA to commute to school, the pass needs to be marketable for other purposes. Using the T to attend social activities makes sense, but less than you might think. If a student expects that they will only need the MBTA eight times per week (which would allow for a pretty robust social life off-campus), they would be overpaying by purchasing the pass. A lack of late-night service and the limited service on weekends is also a serious barrier to social usage. Until the MBTA becomes more reliable or significantly more cost-effective, it will continue to hit a ceiling of student ridership in the presence of transportation ride-sharing apps. These apps offer riders things the MBTA can’t – 24-hour service, flexibility of pick-up location, and an estimated arrival time.

Second, the pass is marketed more like a straitjacket than a cost-effective convenience.  The semester pass is available for purchase only two times per year, usually with the deadline for completing the purchase one month prior to the upcoming academic semester, which varies depending on the particular school.  The first time many students hear about the semester pass is in an email from the school parking office with a big, red deadline by which the pass must be ordered. These deadlines create problems for students, who fear locking themselves into a large purchase before they have ironed out their upcoming semester plans. For incoming freshmen, the unknowns are even greater.

The school year in Boston is not as simple as two semesters anymore, either. Northeastern University and the Colleges of the Fenway offer both summer semesters as well as co-op cycles. Boston College and Emerson offer two summer semesters. If a student is on co-op from January-July, their pass expires on May 1. There is no discounted option for a two-month pass to cover a single summer semester, and there is no May-August pass offered.

Third, universities, working with the MBTA, need to educate their students about the T. Universities, including my alma mater, do a terrible job of explaining the need for a pass. Many students who are not originally from the Boston area could use a basic lesson in geography. And that lesson needs to include more than simply where other college campuses are relative to their own. Little effort is made to convince students that Somerville, Dorchester, East Boston, and Newton are worthwhile places to go. As a result, little effort is made to explain to them how to get there.

There is no shortage of opportunities to better normalize transit to new students. Northeastern University requires an “Intro to College” class for every student, broken out by academic department. Each student is assigned both an academic and a co-op advisor. These instructors could be better trained or equipped with materials from the MBTA to disseminate to students. A one-day free pass program could go a long way to getting new residents out and exploring places that they hopefully will want to return to. Any effort to curate the unique attractions along transit would do wonders. This could be dumbed down to the point of including a map of the MBTA and an explanation of the semester pass program in orientation materials. Within the Northeastern University student services portal, resources on transit options and the semester pass program have less visibility than the Co-op Carpool Database or Zipcar at NU.

Meet the Author

Maureen McInerney

Public Affairs Associate, MassINC
To increase student ridership without requiring mandatory participation, the MBTA could offer a more attractive incentive, multiple pass options with flexible purchase opportunities, or at the very least do a better job explaining to students why the current four-month pass is a worthwhile investment.

Maureen McInerney is the public affairs associate at MassINC.