T notes: What’s causing bus ridership to fall?

Officials indicate commuter rail ridership is increasing

A correction has been made to the final item in this story.

STATE TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS seem divided on what’s causing bus ridership to fall and the best way to remedy it.

According to MBTA estimates, bus ridership was off more than 6 percent over the last three years, a downturn that is in sync with national trends. At a meeting of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday, officials offered up a variety of theories — poor service, ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft, and even an uptick in car purchases by poor people. It made for an interesting discussion as officials tried to sort how to improve MBTA bus service both in the short-term and long-term.

Jess Casey, the deputy chief operating officer at the MBTA and the official in charge of the T’s Better Bus Project, got the discussion rolling with an analysis of existing service. She said bus on-time reliability is below target on 15 of the transit authority’s 18 key bus routes, which account for 45 percent of the daily bus ridership of 175,000 people. On the remaining 141 routes, 130 were below the reliability target, she said.

On comfort, 13 of the 18 key bus routes were below target, but the T performed better on measurements of frequency (only 4 of the 18 key bus routes were below target) and span, meaning they operated during expected hours (2 of the 18 key bus routes were below target).

Casey outlined a timeline for the development of a better bus strategy that put off actual implementation until the summer of 2019. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack thought that was too long a wait. “I’m impatient and our bus riders are clearly saying they’re impatient,” she said. “Isn’t there a way to get started on fixes before then?”

Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of the control board, echoed Pollack’s concerns. She said the overall T bus experience is terrible, particularly when it comes to comfort. “I don’t think I’ve sat down on one of our buses this year,” she said.

Casey defended the timeline of her Better Bus Project, and noted a lot of bus improvements are depending on cooperation from municipal officials. Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer, backed her up, but he also promised the agency would move much more quickly in addressing current bus service deficiencies.

Scott Hamwey, the manager of long-range planning at the state Department of Transportation, solicited input from the control board on a longer-range project that would be carried out by consultants to design a new bus network to meet the region’s future needs. He wanted to know if the focus should be on building ridership, maintaining existing ridership, or serving growing employment centers.

Steve Poftak, a control board member, said he would focus on increasing ridership by providing more service to the Longwood Medical Area, the Seaport District, and Kendall Square. Tibbits-Nutt asked about employment centers along Route 128 that currently receive little or no service from the T.

Poftak indicated he thought the decline in bus ridership was temporary and being caused by the growth of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft. He seemed to think the ride-hailing apps would not be able to sustain their growth rates with business models that count on investors incurring heavy losses. “I don’t think it’s a sustainable business model,” he said.

Brian Lang, another control board member, said the state needs to better understand the impact of the ride-hailing apps. He said his personal experience suggests the apps are contributing to congestion on roads in Greater Boston. “It’s getting worse,” he said. “It’s really bad.”

Pollack said she thought it wasn’t clear whether Uber and Lyft are the cause of congestion and declining bus ridership. She cited a study released earlier this year by the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies that suggested transit ridership is falling because low-income, foreign-born residents who typically rely on transit are buying cars and driving themselves.

“It’s not at all clear it’s just a TNC problem,” she said, a reference to Uber and Lyft as transportation network companies.

Lots of talk about rising commuter rail ridership

A number of officials at Monday’s Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting suggested commuter rail ridership was on the upswing, but none of them offered definitive numbers.

Steve Poftak, a control board member, said commuter rail ridership is increasing and bumping up against capacity on some routes. Dan Grabauskas, the consultant hired by the T to oversee commuter rail, also indicated ridership is rising. “There’s a lot more people riding some of the trains,” he said.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s chief operating officer, said excitedly that he had some really good news about commuter rail but couldn’t talk about it now.

David Scorey, the general manager of Keolis Commuter Services, which runs the commuter rail service, downplayed the comments of Poftak and the others. He said ridership numbers are difficult to verify because passenger-counting equipment is on only 25 train coaches. He said the counters will soon be on 50 coaches and within 12 months on every coach, thanks to a planned investment of $12 million to $15 million in the equipment.

Scorey said Keolis is also outfitting all its conductors with hand-held devices capable of taking credit card payments for tickets on board trains. Right now, only cash is accepted.

Keolis said it plans to unveil detailed plans next month for installing ticket turnstiles at South, North, and Back Bay Stations by the end of this year or early next year. The turnstiles would verify that people boarding trains have tickets. Keolis has been running manual ticket checks at the three stations and Scorey said indicators suggest the effort is paying off with more purchases of electronic tickets.

Weekend fares off to good start

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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.

David Scorey, the general manager for Keoli Commuter Service, said an average of 3,500 of the special $10 weekend fare tickets were sold over each of the last three weekends. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that 3,500 of the weekend fare tickets had been sold over two weekends.)

The $10 fare offers buyers unlimited rides on the commuter rail system on Saturday and Sunday. It’s part of a fare and marketing blitz by Keolis to increase ridership at off-peak times.