TransitMatters outlines Faster Forward initiative
Five ideas to boost the MBTA’s performance, ridership
WE AT TRANSITMATTERS were a bit startled to hear the assertion, made in the governor’s recent State of the Commonwealth address, that while “the MBTA’s historic failure during the winter of 2015 laid bare the vital need for a complete overhaul . . . never forget the T always had the money, [and only] lacked the capacity to turn its resources into an action plan.” We thought that we were well past the discredited notion of “reform before revenue,” that most people had come to understand the urgency of significantly increased investment in our public transportation system.
Despite this disappointment, we appreciate and support the Baker administration’s sustained focus on improving the MBTA. While we reject the notion that sufficient funding has been, or is, available to rebuild, modernize, and maintain a 21st Century transit system that will meet our economic, civic, and social needs, we understand that money alone is a blunt instrument. Best-in-class policies, procedures, and systems will help the MBTA offer our region the best possible transit service now, and even more so when additional funding is available. Therefore, we have made it a cornerstone of our advocacy mission to identify cost-effective approaches to service improvements that are gleaned from national and global examples and best practices, and that will have maximum benefit to the public. It is in this spirit — of using constrained transportation resources wisely — that the TransitMatters board recently introduced its new agenda, Faster Forward, at a meeting of TransitMatters members, supporters, and friends. We propose the following five straightforward, high-impact improvements to the MBTA network that will have positive impacts for riders far outweighing the cost of implementation and, in many cases, also lead to increased ridership and revenue.
Our first area of focus is NightBus — an initiative to provide Greater Boston with 24/7 transit service for the first time since 1960. When late night T service was discontinued in 2016, we crafted a plan for an affordable, practical, fixed-route overnight bus service that would operate seven days a week at a fraction of the cost of the cancelled weekend-only service. While the proposed service may be helpful to anyone with overnight travel needs, our plan is focused on getting people to and from jobs. As anyone who lives in Greater Boston knows, the region never stops working. There are people working late nights and early mornings in restaurants, bars, laundry services and hotels, people working security in many buildings, people working at Logan Airport and in hospitals. We made these hard-working people the focus of our plan.
The MBTA has taken this proposal seriously and put substantial staff resources toward working with us and advancing the idea. The cities of Boston and Cambridge have been there every step of the way providing their support and expertise. We are optimistic that before the end of this year, an overnight service will be in place that responds to the realities of today’s Greater Boston. We will have a network that serves the needs of riders across the spectrum, particularly those who are working the jobs that many of us don’t ever see or know about. Overnight service will respond to our growing economy, support its expansion, and provide the kind of social equity that makes great cities and transit systems function well for all citizens.
Traditionally, the MBTA has only allowed for one non-subway transfer (i.e., bus to subway or bus to bus), and free commuter rail and ferry transfers have not been included unless you purchased a monthly pass. We are glad that the MBTA partially implemented our suggestion to allow an additional transfer (bus-subway-bus is now permitted), but much more can be done. We also believe that the commuter rail zone structure should be revamped and simplified. It currently inhibits use and equity within the Greater Boston area by charging riders multiples more for traveling the same distances by commuter rail than they would pay for bus or subway/light rail (compare Red Line Braintree fare and Green Line Riverside fare to commuter rail cost for a trip via Readville, Melrose, or Roslindale). Finally, we will urge the MBTA to implement off-peak and reverse-peak fares for commuter rail that will encourage more people to ride at times when trains are currently well-below capacity. Even if such a policy were only revenue-neutral, the additional ridership will be good for the whole region by reducing automobile traffic congestion and vehicle emissions.
The third plank of our agenda focuses on transforming commuter rail into Regional Rail. Our rail system could be more than a suburb to downtown service for 9-5 office workers. We envision a system that provides an attractive option for transportation across the region. We recognize the magnitude of this change; therefore our initial goal is to see the Fairmount/Indigo line become true rail rapid transit. This is a promise toward which the state has already spent $200 million in capital improvements. But the line suffers from predictably low ridership because service is infrequent and, at times, unreliable; transfers are not included (unless a monthly pass is purchased); and intersecting bus lines are not optimized to sync up with the trains. Many people choose to ride slower but more practical buses. It is a failure of transportation parity as well as social equity. We cannot accept a situation where we invest so much money and then fail to follow through with useful service. Service on this line can, and should, run every 15 minutes, all day and every day. TransitMatters will be rolling out a more detailed and comprehensive plan that would, if implemented, transform this line into the true rapid transit rail line that it can and ought to be. Future commuter rail improvements across the network can be based off the success of an improved Fairmount line.
Fourth, our BetterBusNetwork initiative takes as its first principle the expectation that in a revitalized, modernized, and responsive MBTA network, urban mobility will depend increasingly upon a bus system that is more agile, legible, and reliable than ever before. We support the efforts of other Greater Boston advocacy and policy groups, notably the Barr Foundation, in trying to re-focus the public toward the potential for bus rapid transit and transit priority along specific corridors. We also believe that the entire bus network should be improved through a variety of high-impact, cost-effective improvements, such as: creating a core network of high frequency routes (15 minutes or better between buses); offering guaranteed connections, better bus stop spacing, and placement; and by partnering with cities and towns throughout the region to eliminate delay-prone pinch points throughout the system. Finally, improved legibility and clarity of bus signage, maps, and schedules will help increase ridership and provide passengers with a transit experience that encourages more frequent use.
Finally, we will be urging the creation of strategically located Mobility Hubs across Greater Boston. Mobility Hubs make good on the promise of connectivity, convenience, and legibility — three elements of any first-rate mobility system. Our transportation system must be networked, not bifurcated or kept within silos. At Mobility Hubs, buses and trains on multiple routes arrive and depart simultaneously, enabling passengers to make fast and easy transfers. At these Hubs, citizens can access bike share, bike parking, bike repair stations, taxis, car sharing services and ride sharing. They can also access real time information that helps them make informed transportation choices. Well-planned Mobility Hubs will add resilience to our system by seamlessly enabling alternate routes and modes when weather or some other calamity delays service along your normal route.That’s our five-point agenda. It identifies practical, affordable, and high-impact ways to improve transit service in Greater Boston. We understand that there are many challenges that confront our public transportation system, and we are committed to working with the T, our cities, the riders, and other stakeholders to be the catalyst for positive change. We approach this effort with great respect for the people who work for the T, and for our fellow riders who depend on the T for the mobility essential to their daily lives. We also bring a data-driven, fact-based, and technically sound approach to our advocacy — a commitment that we believe will reap dividends as we seek consensus-based solutions to problems that in the past may have appeared intractable. We offer these straightforward ideas now because those who use, or want to use, the MBTA know that we cannot wait to make these changes until our system magically has 100 percent of the money it needs. We must move ever faster forward because transit matters to the success of our region.
Marc Ebuna is the co-founder and president of TransitMatters; Josh Fairchild is co-founder, board member, and legal advisor to TransitMatters. TransitMatters, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that educates about transit policy and advocates for fast, frequent, and reliable transit for Greater Boston.