Tuesday, May 02, 2006

MBTA Free for All

The MBTA has totally the wrong goal in mind. The solution to the transit crisis must start in Boston. It is to make subways and buses free.

Reasoning that high gas prices and more costly subway fares elsewhere will make T fare hikes okay is lunacy.

I can hear the suburban legislators sputtering, but this is a long overdue idea, one that fits the emergencies of high gas prices, jammed city streets, and asthma-inducing pollution. Last week's insane and inane announcement by MBTA management that it will try to jack its fares way up shows they need a dope slap.

Perfect Mass Transit

Let's consider the ideal. What would make a perfect transit system?
  • Next to departure and destination points.
  • 24-hour operation.
  • Frequent to the point of being continuous.
  • Safe.
  • Clean.
  • Silent.
  • Easy entry and exit.
  • Free.
A lot of that we are far from, and some, like 24-hour operation, do not fit our culture.

Yet, despite the expsense and inconvenience of auto travel, we have declining ridership in a city filled with motor vehicles. They fill the air with toxins and noise. They clog the roads and cost billions in highway construction and repair.

We are looking forward to $3, $4 and maybe $5 or higher per gallon fuel.

Boston is an ideal laboratory for building an ideal mass-transit system, which we have not done. The central city is under 600,000 people, yet very compact. Likewise, the metropolitan area of around 3 million is near MBTA lines.

Yet, we foster car commuting, are very bicycle hostile, and seem to do what we can to discourage transit usage. The latest outrage is socking commuters when the gas price is going up.

Get With the Program

Instead, we should drop MBTA fares or make buses and subways free. By keeping fares equal to other cities and bringing the cost of mass transit to the level of car commuting, we ensure that congestion and pollution instead of capturing riders. The MBTA pigpiles woes on potential riders instead of luring them to use mass transit and benefit us all.

At the projected rates, a subway roundtrip will be $3.40 per person, assuming that you only go one place. If you look at a few commuters or a family headed anywhere on the line, suddenly they can justify spend gas and filling up a parking meter. Dumb.

Not even counting the Big Dig, the commonwealth and Feds heavily subsidize the suburban and exurban car-driving communities. We build and maintain massive highways and services for a very few people. Count it per passenger mile and it is much more than what a free T would cost.

Pennsylvania brags about having the nation's first turnpike and we brag about the first subway. Sorry, but both look and ride like it. They range from only okay to dangerous to unattractive to the public.

The solution is to make the T free or a low cost, like a quarter or 50-cents, per ride. Add more trains and buses, pay for drivers instead of fare systems and collectors.

I see Boston area roads used by delivery trucks and passenger buses...and bicycles.

If the legislature gets with the program and calculates the costs, we can do this.

This rant will continue with figures and vetting.

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Anonymous said...

Terrific points.

It's not as if the higher fares will result in better service...I don't see the service improving. I live in Newton and I have a car, but in many instances I prefer to take the T to get to Boston. I take the green line from Woodland (about a mile from my house). It takes a half hour to go about 8 miles. The trolleys are rickety, wobbly, and slow. It's an alternative to looking for parking or paying in a lot and more environmentally friendly. But if prices go up, it's not going to be anymore economical than driving and even paying a little bit for parking

I'd also like to see commuter rail improvements. NJ Transit, MTA's MetroNorth, and SF-area Caltrain are all commuter trains that run at least hourly on the weekends.

I also agree with you about adding buses. It would be a step in the right direction if they couldn't improve subway conditions. I'd like to see improvements in the triple-digit buses. When I lived in Watertown, I'd wait for the 504 (I think that's what it was?) and sometimes it would never come. Much of Newton is also sorely lacking bus service.

OK, that's all for my tirade. ;-)

Anonymous said...

This is so brilliant. Boston does not have to stop with leading the way in human rights--let's lead the way in effort to stop global warming.

massmarrier said...

I need to get off the dime or token. At the least, I need to say this at a T fare-raise hearing. Otherwise, I have to go to my Senator and Rep to ask for a bill enabling this.

There's no reason that they shouldn't at least debate expenditures that will better our lives rather than reinforce what doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

Another item for the bulleted list: periferal busses. Most busses head into Boston/Cambridge, like spokes on a wheel. But if you want to go from one MBTA-served burb to another, good luck and enjoy the transfer!

I live in Seattle now, where bus fare is a modest $1.25 with unlimited transfers for 2.5 hrs. Busses are clean, and kneel unobrtusively for the elderly/handicapped. Most have bike racks on the front. This in a state that collects no income tax! Additionally, major arteries here have dedicated carpool/bus lanes. Watching busses swoosh by your traffic-jammed car is quite the incentive, i can tell you.

Suldog said...

How much do you think it will cost us in taxes to do this? Just asking - I don't have the answer. Do you think the per person cost in taxes will be equal to, less than, or more than the per person fare hike? Do you think the people who are not serviced by any part or portion of the T should contribute to this? Or should it be a city tax?

Anonymous said...

You definitely should say some of these things at a hearing. You make fantastic points and they should be taken very seriously.

massmarrier said...

A nice comment from Suldog over on the link at Universal Hub led to the exchange:

T For Free?
By Suldog (not verified) on Tue, 05/02/2006 - 12:29pm.

Will the cost in taxes, per person, to accomplish this be equal to, less than, or more than the per person fare hike? Would you have all taxpayers, even those who have no access whatsoever to T services, pay for this or will it be funded by a city tax? Do you propose putting all future T expansion plans to a referendum vote by the public, or do you trust the General Court of the Commonwealth to wisely make such decisions?

I am not saying it can't be done, but I sure would need to hear more particulars. It's very easy to propose that the government be Santa Claus, but not so easy to figure out what we're going to feed the flying reindeer.

Monies for MBTA
By massmarrier on Tue, 05/02/2006 - 12:53pm.

The city can't do squat. While the majority of monies for government come from businesses and people in and immediately around Boston (with access to the T), the commonwealth tells Boston what it can and cannot do to get or spend money. That's the huge downside here to the capital city.

Plus the MBTA is a regional thingummy. So the real decision goes to Beacon Hill, where the anti-Boston folk reign. They are perfectly to let Boston (with a few others like Worcester or Lowell) act as staging grounds for immigrants, educators for newcomers and the poor, and of course, the tax base for the whole commonwealth.

I'll see if I can generate the figures quickly on such as 1) how much we spend on maintaining transportation (which Boston area resident do not benefit from) for the state, 2) what it would cost for a free or reduced-fare T system, and 3) what the tangible benefits would be from reducing the car and truck traffic with increased ridership.

I can see this consuming me. Worse things could happen.

Back to your excellent question set, it would require a commitment from the legislature to improve our health, reduce gas dependence, and on and on. As you note, it's not impossible, but it's not likely to happen this week.

Anonymous said...

Equal to other cities? NYC is $2 and rising each entry. DC is rated by mileage, but a commute from the furthest southern point to the central area can be upwards of $2 during high-use periods. I'm willing to pay more (especially, if the combo pass is lower and free transfers are implemented between subway and bus) if the MBTA can promise that service will be better. The unfortunate fact is that they cannot keep this promise.

massmarrier said...

I liked the Seattle system. It was frequent and went largely where I wanted to go. I went to out-of-the-way places like the Museum of History and Industry quickly and easily. I also got back on in just under the limit, so that the ride back was included.

Of course there is that light rail/tunnel fiasco, but I view that as temporary.

We also need more transit routes North and South. We are far too East/West oriented in the Boston area, leading to as you mentioned the delays and multiple transfers or types of transit. You'd think we have enough brain power around here to fix that, but the roads are very similar; getting from Hyde Park to Somerville or Logan is absurd.

Anonymous said...

An idea whose time has come.
One possible way to ease in to this and avoid the challenge of rush hour is to start by making the T free only during off hours.

Of course, going immediately to full, free transit on the buses and subways would lead to big crowds attempting to use them, but, unless you actually get crowds so large they are physically dangerous, this is not such a bad problem. People unwilling to face such crowds will find alternative forms of transportation. All those interested in a less crowded system will start to advocate for more trains and buses. The system will have more stakeholders than ever, while air in the region will grow healthier, and regional waistlines will shrink as people walk and bike to their T-stops.
A relatively small increase in the gas tax could fully pay for this program. While it is never fun to think of expensive gas, the fact of life is that gas costs are rising. We can either add to the tax and spend some money trying to wean ourselves from the addition, or we can do nothing and send all the money to Saudi Arabia, Exxon, etc.

Anonymous said...

Some free fares are already in effect, like train B outbound for instance. (Can anyone explain why ?) And what about all the times fares are just not collected, such as any green line inbound during rush hour when they just say "everybody board using all doors", or when any turnstile is being seviced and the gate just thrown open for all, or when school lets out and every other metco student without a pass just jumps the gate, or when the rush hour commuter train only has one conductor (this is my favorite cause it saves me 4.50$)
Conversely, honest riders using Quincy, Quincy Adams, and Braintree get charged twice as much. (Of course liars pay the regular fare if they tell the token collector they're only going up one stop.)
Either collect fares fairly, or not at all.

Anonymous said...

Oddly, several college town bus systems in the US are free/near-free: Austin, Boulder, Chapel Hill, and Davis come to mind (in that order, natch!). The key factor appears to be large subsidies from the university, which effectively pre-pay for rides taken by students and/or employees. Boulder offers the most outre example, where well over half the town's residents have yearly bus passes.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, But how do we pay for It. The Ididot in the whitehouse will never. Count out the Feds. Where will the state get the money?

massmarrier said...

We first have to shift gears and leave behind the concept that mass-transit riders have to pay for every ride in fares. Even with gas taxes, tolls, and bus/truck use fees, motorized vehicle drivers certainly don't.

In addition, the heavy costs to health, of quality of life like congestion and noise, ever increasing highway expansion costs and on and on pile up, hitting us much more in personal and property taxes. In addition, businesses tack on delivery costs to everything we buy and use.

The model becomes what will get us to our desired condition? Reducing congestion, delays, pollution, fuel use, vehicle costs and so forth are key. Likewise, key to them in dense areas like Eastern Massachusetts is mass transit.

That only works if it is fast, frequent, cheap and relatively pleasant. Numerous European cities and small countries, more similar than dissimilar, to us prove this approach's viability.

It would require subsidies shared by all, but at a much lower level than we presently subsidize car and truck travel now in those many ways.

People have to demand mass transit, again, that is fast, frequent, inexpensive and relatively pleasant.

This would be madness in a Wyoming, but we're ideal for it.