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Transit


Higher fares for late-night transit discourage ridership

Come spring, Boston's transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), will start offering late-night service on all subway and 15 major bus lines. Like Metro, MBTA may charge higher fares for it. Could this discourage transit use?


Photo by Justin Baugh on Flickr.

Currently, the MBTA shuts down shortly after midnight seven days a week, leaving revelers and workers of unusual hours with no recourse but automotive ones. Under the new schedule, which is a one-year pilot program, Boston will match DC's practice of staying open until 3 am on Saturday and Sunday starting this spring.

The announcement was a big deal to native Bostonians like myself, who for years have been frustrated having to choose between staying out late and being able to get home. However, the MBTA is also considering emulating WMATA in another, less desirable way: charging higher fares for late-night service.

The MBTA may consider charging $3 or $3.50 after midnight instead of the usual $2 fare for a train ride. (Boston has a flat fare that does not increase, even during rush hour.) It's not hard to understand why WMATA charges rush hour fares during the wee hours, and why the MBTA might want to follow suit. Late-night public transit is a niche service that only a small subset of the population uses.

Rather than spreading the cost of providing it across the whole transit-using population of greater Washington, late-night riders should have to pay a little more to support their customized service, right? Put another way, if WMATA is expending a constant amount of resources for fewer-than-usual users, each user needs to pay more than usual in order to meet budget.

The problem is that Metro does not apply this logic evenly. If you accept this premise, then fares should actually be lower during rush hour, when huge ridership will never have any problem sustaining even elevated frequency of service.

Instead, the correct pricing principle is one that conforms to supply and demand. Metro rightly charges peak fares during rush hour precisely because that is the busiest time of day; it knows most commuters don't have the choice to be scared away by sticker shock then, and if they are scared away it knows it can absorb the blow.

Higher fares serve to some degree as crowd control; if we have to discourage transit use (which higher fares necessarily do), we ought to do so when transit use least needs to be encouraged. And, most elegantly, people rightly pay higher fares when they are causing the most strain on the system, helping to offset the wear and tear caused by rush-hour crowds.

The flip side of this, of course, is that WMATA, and the MBTA that seeks to emulate it, should charge its lowest fares when the system is least crowded. These are the times when transit use needs more incentives, and of course entrance fees are one of the most surefire ways to manipulate that.

By charging peak fares between midnight and 3 am, Metro is creating a deterrence, even a small one, to people taking public transportation. Crucially, peak fares after midnight also do not come with the benefit of extremely frequent trains that accompany rush-hour peak fares.

Of course, there is always the chance that fare manipulation may not have a huge effect on ridership after midnight. In that case, by charging off-peak fares, WMATA would give up revenue it currently relies on. However, it's dubious to think that the laws of pricing dynamics cease to apply after midnight.

Perhaps Metro volume is fairly inelastic during rush hour, when many people have to commute to work no matter what, and when many people feel that they have no other choice but to take the train because of DC traffic and the cost of car ownership. But people certainly do have a choice about whether and how to travel late at night. Lower fares after midnight would not only result in that many fewer Uber trips, but more importantly, they would entice more people to go out.

The upside-down fare system is unfortunate in DC, but in Boston, it could be fatal to its experiment of late-night service. MBTA officials will only make late-night transit permanent if enough people use the service during the one-year trial period. If higher fares deter people from taking the train, the MBTA may very well determine that there is not as much demand for the service as it thought.

This is a realistic worry; $3.50 doesn't seem like much, but it's a 75% increase on the fare Bostonians are used to paying; and for a group of four friends out at a bar, a taxi ride would only need to cost $14 to be an equal or better deal. Indeed, excessively high fares were one reason Boston's previous foray into late-night service, "Night Owl" buses that cost up to $4 one-way, went under. (The Night Owl's failure to attract riders is more proof that late-night ridership is not inelastic.)

Thankfully, because Boston is just reacquainting itself with late-night service, there is still time to avoid these mistakes. DC has fulfilled an important role by serving as the Boston's likely model for late-night service; a fellow cash-strapped system that needs all the overnight maintenance it can squeeze in, WMATA showed the MBTA that late-night service was still possible.

It's probably no coincidence that Boston is adopting the same weekend schedule, but that doesn't mean it should copy DC's methods wholesale. At least in the way late-night fares are structured, Boston can and should do better.

Transit


All northeast US passenger rail on one awesome map

This map shows every Amtrak, commuter rail, metro, light rail, and tourist rail line from Maine to North Carolina, to scale.

It comes from NortheastRailMap.com, and you can even download it in a fully-editable Adobe Illustrator format.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.

Cross-posted to BeyondDC.

Update: The map's author has requested that you "like" their page on Facebook. Please help them out and do that!

Transit


The US has only 5 true BRT systems, and none are "gold"

When new bus rapid transit lines are discussed, proponents often say they hope to make the routes gold standard, meaning so high-quality that they mimic many features of rail. That's a high bar; most BRT projects in the United States don't even qualify as true BRT, and so far not one has actually met the gold standard.


Cleveland's Health Line, America's highest-scoring BRT. Photo from EMBARQ Brasil on Flickr.

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy publishes BRT standards that describe minimum characteristics necessary for a bus route to qualify as BRT. Those standards establish three levels of BRT quality: bronze, silver, and gold. They include features like off-bus fare collection, high station platforms, and bus frequency.

So far, only 5 lines in the United States have scored highly enough to qualify as true BRT, and all 5 rank at the bronze level. Not one is even silver, let alone gold.

According to ITDP, the best performing BRT systems in the world are Bogota, Colombia and Guangzhou, China, which score 93/100 and 89/100, respectively. They are the gold standard.

By comparison, the United States' highest-scoring BRT route is Cleveland's Health Line, which hits bronze with a score of 63. The other 4 bronze BRT lines in there US are in Eugene, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas.

Boston's famous Silver Line, which even runs in a subway for a short stretch, scores a meager 37. That's not enough to qualify as true BRT at all, even a low level.

It isn't that gold standard BRT is impossible in the United States. Certainly it's possible. But it isn't built here because nobody really wants to build it.

The same community leaders who choose BRT over rail, because BRT is cheaper, then make the same choice when faced with other potential cost-cutting measures. They eliminate the most expensive features, until the gold standard that was promised isn't actually what's delivered.

That sort of feature cutting is called BRT creep, and so far it's happened to some extent on every major BRT project in American history.

None of this should suggest that BRT is worthless. Sometimes BRT creep can even be beneficial, if it makes an otherwise infeasible project possible. Bronze level BRT is still rapid transit, after all, and even bus priority routes that don't fully qualify as actual BRT are often a huge improvement over regular busing.

WMATA's MetroExtra service, for example, isn't usually called BRT even by low American standards, but it's still a great service. It was something Metro could do quickly and cheaply to help riders, and it works.

But beware the politician who argues for gold standard BRT over rail. Odds are they won't deliver.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Bicycling


Boston and Washington increase access to bike sharing

Bike sharing represents a great opportunity to provide a low-cost transportation option for low-income and minority communities, which historically have low automobile ownership rates and high dependency on transit. However, access to bike share systems by these communities has been limited in the US because of the high one-time membership costs and requirements to have a credit card to check out a bike.


Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

Boston and DC have implemented programs to which have helped to increase access to bikeshare. Officials from both jurisdictions shared these strategies at a webinar on social equity and accessibility for bike sharing programs, organized by the US Department of Transportation and National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida.

Darren Buck, from the Federal Transit Administration, also talked about on how the federal government is striving to identify ways to both increase funding for bike/ped issues as well as increase access to programs such bike sharing help bikeshare operators and municipal overseers identify sources of funding for their systems.

How Boston is promoting equity

Daisy De La Rosa, Project Director with the Boston Public Health Commission, explained that her commission was able to use a federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant (part of the Recovery's act funding) to subsidize 600 memberships for low income/minority residents around the Roxbury area of Boston.

While the percentage of minority users of Hubway is still very low (3% Latino, 5% Asian, 1% African American) and there is still lots to be done to increase ridership, they have been doing lots of outreach work and bike education around the low income areas that Hubway serves.

Credit card accessibility was not much of an issue to Hubway users, said De La Rosa, contrary to what we keep hearing about in DC, but aggressive marketing and outreach is important. Further, through existing partnerships with local CBO's, community leaders and word of mouth, they have been able to reach and sign up many new members qualifying for $5 yearly subsidized memberships.

Additionally, the Public Health Commission has met constantly with reps from Hubway to advocate for relocating a few stations closer to underserved minority and low income areas and closer to supermarkets, which could be a great solution to food deserts. Lastly, Ms. DelaRosa stressed on how important it is for bike sharing marketing campaigns to target their message differently for different communities and to continue to educate the public about the different transit options they have.

How Washington is promoting equity

Chris Eatough, BikeArlington Program Manager, talked about how the program continues to be at the forefront of innovative initiatives for reaching out to minority communities. And while minority/low income ridership remains low in this area, CaBi is reportedly doing a better job at reaching out to different communities.

For example, BikeArlington (CaBi's implementing office in Arlington) has been meeting with members of the Latino community about Arlington's Strategic plan and its call for phasing in Capital Bikeshare.

The Bank on DC program offers access to both a checking account and CaBi to people without bank accounts. CaBi's new payment installment program divides the yearly membership cost into 12 payments of $7just $9 higher than the $75 you would pay through a one-time payment.

Finally, while stations might not reach every single neighborhood in our area, and geographic equity might not be completely feasible due to the financial implications it may represent, CaBi continues to be the most geographically diverse system in the US, said Eatough: CaBi stations in the District have been placed in each of the 8 Wards giving access to many more people.

To summarize, there are a few things that programs can continue to do: emphasize educating the community at large about biking in general; use targeted marketing strategies that center around low-income and minority populations, and create market initiatives such as subsidies and amortized payments.

Finally, programs could even take away the security deposit requirements, just as Minneapolis' Nice Ride just did, which would remove the extra hold CaBi places on an account, tying up funds. By creating targeted opportunities campaigns, programs can continue to enhance the brand and make bikeshare available to a broader spectrum of the community.

Transit


Why a flat fare is a bad idea for Metro

At last week's WMATA board meeting, new Virginia member Jim Dyke suggested that the transit agency study a flat fare. While a flat fare would certainly be simpler to understand, it's not a good policy. It would not be more equitable. Nor would it be cheap.


Photo by 35mmMonkey on Flickr.

The idea of a flat fare for Metro comes up every so often, especially compared to the current, complicated fare structure that requires looking up fares in a huge table. This idea is to create a simpler system by charging everyone the same amount to ride, as is the case in many subway systems.

For someone used to paying $4.50 each way, a flat fare like Boston's $1.70 or New York's $2.25 looks attractively cheap. But the reality is that even if Metro were to adopt a flat fare, it would not be that cheap.

Michael Perkins ran the numbers and discovered that (assuming no loss in ridership) a flat fare would need to be at least $2.90 to be revenue-neutral.

Fare's fair

That's more than any other system with a flat fare, and is significantly higher than the $1.60 off-peak and $1.95 rush hour base fares. What the flat fare really means is that people making shorter trips (often those living in the urban core) will be subsidizing those making longer trips (often those living in the suburbs). And that's simply not equitable.

If you're traveling farther, you should expect to pay more. Can you imagine if all taxis regionwide had a flat fare? Would it be fair to charge the same for a trip by taxi from Woodbridge to Rockville as for a trip from Logan Circle to 12th and K? Of course not.

Everybody else is doing it

As is often the case when subway fares are being discussed, some suggest that WMATA should move to a flat fare because most other subway systems use them. And if all subway systems and regions were the same, perhaps that argument would make some sense. But there are significant differences between our Metro and other subway systems in America.

Part of it is a technology issue. A fare structure like Metro's only works in systems with exit faregates, where a rider swipes the fare media to exit as well as to enter. Only Metro, PATCO in Philadelphia and New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area's BART, and Atlanta's MARTA have this technology today. It would not be cheap for systems like those in New York and Chicago to install new equipment to make variable fares possible.

Other systems also have momentum behind the flat fare. It's very difficult to build the will to allow such a change, even if the infrastructure allows it. A few years ago, MARTA installed new gates, new fare vending machines, and even got a new name for the fare system. Even though a distance-based fare is now technologically possible, Atlanta continues to use a flat fare, not necessarily because they've decided it's better policy, but out of momentum.

Metro is commuter rail and urban subway

Technology and history aren't all that separate Metro from many other systems. There's also the structure of the cities and the transit systems themselves. The older subways in the United States generally don't travel as far as the modern heavy rail systems. When all trips are shorter, it's not quite as inequitable to charge the same rate for everyone.

Metro is a hybrid between an urban subway and a suburban commuter rail operation. And as such it makes a good deal of sense to have a fare structure that reflects that.

It's true that all trips on the New York City Subway cost the same. But people traveling the distances that Metro travels might not use the New York Subway. For example, Port Washington is a similar distance from Penn Station as Shady Grove is from Metro Center. But a trip to Port Washington doesn't use the subway, it uses the Long Island Rail Road, and the peak fare is $10.00. The maximum you could possibly pay to go from Metro Center to Shady Grove is only $5.45.

Many people group Metro in with subways in New York and Chicago and Boston simply because they're all subways. But it's important to consider scale. The subway systems in those regions are generally compact and don't reach many places with the kind of suburban settlement patterns at the end of Metrorail lines.

In those cities, separate commuter and regional rail systems, which don't use flat fares, mainly serve suburban areas rather than the urban subway.

Let's compare some Metro lines to similar lines in other cities:

If we compare the Metro Red line in comparison with Boston's Red Line to Alewife and the MBTA Fitchburg Line, we can get a sense of scale.

Alewife is about as far from Downtown Crossing as Friendship Heights is from Metro Center. In Boston you'd pay $1.70 for that trip. Here, the fare would be just $1.60 off-peak or $2.70 during rush hour.

Bethesda is roughly the same distance from Metro Center as Waverly is from North Station. And in this case, Metro's $2.15/$3.15 fare is cheaper than MBTA's $4.25.

We can see similar trends if we compare our Orange Line to Philadelphia's Lansdale/Doylestown Line.

I chose Philadelphia and Boston because their metropolitan regions are about the same size as DC's. (Washington is the 7th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the nation, while Philadelphia is 6th and Boston 10th.)

Traveling along the Broad Street (in Philadelphia) or Route 2 (in Boston) corridors, a traveler going the distance of outside-the-Beltway stops in DC would not take the subway, but would ride commuter rail.

Our residents of places like Vienna, Rockville, Greenbelt, Franconia-Springfield, and soon Tysons Corner pay less than many would pay on commuter rail in those cities. Plus, they enjoy frequent, all-day, 7-day-a-week service. That has enormous benefits to our region, making walkable places like Rockville Town Center feasible and giving the DC region much higher transit ridership per capita than Boston or Philadelphia.

But just because Boston and Philadelphia's much smaller urban subways charge a flat fare doesn't mean it's unfair that a ride from Vienna to Metro Center costs quite a bit more than a ride from Rosslyn.

Transit


Which city's rail system has the best Walk Score?

Last week, David Klion computed the Walk Score for all Washington Metro stops. How does Metro stack up to the other heavy rail systems in the United States? The answers may surprise you.

I analyzed the 11 heavy rail systems in the United States. Some of these cities also have light rail, commuter rail, or other transit systems, but I didn't count those. That means in Boston, I looked at stations on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines, but not Green. (Why?)

I also combined heavy rail stations from multiple operators in the same region. For example, the Philadelphia score counts both SEPTA and PATCO heavy rail stations. New York's includes PATH and the Staten Island Railway (SIRT).

And the winner is... Los Angeles?

I was surprised by the results. Los Angeles scored the highest! I certainly did not expect that. Though in hindsight, it makes a good deal of sense.

Los Angeles has only 2 heavy rail lines, the Red and Purple lines. Those lines are confined to a relatively small area in the LA Basin, with the exception of 2 stations on the Red Line in the San Fernando Valley. And while Southern California has a reputation for being sprawling, the LA Basin is actually fairly dense, especially where the Metro has been built. As a result, its score isn't dragged down by suburban park and ride stations.

In the same respect, I was surprised that BART scored better than WMATA. Large portions of the DC system serve areas that are urban or urbanizing. In contrast, BART's system is much more suburban-oriented and has very little in the way of urban circulation.

Also surprising is that New York is not an outlier. It does come in a close second to Los Angeles, but I really expected it to be off the charts compared to everyone else. The New York City Subway alone scores 90.47 without PATH and SIRT, still just below LA; SIRT averages 71.45 while PATH is higher, 92.23, but its relatively small size (13 stations) means it doesn't change the New York average even a tenth of a point.

What is not very surprising is that the sunbelt cities (except LA) score more poorly than the more urban older cities (except for Cleveland). Cleveland is at a disadvantage because of the structure of its transit system. The system only has one stop in the central business district, and that station's score isn't that impressive anyway, which harms the average.

Distribution matters

The chart above shows how Walk Scores for stations in each system are distributed. The green bars give the average score. The rectangle shows the 25th and 75th percentiles, and the lines with dots at each end show the highest and lowest Walk Scores for any station in that system.

At the high end, several cities had at least one station (sometimes several) with perfect 100-point scores. The lowest score for any station nationwide was 28 points. Two stations in the Washington regionArlington Cemetery and Morgan Boulevardand one station in San FranciscoNorth Concord/Martinezhad that score.

The distribution is important in understanding how well distributed the well-scoring stations are in the system.

In Washington, the distribution is weighted more toward good-scoring stations, but there are still a lot of poor-scoring stations, too.

Compare that to San Francisco's BART, where there are fewer poor-scoring stations. Instead, there are a large quantity of stations in the middle of the distribution.

New York and Cleveland offer contrast to each other. While most New York stations score very well, Cleveland's don't rank above medium.

Limitations

The Walk Score algorithm is not perfect. It works by calculating the quantities and distances of various amenties. There are other factors which it does not measure that help to define the walkability of an area.

For example, a street grid makes an area much more walkable than a sprawling network of superblocks and culs-de-sac. The quality and proliferation of sidewalks also influences walkability. But these factors aren't currently part of Walk Score; there's no good data file for Walk Score to use that shows where there are and aren't good sidewalks, for example.

Regardless, Walk Score gives us a standard and fairly good measure to compare transit stations (and systems) to each other.

Why I didn't count light rail or other transit

I'm sure this will prove to be controversial, and that's fine. I did not include the light rail elements of systems in cities like Boston for 3 primary reasons:

  1. Peer comparison: I wanted to create an apples-to-apples comparison, as best as possible. While the Washington Metro is easily comparable to BART, it doesn't make as much sense to compare a Metro stop to a Muni LRT stop on the west side of San Francsico that is just a sign on a telephone pole.
  2. To limit the scope: This project took a good amount of time as it was. I did not want to extend that time by trying to measure too much. Besides, I (or someone) can always do a follow-up with light rail.
  3. To avoid "mode creep": If we take Boston as an example, limiting the scope of the survey to heavy rail avoids the mode creep that can exacerbate the problems listed above. If I were to consider the Green Line, I would need to consider all of it. And if I'm considering the street-running portions of the Green Line, how can I not consider the full subway portions of the Silver Line in East Boston? And then would I not have to also include the Washington Avenue portion, that is essentially arterial bus?
This analysis is limited, as any analysis would be. I chose to try to keep it from expanding too far by limiting it to one mode. It would be interesting to look at the omitted lines, and perhaps that will happen in a future analysis.
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