Congestion at Rush Hour

Congestion at rush hour:  That is the problem we should be trying to solve as we contemplate alternative rail and transit expansion programs.  At rush hour, rail and transit already carry a significant share of traffic and can likely capture a greater share, reducing congestion for those who continue to drive.

I have previously made the argument that the MBTA board should be seeking to “maximize the ridership returns on investment over the next ten years” as it compares options.  I am suggesting that the focus be even sharper.  The board should be seeking to maximize rush hour ridership as opposed to ridership in general.

In practice, most ridership occurs at rush hour, so the end result is not necessarily different.  However, the process of analysis is different.  The MBTA should be asking broadly how to increase rush hour ridership with recognition that the solution may not require transit investment per se, but may involve more parking at commuter rail stops or other last mile solutions.  The MBTA should be looking at each of its commuter rail lines and determining the ridership constraints at rush hour.

The only higher priority question is how to provide reliable service to the passengers we already serve.  To its credit, the MBTA has placed a great emphasis on maintenance and I defer to the operators of the system as to how to achieve that goal. 

Taking the reliability program as a given, I am suggesting a singular focus on increasing rush hour ridership.  Currently, the discussion about options is confused by simultaneous consideration of secondary goals. 

Certainly, transportation investments can and do serve multiple fundamental goals other than reducing congestion at rush hour – equity, housing affordability, economic development, and greenhouse gas reduction.  However, there are more cost-effective and direct ways to achieve each of these goals. The link between transportation per se and actual achievement of these goals is speculative and dependent on many other things going right.

Let’s take these secondary goals one by one.  As to equity, the principal barrier to low income use of public transit is not lack of service to low income areas.   Especially for commuter rail, the issue is fares.  Both the subway and the commuter rail serve many lower income communities, but the fares, running up to $13.25 per one way ride, deter low-income riders.  If we want more low-income riders to be able to commute on rail, step one is to cut fares.  I support increasing funding to the MBTA and the RTAs for the specific purpose of reducing fares for low-income riders.

Similarly, as to connecting affordable housing in gateway cities like Worcester and Lowell to Boston jobs, the issue is again fares, not lack of service.  These cities are both reasonably well served, but only 6.8% of the ridership of commuter rail is low income (see Table 7 of the most recent fare increase analysis) and the obvious barrier is fares.

As to economic development goals, I am among those drawn to the possibility of supporting job growth in gateway cities by providing frequent all day service — true regional rail.  There is nothing wrong with this idea, but we have to recognize that it depends on sustained economic development leadership in each of those cities.  A lot of things have to go right if Worcester is to become a connected satellite of Kendall Square.  In other words, economic development is always speculative and we should reach for lower hanging fruit –  that is, congestion reduction — before turning to economic development goals.

Finally, as to greenhouse gas reduction, we need to bear in mind that public transportation accounts for only a tiny fraction of statewide 24/7 traffic.  While it is important downtown at rush hour, transit accounts for less than 5% of all passenger miles traveled statewide.  Even with an unprecedented doubling of transit ridership over the next couple of decades, 90% of travelers would still be burning fossil fuels on the roads.  Our environmental priority has to be electrification of the private vehicle fleet.  Fortunately, progress on that front is actually much cheaper than electrifying and expanding public transit. (See, for example, Carbon Free Boston, page 65, Figure 29.)

In summary, the public is crying out for congestion reduction at rush hour and public transportation can respond to that call.  It is time for the deliberations about rail service expansion to zero-in on the one challenge that rail is most likely to be able to meet.

A Comment on Board Resolution #2

In November, the MBTA Board considered next steps on rail investment. While endorsing the need to evaluate ridership return on investment, the board voted the following further resolution:

the MBTA shall first implement EMU powered service along the Providence/Stoughton line, the Fairmont [sic] line and the line from Boston to Everett to Chelsea to Revere to Lynn.

Second voted resolution of the MBTA Board from its meeting of November 4.

From the rush hour congestion perspective, investment in the Providence/Stoughton line and the Boston to Lynn segment may make very good sense. However, it is entirely unclear whether electrification with use of EMUs is the most direct path to reduced congestion. Parking and fare policies may be much more important.

I have heard the argument made informally that electrification of the Providence Line could allow quicker service and more trips at rush hour using the same number of trains, but that argument has not been made by MassDOT staff. On the contrary, one of the main inferences from the Rail Vision study is that electrification has limited benefits for ridership. Regardless, it is likely that parking expansion and level boarding at stations are also necessary to achieve any ridership benefits from electrification. On the other hand, parking expansion might be enough to provide substantial benefits without electrification.

On the Lynn-to-Boston segment, the congestion needs are real as anywhere else, but again what is the most direct route to meeting those needs? Giving Lynn zone 1A status and adding a couple of more trains stopping there might be enough to make a big difference and could happen much faster than electrification. Electrification of any line terminating at North Station raises much greater investment needs than electrification of a line into South Station which is already electrified.

2018 Daily Ridership CountsTotal TripsTotal BoardingsBoardings/
Providence/Stoughton 7425728348
Worcester 5518637339
Greenbush 246114255
Kingston Plymouth246089254
Fitchburg 389302245
Newburyport/Rockport 6714972223
Needham 326690209
Fairmount (all Zone 1A)41265065

Admission of error, January 3, 2019, 6PM: The original version of this post included the paragraph in small type below, in which I speculate on the cost-effectiveness of electrifying of the Fairmount line. That comment was inadequately considered. Right or wrong, the comment was based on partial data including a poor choice of metric (Boardings/ Trip). I leave the paragraph in small type below as an unfortunate example of the kind of casual, lightly-informed, intuitive thinking that we need to get away from in the transportation conversation. The whole thrust of this piece is that we need much more rigorous analysis of ridership potential of proposed investments and the comment was a bad example and a distraction.

Ill-considered comment: Finally, as to the Fairmount line, it is by far the lowest ridership-per-train line in the system. It already has clockface service more generous than that on many other lines, yet has failed to attract ridership. This is probably because it lacks both parking and surrounding density. It seems an unlikely priority for electrification. The Fairmount line competes with relatively close subways. The next step for the Fairmount line should be fare linkage, allowing passengers to board the Fairmount line and not pay again to board the subway. The easiest way to do that before the long-delayed new fare system arrives would be to make the Fairmount line free. If that brings more ridership to the Fairmount line, then we can consider investing more to expand service.

[I do stand by the following:] If the board believes that the huge investment necessitated by electrification is justified from a basic service reliability perspective, then Resolution #2 may be a reasonable pathway. But the case for Resolution #2 just has not been adequately made.

Please follow this link for a continuation of this post, framing the issue in the context of the investment program we need to undertake.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

149 replies on “Congestion at Rush Hour”

  1. I’m surprised to see you advocating for more parking while stating you want to reduce our carbon footprint. How can we ever move folks off of car travel if we don’t provide a more substantial schedule other than rush hour? Many folks including myself don’t use the commuter rail as often because the schedule only serves rush hour traffic rather than all day service. If i could reliably know that if i miss a train one more is coming in 15 or so minutes than perhaps I’d frequent the commuter rail as well. I know you’re an advocate for more sustainable modes of transportation and to see you advocate for more parking is quite baffling to me.

    1. Thanks, Josh. To be clear, I am not talking about adding parking downtown. I’m only saying that parking at commuter stations should be on the list of measures for increasing commuter rail ridership.

      The reality is that in the region at large, the most common commute is by car at rush hour along radial routes into the city. That is the low hanging fruit — we have to get those people to leave their cars outside the city. That is how we can have the biggest impact on congestion and secondarily we can have a cost effective impact on CO2 emissions. If that means more parking at commuter lots, then that is what we should be doing.

      How can we ever move folks off of car travel if we don’t provide a more substantial schedule other than rush hour? Outside the inner core (Somerville, Cambridge, Boston . . . ), we are not going to move most folks off of car travel back onto mass transit in the forseeable future. Car travel is 60 billion miles per year in MA. All mass transit is only 2 billion passenger miles. As argued above, even if we were wildly successful in moving people on to mass transit — tripling ridership over the next couple of decades — we would still have 90% of the travel happening in cars. To meet emissions goals we have no choice but to electrify the private vehicle fleet — mass transit will not get us close to our goals. Fortunately, electrifying the private vehicle fleet looks like it will be cheaper than most proposed mass transit expansions (per CO2 reduced), at least in terms of public spending.

      1. Electric cars is a long term solution. Maybe 20 years. Right now it is an upscale luxury. They have not trickled down to the masses yet. They are subsidized by tax credits to income taxes, a very long payback period. $30K for a car is out of the reach for the average person

  2. I always think that the small town tradition in Belmont is actually detrimental to the environment. Narrow winding road, limited parking and lack of public transportation, while looked bucolic. But the looks are deceiving as it forced so many commuters to drive in congestion. The air pollution for a car stuck in traffic is order of magnitude higher than at normal speed.

    Just think about it, making Belmont a small town, keeping roads narrow and limited, may actually increased the air pollution by many many times.

    Again, thinkings of “not in my back yard “ is really putting us all at an awkward spot.

    Belmont should not continue to be a small town.

    1. Belmont is Belmont. I’m sure that the vast majority of Belmont residents and property owners don’t want it to lose its character.

      1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If traffic congestion is becoming one of the character of Belmont and neighboring towns. Should we come up with solutions to change that? The solution, as Will proposed, is more public transportation( More rail service and parking spot as the first step; but eventually, all towns ( including Belmont) will change to benefit the general public, while keep the good part of the traditions. Simply staying under-developed will not get us there.

  3. I agree with you about increasing parking near terminals. I also agree that rush hour public transportation should be increased and that fares should be reduced for low-income riders. Speaking as a retired person, I wish there were more frequent buses on weekends because I like to go to theaters and concert halls then, and parking is expensive but the buses from Watertown to downtown or to Harvard Square only run about every half hour. Easier to take a Lyft.

    1. Agree completely with Anne (and Joshua) comments about the need for increased schedules during the day and especially on weekends. Some busses stop altogether on weekends and others are only every hour. Super excited with Boston Landing stop and hope to use more often when coming from South Station.

  4. Thanks, Will, for your continued focus on transportation infrastructure and process improvement. It affects our day-to-day lives enormously, and your work makes me feel a bit less powerless to effect change. Here’s a comment from my perspective: the Middleborough/Lakeville line has pretty high avg ridership, but many fewer trips per day. I teach at Bridgewater State and live in Belmont, but rarely take public transport. With the addition of a couple more trains during the day and especially during morning rush hour, I think more faculty/staff/students would use the commuter rail. The same holds for Massasoit Community College in Brockton, also on this line. I don’t know if higher ed leadership is in touch with legislators or T officials about this issue, but it presents a good opportunity to increase ridership on all relevant lines and model this behavior for the community.

  5. My sense is that “micro-mobility” (escooters and ebikes) will become much more popular in the near future because of the changes in battery technology and design. A survey of daytime parking capacity at stations where patrons travel under, say, 3 miles from home to station would identify potential stations where expanding micro-mobility parking capacity. This in turn would lower the need for car parking (in good weather of course), be environmentally responsible, have minimal infrastructure cost, be implementable almost immediately, lower the effective commuting cost for all users (assuming no or minimal parking charge), including lower income, and increase ridership.

      1. Depends on how you define “good” and “bad” weather. I bike to work every day, “bad” is relative, and a lot of what makes weather “bad” either comes from cars or from under-maintained bicycle infrastructure. Snow is not “bad”, but an unplowed bike path is. Narrowed roads because people park their cars further into the road because of snowbanks are “bad”. Unshoveled sidewalks and plowed-in street crossings are “bad”.

        That is, it’s not just the weather, it’s how our government responds to it.

  6. Will, Thank you for sharing all of this information. It is more than I have been able to absorb but I am pleased with the responses you are getting.

    My one suggestion about congestion at rush hour concerns trying out the solution that other metropolitan areas have found useful: installing a lane on Route 2 from 128 to Alewife limited to or more passengers — maybe even three. I would even suggest such a rule around the high school during the high peak hours there. At least two High School students per car that reaches Concord Ave between the hours of …. and ….. I’m not sure who can make that decision but it seems worth trying. A side benefit would be to have students connecting with each other in ways they might not otherwise experience.

  7. I’m frequently shocked at the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles used in high density areas like Brookline, where I go daily. I see mostly young people who decide to catch a ride rather than take the green line into Boston. There should be more incentives to take the T, including free or greatly reduced T prices, increase gas taxes and more taxes on ride sharing services.

      1. Solo rides are often shared rides without other pick ups and not the fault of the rider. I also wonder how many cars are on the streets making food deliveries every day as the trend for companies like DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats is increasing; cars are taking up bus lanes and curb parking all over in Brighton

  8. Yes to more parking for commuters. Two of my daycare families moved to the suburbs and chose towns that had park and go lots and free to park. Yes to lower or free fares on certain routes that service low incomes routes. Yes to increased transportation ie buses or trains at rush hour. Fares right now are way too expensive.

  9. Thank you for creating such a carefully thought out, fact-based, and realistic assessment of the dynamics behind this situation, and seeing the practical implications for taking steps to make a big difference. Parking availability in the suburban stations is a huge issue for potential users of mass transit, especially anyone with time-sensitive engagements at the end of their ride. I think your priorities are spot on, and agree with your analysis and conclusions.

  10. Electric cars, reduced fares for low income riders, more parking at transit sites are all good approaches. And until reliability and easier access are worked out, increasing service during rush hour makes sense. Could employees telecommute more, Skype meetings, go to satellite work stations as needed, for instance to lessen current congestion spots? Could the T expand bus routes in and around the suburbs to major transit points using smaller bus sizes that could maneuver around the smaller streets? More flexibility in bus size might help in general, some are routinely jammed and others mostly empty. But none of this matters until the T gets back to being a reliable option. And since planning/permitting departments in Boston and along the 128 corridor, etc seem like they’ve held a free-for-all the T can hardly have been expected to keep up.

    1. planning/permitting departments in Boston and along the 128 corridor, etc seem like they’ve held a free-for-all

      And yes: Reliability is priority number one and converting existing commutes to transit is priority number two. Every other goal is secondary.

  11. In general, I agree with your position on priorities. You talk about the electrification of the private fleet but I hear about a special tax on electric vehicles. We can’t have it both ways. We either support the electrification or we discourage it through the additional tax. We might consider a system like the one used in Singapore. There is a charge for any vehicle entering the central business district. That should supplement the decreasing tax revenue while having those responsible for the congestion pay for their convenience.

    1. Not just Singapore — London has done the same thing, reportedly with good results. (And results more relevant to the US, which can dismiss Singapore as an over-governed outlier.) However, making this happen would need to start with convincing Baker to look at it rationally instead of flatly rejecting it, as he has just recently.

  12. I seldom agree with your posts but finding ways to increase MBTA ridership during rush hours is a great first step towards solving traffic and environmental issues as well as increasing the revenue for the MBTA, This must be the top priority of the MBTA.
    I only hope that the actions taken to accomplish this DO NOT force people into it but make them want to use the MBTA.
    Providing parking lots for riders would be a great help as many people are not going to walk 2-5 miles to get onto the MBTA but if they had a place to park and then get onto the MBTA they would probable do it.
    The only issue that I am concerned with is providing reduced fares to low income riders because lower fares to some mean higher fares for others and the fares are pretty high now. I wonder how many dollars are lost on senior ridership fares and is this really necessary, I am a senior and get the reduced fares so I am not casting stones on the low income riders and just stating facts.

    1. “lower fares to some mean higher fares for others” — only if the fares are balanced off, instead of being supported by increased subsidies.

          1. How about the MBTA becoming more efficient and taking a harder stand during labor negotiations to get a fair deal with the unions, are the workers still able to retire after 20 or 30 years of work? That is very costly isn’t it?

  13. Thanks for your work on this important issue in our community. We live in a great city and the T is fun to ride and has great potential in the future of our city. I’ve noticed an issue that your study doesn’t mention a particular problem I’ve encountered and I don’t know if it affects neighborhoods besides Allston.
    Here it is: The trolleys, busses, and commuter rails are turning away riders. I find myself waiting for the 64 bus, 66 bus, 86 bus, green line, and commuter rail only to find that they skip my stop because the vehicle is full. No business would complain about a lack of public interest while turning away customers at the same time. The schedule, parking, and fare, do not matter if you’re turning away customers.
    On an almost daily basis I find myself and fellow commuters watching a bus or two drive by, look at our watches, and summons an Uber.
    I have wondered what incentive there could be in running things this way. It’s reasonable to assume that at least in some cases, the T receives our fare regardless of whether or not they pick us up, monthly pass holders have already paid.

    1. It’s terrible when that happens. We definitely need more buses. The next step in bringing more buses into the fleet is finding garage space to put them. That is a high priority project for the MBTA right now.

      1. So far, no mention of seemingly unlimited amounts of residential development, continuosly adding to the delimited capacity of road, bridges, intersections, etc. The constantly increading burden has to be seriously checked.

      2. So often on Commonwealth Ave and near University Rd. does this happen, even in below 30 degree weather. It takes far too long for another bus to show up so I understand why people resort to Lyft/Uber. Also in crowded situations drivers neglect to take fares to help speed things up (?!)

      3. Bingo! “finding spaces to garage them”. We must think of suburb to suburb transit. There must be space in the suburbs to garage them. The daily route begins and ends in the suburbs. Maybe a suburban run from Wilmington to Riverside along 128 to connect the radial bus-lines to offer those who do not need to go to Boston an opportunity.

      4. More buses? Similar to those in Belmont and Watertown I hope. Sadly, most trolley bus manufacturers are foreign.
        BTW: The Green Line could handle more capacity if it had triple tracks where the ROW was wide enough; e.g., between Kenmore and Longwood, between Reservoir and most of the way to Riverside. I spoke with a T worker about that and he said installing the type of switch-overs that one sees on rail lines and adding better signaling is not the “T”s mantra. Then there is the need to improve the Green Line at Boylston (more gradual turn, move the graves), restore the connection from Boylston to Tremont St to provide better service to Roxbury and Mattapan, connect the Riverside line at Riverside to the heavy rail and to quick access to the Pike. BTW: Plan on that sooner because a developer wants to build a large project that might affect future transit plans! Extend the Green Line from Newton Highlands towards Needham Heights; use the rotary there for a complex with parking and retail and housing; PLUS, a developer wants to build a large complex along Needham St that provides bus connection to Newton Highlands … got to let the leaf peepers use the old ROW. Plus, a connection to the heavy rail at Needham Heights might encourage the conversion of the line into another high speed line going to Readville and Mattapan using … abandoned ROWs.

    2. The Green Line could handle more capacity if it had triple tracks where the ROW was wide enough; e.g., between Kenmore and Longwood, between Reservoir and most of the way to Riverside. I spoke with a T worker about that and he said installing the type of switch-overs that one sees on rail lines and adding better signaling is not the “T”s mantra. Then there is the need to improve the Green Line at Boylston (more gradual turn, move the graves), restore the connection from Boylston to Tremont St to provide better service to Roxbury and Mattapan, connect the Riverside line at Riverside to the heavy rail and to quick access to the Pike. BTW: Plan on that sooner because a developer wants to build a large project that might affect future transit plans! Extend the Green Line from Newton Highlands towards Needham Heights; use the rotary there for a complex with parking and retail and housing; PLUS, a developer wants to build a large complex along Needham St that provides bus connection to Newton Highlands … got to let the leaf peepers use the old ROW. Plus, a connection to the heavy rail at Needham Heights might encourage the conversion of the line into another high speed line going to Readville and Mattapan using … abandoned ROWs.

  14. I would like to see the largest employers in the state and within the city take more of an active role in reducing congestion during rush hour by offering employees alternate hours, work from home option, and even offering employee shuttles from various points in the city and greater Boston area. Perhaps they could be incentivized with tax cuts or other incentives to offer more efficient ways of getting their employees either in to the city to work or off the roads and working from home. I know that Boston scientific, Partners and Athena health already offer these on a small scale. Universities included! They need to take a more active role in getting students in to campus without one passenger automobiles ! Thank you

  15. We should be addressing the real issues, too many people and more and more apartments being built, stop all this building, and advocate for jobs in Worcester, Lowell, Acton,
    Harvard, Stow, etc.
    The building in Cushing Square is a disaster, it is huge, and takes up too much space, keep Belmont a small town, and keep the zoning safe. Toll Brothers should be taxed big time for that building. Raise the rents in apartments in order to deter people from renting.Way too many people now.

    1. Why should Harvard or Stow take burdens Belmont doesn’t want? Are the people there less deserving of peace and quiet?

      1. Raise the rents??? When was the last time you looked for an apartment? And thumbs up to Charles.

    2. A small town is more feasible Much more further away from an economic and innovation center( Cambridge and Boston). Definitely not for Belmont. We need housing development for young working class and we need to develop the town.

      1. I agree 100% with Marcia. Where is this young working class you’re talking about coming from? No town has the responsibility to drastically change its character and the prevailing life style that people who live there cherish for the sake of large numbers newcomers. The same applies to cities and countries. There is such a thing as too much growth.

        1. When suburban towns don’t pull their weight in contributing to housing stock, affordability goes out the window. If Belmont keeps its less than 4% affordable housing, 40B projects, which only need 25% affordable, will come wherever the developers want and the residents will have almost no say. It’s unfair to make the inner core provide the world-class jobs, educational institutions, and medical care that everyone wants, but is the only area providing a reasonable amount of affordable housing so that the suburbanites can keep their “character.”

        2. Young working class comes from all over the country and all over the world. Please don’t reject them simply because we own a property in this town. They are the life blood of our economy and one of the most important source of innovations here. We should all embrace for smart growth and new economy and the real thing is, Belmont can grow and transform with the regional economy.

  16. The argument I have seen made for EMUs is that they accelerate faster than diesel units; this means that trips are faster (increasing the appeal of trains, and possibly allowing additional trips with the same equipment) or that stops can be added without hurting the schedule (which puts the trains in reach of more commuters). I have not seen details in the latter argument about where new stops could go, or whether this would simply mean trains not skipping as many stops (e.g., many trains on the Worcester line skip some or all of the 3 stops in Newton.) EMUs also reduce pollution, but I haven’t seen data on how many car-equivalents the reduction is. They look like an easy fix: just add money, and watch service and use improve; but the question is how much improvement is predicted, and whether whoever does the prediction has a record of accuracy (compared to (for example) the predictions about road completion dates or casino profits that have turned out to be way too optimistic) — and whether the decision was influenced by people who would be paid to make this solution happen.

    Replacing all gasoline cars with electric may or may not be possible, depending on how much of what rare minerals is needed. In any case it’s a long-term solution; Baker talks about it happening by 2040, which means stopping sales of gasoline cars by ~2030 — which I don’t see any serious steps toward. (Putting money in the state-refund kitty to provide $2500 each for ~22,000 new vehicles (out of millions in this state) over the next two years, as announced in today’s Globe, is a nice gesture but not much more.)

    1. The whole question of how much difference EMUs could make is passionately disputed in the local transportation community. We need to get a better handle on exactly how they would be implemented.

      Agreed that the $2500 is not enough of an incentive for EVs to make a difference. They are still too expensive.

  17. This note seems to have started with the general topic of rush hour traffic and then focused on Commuter Rail. With regard to the general topic, it is vital to figure out the make up of the traffic. In New York, a survey determined that large numbers of cars were driven by city residents who had guaranteed parking places at work, and it turned out that many of these drivers were state or city employees.

    1. I definitely agree that legislators and other state (and municipal) officials should no longer get guaranteed free or low-cost parking. If Charlie Baker had to ride the T . . .

      It would also be worth examining incentives for law firms, high tech firms, hospitals, etc., not to provide free or low-cost parking for employees.

      1. Eric, yes — the question is how can we use commuter rail to cut rush hour congestion throughout the area. Commuter rail expansion is the big investment question that is before us now. The core T improvement plans are in motion already.

      2. And, Sue, re parking. I have a parking space that use only rarely since I mostly T, run or bike to work. But many other legislators come from places that are not served by public transportation. I don’t object to them having parking — they pay taxes on benefit.

  18. Thinking outside the box here…The way to reduce congestion in any system is to shift the traffic away from the overloaded resource to a less loaded one. In this case the overloaded resource is the time slot of rush hour. If we could time shift the traffic away from rush hour it would reduce congestion. Congestion pricing works on the passengers’ side but is not a pleasing solution because it is a stick not a carrot. Is there a way Mass could provide incentives for companies to stagger their employees’ working hours? Maybe tax breaks for companies that stagger their shifts? Or a commuter fare rebate to companies whose employees commute off-hours?

    1. Optional staggered work hours for companies in hub cities has been suggested for the last 4 decades (since pre-Big Dig days) and was soundly rejected: note that the north-south HOV requires a two passenger minimum; that means a driver and one passenger…an oxymoron if you are talking High Occupancy Vehicle. Popular inertia is difficult to sway.
      How can the state legislate to change this Will…?

  19. Will,
    Is anyone considering building battery operated EMUs as an alternative to the high investment required to electrify an entire line? We could take a lesson from the Silver Line which was essentially made feasible by investing in hybrid vehicles rather than in electrifying the right of way. It seems that battery EMUs could be added quickly where they would have the greatest impact without requiring heavy investments.

    1. The problem is batteries are very heavy, don’t work well in the cold, and while you don’t need to pay for wires, the rest of the electric infrastructure is actually more expensive because the charging happens in concentrated bursts rather than gradually over the course of the day.

  20. Happy New Year, Will. Hope 2020 proves productive and peaceful. I agree with your approach. But whether by electrification of rail lines or diesel, increasing frequency and convenience of rail travel leads to greater use. Keeping it purely local, the Lowell Line on which I commuted from Winchester for almost thirty years, has nine (9) daily inbound morning rush hour trains between 6:03 and 9:43, during which time the Fitchburg Line offers only five (5) that stop in Belmont.

    All best. Josh Alper

  21. Hi Will, a lot to think about here. My simplest questions is: what is an EMU? Following this, will people drive anyway if all these improvements are made.
    Look at the Expressway, also check how empty the HOV lane is. Most cars on the road have one person in them. I would quit a job in town and work in the suburbs, and try to live nearby. Companies should be encouraged to re-locate but I think they think there’s more talent close by in Boston and Cambridge . I drove the opposite of the rush hour from greater Boston to Burlington and then Bedford to work for 30 years. It was usually a breeze one-half hour) being on the opposite side of 2 and 128. There was bus service from Alewife, too. One other idea before ending what is a long and frustrating conversation. We should look to see how other cities an countries have best handled this. I don’t think London and Singapore are the only ones. For instance many people bike in Amsterdam. I know other cities are working on this. Good luck on a daunting problem.

    1. Thanks, John.
      An EMU is an Electric Multiple Unit, a self propelled car kind of like a subway car that is made to run on standard heavy rail tracks.
      Indeed, we need to learn from other cities. The Rail Vision Process did start with a survey of other cities.

      1. and one advantage of an EMU is that electric motors have quite a lot of starting torque, both in general and for their weight, which allows them to get moving more quickly after a stop, saving time.

        A second advantage for rail abutters is a small reduction in noise pollution and a substantial reduction in particulate pollution (which is far worse for our health than most people realize, else we’d probably look seriously at outlawing the sale of diesel trucks/cars).

        You can even see these benefits from some of the MBTA’s hybrid buses; they’re a little quicker off the mark from a stop, and less smoky (diesels seem to be worst outside their power band) and less “wheezy” sounding as they accelerate.

  22. I agree that tackling rush hour congestion should be the first priority. Incentives for companies to allow more work from home in addition to flexible hours, as a commenter noted, would help. Many (not all) jobs can be done at least occasionally as remote work, but some employers are still stuck in ‘butts-in-seats’ mentalities, contributing to rush hour congestion. Incentives might encourage them to reconsider that approach.

    I’ll add that the ‘last mile’ problem you mentioned is a significant obstacle. In addition to more parking at the outer edges of the system, communities such as those you represent could help alleviate the problem by ensuring that sidewalks and bike lines are passable year-round. I work downtown in an area that’s incredibly well-served by multiple bus, subway lines, and commuter rail lines, and a staggering number of my colleagues have given up on mass transit and now drive. In many cases that’s due to the T’s reliability woes, but in some it’s because they can’t count on walking or biking to a station or stop safely due to snow and ice.

  23. I feel that by focussing on rush hour issues, you have to be careful not to neglect the quality of life issues and needs with respect to daytime transportation of older Belmont residents. Public transportatioon during daylight hours is very important to older residents, and it cannot only be judged in terms of maximizing the returns on ridership, because viewing this as solely an economic issue and therefore not worthy of the cost, could result in consigning elderly people who can no longer drive to remain at home instead of enjoying the participation in community life which public transportation makes possible. Please think of how any decisions you make will impact older citizens.

      1. Don’t forget those who do not or cannot drive for other reasons (ie learning disability, vision loss, etc) who also depend on public transit (and live in Boston because it is accessible). Thanks.

  24. Congestion pricing may be a “stick”, but it might help indirectly by inducing employees to pressure their employers to permit more flexible, outside of the rush hour commutes, and would also induce more folks to use cheaper public transportation. The inconvenience of traveling outside the rush hour is a trifle compared to the looming disaster of irreversible climate change.

    1. The inconvenience of traveling outside the rush hour is a trifle compared to the looming disaster of irreversible climate change.
      Agreed. But they are really on different planes. Over 95% of the 24/7 statewide travel is currently in cars. We aren’t going to move that number much with congestion pricing. Most likely, we’ll shift the problem into a different time window. We have to electrify the private vehicle fleet.

    2. When you use a stick many of the folks you are trying to get to ride the T will fight back and usually no one wins, we need to find ways to induce them to ride the T on their own free and not force them if we really want to be successful.

  25. Will, thanks for your very helpful comments, I hope that the MBTA listens to your suggestions. Definitely reducing rush hour congestion is the key consideration for mass transit. Reducing commuter rail fares from the satellite cities may significantly reduce the number of cars traveling long distances on the radial highways at rush hour.
    One curious thing that stands out from the data you presented is how underutilized the Fairmount Line is. I really like your suggestion of making the fare on that short line (which to my eye looks like an obvious place for a subway line) free. Perhaps an easy cheap commute to downtown would help drive development of higher density housing in that section of Boston, and so alleviate the housing crunch that is causing so many people to live far from where they work.

    1. Yeah. I’m not really sure what to think about the Fairmount line. The main issue is that all of the options need to be evaluated with an eye to maximizing the shift of traffic out of cars into transit. That just hasn’t happened yet.

  26. Hi Will,
    Thanks for this update. Definitely, adequate, affordable parking near commuter stations, e.g. Watertown bus hub, is a factor. Many of us live too far to walk to the hub.
    Here’s what changed my behavior: When daily commuter parking was $10 and I had to purchase a monthly T pass, I drove. When parking dropped to $2.50 and my employer paid for my T pass, I took the 71 bus and the Red Line. I could drive in 30 minutes whereas the bus + Red Line took 70 minutes, but the cost savings incented me to change my commuting habit (and read more).
    One more thing: WHY is it taking so long for the busway update to be completed in Harvard Square? Schlepping through the Square to connect between the bus and the Red Line in the dead of winter is certainly a deterrent to using mass transit.

    1. We are back underground now in the busway for the winter! The whole project will restart in the summer though — there just turned out to be much more rotten concrete that needed to be replaced than they expected.

  27. Hi Will. In sum, I agree with everything you said. I think that makes a lot of sense, and yes, the parking should be around where people would be getting on the train to come into Boston. The lack of adequate parking at Alewife is horrendous -the place fills up well before 8 AM. As I’ve said before, I’m a big believer in having another parking garage out on the intersection of 128 and route 2, and then having a dedicated lane to pass those people to Alewife. I think that would make a huge difference for Belmont, route 2, and lots of people. I also agree with lowering fares and even better making certain lines free. I know I personally would ride the bus more for short trips if it was free. I agree with what you said about the Fairmont line both in regard to the fares and the electrification issue .

  28. Stopping more construction in crowded areas will help, hate to see what Waverley square in Belmont is going to look like when the Cushing square apartments and condos open up, only makes sense to stop building ! Boston is another prime example grid lock all day now .

    1. GB, I agree with you but if we stop building rents will go up and affordable housing will stop growing as well. Will is right in that improving the ease and costs of using the T is the only answer unless we want to go backwards.

  29. as long as urban planning favors cars over pedestrians, bikes, scooters etc, people will drive. And planning to date has ALWAYS favored cars. Here is a really simple example: in winter, cities plow the streets (for cars) but sidewalks are the responsibility of individuals–so forget walking to the bus or subway on icy days.(Sweden inverted that prioritization and saw a reduction in emergency room visits for falls)
    If we want to decrease car usage we need to rethink urban planning, massively improve the reliability of mass transit and massively improve walking/biking/parking at stations etc. Congestion zones as in London are also a good plan. As long as driving is cheaper and more reliable, people will drive or use Uber, Lyft etc

  30. Hi Sen. Brownsberger–I want to start by saying how much I appreciate your efforts at engaging your constituents in these discussions and your thoughtful and transparent processing of these challenging transit issues! I write as someone who lives in Boston and mainly commutes (~3.5 miles) by local MBTA services, but who has at different times made or wished for commuter rail services for other reasons that I’ll elaborate below. In general, I appreciate your perspective on how increasing ridership during rush hour could make a meaningful impact on the correlated issues, and that improving parking options and reducing fares (especially for lower-income commuters) could be highly effective even without more expensive investments. I can appreciate how the current fares would be prohibitive for many lower-income commuters, and that those commuters are also going to be particularly dependent on public transportation to avail of the best work opportunities. I definitely support doing all that’s possible to make commuting by commuter rail feasible for low-income workers.

    I also agree that current parking options would be very limiting, at least where I’ve used commuter rail services in the past or where colleagues have tried to use them (but find lots full by the time they get there…). I would encourage you and your colleagues to factor in not only the number of parking spaces available at/near a station, but also the other aspects of the experience of parking at those stations. I’m thinking of the variety of options for paying parking fees, the affordability of parking and availability of restrooms (and trash cans!) as well as a general sense of safety, especially for those using super-early morning or later night trains. As a side note, I think use of services off-peak would also increase if parking lots did not fill up during rush hour, as people generally assume that people are parking all day and not going to vacate a spot mid-day. E.g., if they hear rumors that the lots fill up during rush hour, they may not try to use the train very often mid-day if they need to drive to the nearest station to begin with. What options do people have who work shifts that are staggered from conventional business hours, such as medical or building security staff whose shifts start and end at unconventional times but who need to show up on time and get home efficiently and safely? If the diversion of trying the commuter rail first could make them late (if the lot is full and they have to drive anyway), how often will they try?

    So, I support your call for approaching the analysis from an “increase ridership during rush hour” perspective as a high priority starting point. I think it’s also still important to keep more sophisticated or expensive longer-term investments on the table so that the system has maximum longer-term versatility and capacity to incorporate further modernization. And, I think it’s important not to ignore the needs of off-peak commuters. I don’t think you were suggesting an either/or approach, but only a thoughtful process of prioritizing, which generally makes sense.

    One key reason that I have not moved to a suburb (even though I could live in a wonderful, fully paid home!) is that the commute from the potential South Shore location to my work in the Longwood medical area would be prohibitively long in spite of the availability of frequent commuter rail service during rush hour. That is because I would have to take the commuter rail about an hour to South Station or maybe ~50 minutes to a stop just before South Station and then change to the green line (for a very slow ride, probably ~45 min at rush hour, to get all the way to the hospital area) or to a bus that would take almost as long (once it comes) to wend through rush hour street traffic. A longer-term plan to increase the diversity and efficiency of cross-town options could make a big difference for people who would be facing that type of logistical nightmare (especially knowing how unreliable the local buses and green line trains are at present).

    I would also like to add to the other comments plugging the usefulness of more frequent off-peak service. In the scenario I described above, the fact that I often work until later in the evening means that I would be further delayed commuting back home (if I lived on the South Shore) due to the more limited off-peak service on both the local and commuter lines. Similarly, when I have occasionally used the commuter rail to attend evening volunteering activities in Lynn, I have had to watch the clock and limit my time at those events to avoid having to wait a long time (on a platform that feels very dark and deserted, not entirely safe, later at night) to get back home if I missed the mid-evening route (it used to pick up in Lynn around 8:35pm, but it seems the schedule has changed a bit–I haven’t used that line in several years). The prospect of an additional 45-50 minute wait later at night was intimidating due to the poor lighting and absence of company personnel at the time I last used that line, and knowing that I’d still have a pretty long green line ride to get all the way home once back at North Station. I would use the commuter rail more often to go to Lynn (to see friends who live there) if it felt more safe and had more flexibility for the return ride, but most of the time it feels best to drive in spite of the unpleasant outbound ride. I make those points to illustrate how the frequency and safety of off-peak service can directly impact the use of the system during rush hour.

    I think if reliability (in the mechanical functioning of the trains/system and also in operator reliability) and frequency of service can be optimized and some modest improvements made to accommodate the off-peak factors, people would far more routinely opt for public transit.

    1. Very thoughtful and appreciated.
      I make those points to illustrate how the frequency and safety of off-peak service can directly impact the use of the system during rush hour.
      Especially well taken. Hard to evaluate, but definitely part of what we need to try to quantify.

  31. Thanks for sharing your thought Will.
    I agree with your thinking and prioritization.
    I must admit, it is not clear to me what drives this commute increase, and what is its forecast. Any pointer would be appreciated.
    My own workplace (IT) is shifting towards more remote collaboration – translating directly in less commute (part-time home office increasingly larger). Would Boston not moving along the same line 20 years from now?

  32. I live in Belmont and work in Roxbury. I drive to work which takes an average of 30 minutes one way and costs a couple of bucks a day (I have free parking at work). If I take the T (73 to the Red Line to the Orange Line then a 5 minute walk), it takes an average of an hour and a half and it costs about 5 bucks a day. I could walk 15 minutes to the commuter rail and take the Orange Line and then another 5 minute walk but that would cost close to 20 bucks a day and take over an hour. I would love to get out of my car and take public transportation but it doesn’t make sense right now. The time it takes on the T should be figured into whatever plan is implemented as well as the costs.

    1. You point to one of the difficult truths: We can’t make every trip work by public transportation. Today, public transportation accounts for roughly 3% of all travel statewide. We can raise that number significantly, but private vehicles will remain necessary for the majority of trips statewide. However, at rush hour, on the radial commutes straight into town, the T does account for a lot of the volume and we have the opportunity to raise the share it accounts for.

  33. Thanks for your dedication to reducing the carbon footprint.
    I think the commuter rail is expensive and I support having a reduced fair for low income customers. I see families being pushed out of Boston due to homelessness from rising rents and gentrification.

  34. Improve and enlarge parking garages, such as Alewife, and keep parking fees as low as possible.A

    1. Alewife is too far in. It’s already congested trying to get to Alewife. The parking has to be outside of the congestion, and preferable as far out as practical to reduce single-occupancy vehicle miles, which a quick bus/shuttle with priority lane access. And make a single payment for the parking, shuttle, and T, allowing direct access to the T platform from the bus.

  35. Improve and enlarge parking garages, such as Alewife.
    Keep parking fees at the garages as low as possible

  36. Hi Will,

    I 100% support your position that congestion at rush hour should be the problem to solve. As both Deborah and you noted above not every trip is doable by public transportation, so spreading our resources thin by trying to address many cases – and therefore failing to significantly improve any – doesn’t make sense. The laser focus should be on rush hour.

    Ideally this would be paired with a statewide effort to electrify the private fleet. Even small tie-ins with this transit plan such as reserving some (more?) parking for electric vehicles at MBTA parking facilities could help move the needle over time.

    As part of solving the rush hour problem please encourage the MBTA to focus on the less-obvious things as well as the major issues. By less-obvious I mean stuff like snow and ice removal in winter – I ride the 73 and Red Line every day and ice in the winter can make walking to stops treacherous. I know this is a hard problem but these little things add up, and I don’t see it discussed a lot.

    Has anyone systematically cataloged the less-obvious, smaller things that cause people to not ride the T – or have a poor experience when they do? As you likely know one can refer to this as “friction”. Maybe there’s a bunch of smaller easier problems that can also be fixed while we tackle the big ones. Fixing the small things can add up over time. As an example from Brenda’s post the small things could be as small as adding some new strategically-placed trash cans to a few stations.

    I’m focusing my comment on the less-obvious because the major issues are well-known and have been endlessly discussed. The T has to be more reliable, full stop. But everyone knows that already.

  37. Will, this is really interesting, makes a lot of sense as a jumping-off point. I’m traveling now and can’t read in detail until next week. HOWEVER, one immediate question: do state and local agencies and advocates collectively have the talent and methodology to predict the effects of our efforts? I seem to recall studies by proponents and adopted by the government which overstate increased ridership, overstate projected revenue etc. Maybe this pattern has been successfully stared down Otherwise I suggest that significant up-front work be done to either (1) reach agreement with stakeholders as to how to collect necessary data, to analyze it, project based on it or (2) work with stakeholders to understand each other’s models and assumptions such that different outcomes can be explained by different inputs and/or models. Is this a pipe dream?

  38. When my office was in a Newbury Street church basement, my co-worker from mid-Somerville (subsidized housing) had her husband drop her off and pick her up by car every day because they couldn’t afford a T-pass. My co-worker in Brookline (subsidized housing) had her uncle the Uber driver drop her often for free because she couldn’t afford a T-pass and only sometimes had cash for the T, depending on medical costs. My co-worker who had just moved from Medford to Shirley to buy a house certainly couldn’t afford commuter rail on $32k and often drove to Alewife to park and take the T in, but there weren’t always parking spaces and basically couldn’t afford the commute at all and left before too much longer. So yes, I agree absolutely that transportation cost–especially commuter rail but also subway–is a tremendous burden and leads to people being forced to drive who don’t want to. I think commuter rail parking (free), commuter rail reduced cost and increased service as well as lower subway and bus costs would make a substantial contribution to reducing traffic congestion. Lower cost for all riders and increase taxes. We all pay for the roads. We should all pay more (progressive tax) for the other parts of the transportation system to reduce congestion. The systems to differentiate the full rate vs discount rate riders are arduous and wasteful. We all pay for rich kids’ public school education and rich people’s public libraries. They are public goods and subsidized transportation is too.

  39. I would like to see the commuter rail lines used more than a few minutes per hour. They are limited-access, priorty routes into and out of the city. While I’d like to see them become Bus Rapid Transit the whole way, so that there would be more frequent service that could run longer hours, perhaps parts could be paved with the rail lines still running, closer to the city. Then various buses to do a few local suburban pick-ups/drop-off before/after connecting with the rail-access at an at-grade crossing, and similarly wander off the line in-city instead of forcing everyone to use North (or South) Station for access. That would limit the number of transfers people would need to make, improving the reliability of their commute.

    One of the larger problems with commuter rail is that if you’re a few minutes late dropping your kid at daycare (for example), you can miss your train. Daycare/school schedules may not align with the rail schedule, then you have a long wait until the next train. Similarly, if the T is delayed and you miss the commuter connection, the next train might not get you back before the daycare closes. The frequency of service is not enough.

    Also, Worcester and Lowell are too far. We need to build up mid-density, mixed-use areas near 128 in towns with commuter rail access, such as Woburn or Waltham. People don’t want to commute more than about 1/2 an hour. It’s 20 minutes on a non-stop train ride between Woburn and North Station. People could live near the Woburn Anderson Transportation Center and get to work or recreation in the Boston in 1/2 hour, or live in Boston and get to a job in Woburn in the same amount of time, if express trains made the route, and if they ran more often to be a reasonable way to go. And people who like living in farther suburbs wouldn’t need to get all the way to the inner city.

    I currently commute from Alewife to Andover (soon the job site will be moving to Cambridge), and almost every car is single-occupancy, and they are in four lanes of stop-and-go traffic from Medford inbound. People want the flexibility that cars provide that they can’t approach with other transit options, and will endure (and cause) great amounts of congestion for it. If you only provide rush hour improvement, it doesn’t address that occasional non-rush hour need. People don’t think about what they do 95% of the time, they focus on what to do for that worst case that happens 5% of the time.

    You can’t just look at how much a rail route currently services to determine it’s worth. It could be that the less used lines are that way because of systemic issues with the line. If the rail system provided a useful level of service that made driving obviously stupid, more people would use it. We need to find out what it really takes to get people out of cars, looking beyond the “obvious,” because we people probably don’t know what would motivate them if they can’t imagine some creative options that are unlike what currently exists.

    1. We need to find out what it really takes to get people out of cars, looking beyond the “obvious,” because we people probably don’t know what would motivate them if they can’t imagine some creative options that are unlike what currently exists.


  40. Congestion starts at the center of the HUB and extends outward- not at the spokes going in. Current thinking of increasing parking costs downtown to discourage drive-in commuting and encourage public transportation only works when public transportation is reliable. Lack of Affordable housing around transit routes is discouraging to commuters, lack of affordable housing downtown also pushes people to commute in. Boston area citizens are paying Premium housing costs beyond reasonable affordability, let alone families that need two or three bedrooms. (I live in Belmont, I love taking the 73 but – guess what, MY rent is simply driving us (older folks now , no kids) to consider moving…probably out of state – so I guess you could consider that a solution..) The Real Estate motivated legislature care little about this. Only NOW does Marty Walsh see this as a problem in Boston-too late for Seaport.., but it’s a problem in the HUB in general- in Everett, In Revere, Watertown, Cambridge , Medford, Quincy, Waltham etc ! More locally in Belmont – How much will a 1 bedroom ( with all those parking spaces!!) at the Toll Bros/Bradford cost ?->if it ever gets finished – what is up with that = my wife and i wonder if the siding is made on site – ( that’s a different thread)< We have working class incomes, but nearly half of it to rent, and we can't afford 1.5 million dollar mortgage for a home and savings, after health insurance, is very very hard. We'd move further out but public transportation is so unreliable. So unreliable. How would someone, for instance, live in Marlboro and commute to Boston? This is a climate change issue as well as a housing issue- if we want to reduce emissions and traffic we need to reduce the USE – not the means of transportations. To me, that means clean connected routes between towns as direct as possible and affordable housing with access to groceries and stores. The rent for storefronts seems aligned with home costs. This is a NO win situation for working class people.

    1. The cost of housing is rising out of sight all around the inner core of the metro area. The congestion problem is part of what is driving this; people want to be as close as possible so that they don’t have to deal with it. That is why congestion has to be high on the radar screen as the problem to address.

  41. Will,
    As always – an impressive depth of research and thought. While I agree with your points, I’d like to make some further suggestions:
    1. You are correctly raising the issue of cost. Currently, if a person has a guaranteed parking spot at both ends (we are taking parking issue out of question), economics and commute time work in favor of using a car. What can the State do to change this equation? Lowering the cost of T may not be really feasible. Perhaps transit tolls need to be considered?
    2. Commuting usually requires a system of modes. I think that the bus mode is the one that fails the system. Routes are designed to be long, therefore the probability for keeping up with the schedule is low. Without a reliable schedule and frequent bus service from one’s neighborhood, people are more likely to get into the car. Paying $9+/day for MBTA parking garage is too high for many people and they end up choosing end-to-end car transportation. My suggestion is to fundamentally re-think the bus routes. Here’s an example: the only viable way (if you cannot walk or bike) to get from Waverly Square to Belmont center is to take the 73 bus to Harvard and take the 74 bus to the center. This normally takes well over an hour. Who’ll do it? My point is: bus lines need to be shortened significantly in order to increase their likelihood to stay on schedule and to serve the neighborhoods. These can be smaller, electric busses, operated by private companies (still taking the Charlie card). A private company can organize it operations to have a burst of availability in the rush hours. Small busses can weave through the neighborhoods, connecting parking lots with train stations. MBTA has proven to be too inflexible – same large buses are packed during commute hours and mostly empty during the day.
    3. I did not see in this post mentioning of the idea to connect North and South stations with a tunnel. Many people have to commute across the I-90 line and for outer suburbs there’s no other reasonable way to do it except with a car. It will be expensive, but this project is overdue by about a century.
    4. Businesses. I think that the state can think of a legislation encouraging employers to allow their employees to work remotely more days of the week. Perhaps you can initiate a study to find out what are the main concerns the employers have. Security? Productivity? Communication? How these concerns can be addressed?
    5. Population density: Boston and Cambridge are the big job hubs. They need to increase their housing inventory. New developments need to be designed with walkability in mind, especially putting emphasis on proximity to train stations and jobs. I am not sure how much of this can be achieved by the State legislature.
    6. Boston: parking meters allow people to park on street for about $2/hour. If one calculates cost of MBTA commute, both options come to be about even. I think that during office hours parking on Boston streets should be over $5/hour. The city should have a hefty surcharge on all parking lots/garages, whether these are privately or publicly owned. Only exception: give hotels an allowance so that the tourism is not affected negatively. Repeated parking violations should be fined at an escalation scale as some businesses find it acceptable to swallow the cost.

    1. Nikolai.

      These are all worthy thoughts. Very much in the mix of the conversation happening right now.

      Re adding bus routes, I think that as you say, we’d need a different model of bus — it isn’t cost-effective to run full scale urban buses on the low ridership routes like Waverley to Belmont Center.

      1. Will,
        I gave the suggestion only as an example of two populated points which are not connected by public transit. Perhaps my example was poor.
        I am advocating for shorter routes with more predictable schedule. I am also advocating for connecting densely populated areas with train stations using such shorter bus lines. A refined example would be: a short bus line connecting Belmont and Alewife. My observation is that most people catching 74 or 78 bus to Cambridge are doing it to get on the red line. If correct, this means that substantial part of the travel is wasted on a bus through Cambridge. Other towns probably have similar examples.
        In summary, perhaps communities can be given state subsidy to design and run bus lines in accordance with what their residents want rather than what MBTA has decided on their behalf?

  42. As a condition of licensing/permitting, why not require that TMC vehicles (Lyft/ Uber etc) be electric? The result would be an environmental gain for every rider who chooses Lyft or Uber. As to the role of Lyft/Uber as contributors to congestion, is it possible to manage services as solutions to congestion? (Every Lyft/Uber vehicle, by the nature of the service, is constantly moving individuals point-to-point, replacing personal car use for that purpose. But Lyft/Uber, compared to personal vehicles, are more likely to be used for shared rides, even if a fraction of total use.) Imagine a future in which all vehicles on local roads are electric Uber/Lyft, constantly moving people point-to-point, with incentives for sharing, thus minimizing on-street parking and maximizing space for wide sidewalks and bicycles. Would the result be more — or less — congestion?

    1. I’d like to see more of those vehicles electric, but remember that most of them belong to the drivers. That would make Uber driving unaffordable . . . until we can increase EV incentives substantially, which I do support.

  43. Hi Will! As always, I appreciate your nuanced, thoughtful post.

    TL/DR version of this reply: every factor is connected, but each one will contribute to greater ridership.

    Long version:

    My experience of living in Maynard about 15 years ago and trying to take the commuter rail from South Acton is a good case in point regarding commuter rail and the intersection of all these efforts.

    First: Sidewalks. I tried walking to the South Acton commuter rail. No sidewalks for a long portion of the way. Frightening conditions for pedestrians on the road. Stopped walking, started driving. (They now have a bicycle trail! Hurrah! This would have been a huge change to my experience.)

    Second: local public transport. There was, for about a year, a short bus from Maynard to the commuter rail. When it stopped running, I started driving to commuter rail.

    Third: Parking. drove to commuter rail, if I didn’t get there early, no parking. Starting parking in side streets 10 minute walk away.

    Finally: Frequency. I could never work as late as I needed to in response to things that came up at work. It was hard to organize my work departure to get on a later train, (after 6:30 pm) only to arrive home so late I was too tired to do anything around the house (which I was re-habbing at the time). So I started driving in 2-3 times per week. Eventually the monthly pass cost didn’t make sense.

    Lastly: started driving to Belmont, parking on a side street, taking the bus to Harvard Square.

    Now I live in Belmont, but all the efforts to get myself to commuter rail were exhausted by the time I left Maynard and the straw that broke the camels back was the lack of frequent enough trains between 6 and 8 PM.

    The bicycle trail itself might have been enough to keep me on the commuter rail, but more frequent trips after nominal rush hour would probably have also been necessary to make me stay in commuter rail.

    1. I know how painful it is at North Station if you miss the 5PM train 419. The next train that will stop at Belmont is at 5:55PM.

      I simply cannot understand why they cannot run more commuter rails.
      Japan has a much larger and much more dependent commuter rail system and it works fine there. DOT need to learn from their Japanese counterparties.

  44. Will: Thanks for working on this issue. But I question on of your ststements: “The only higher priority question is how to provide reliable service to the passengers we already serve. To its credit, the MBTA has placed a great emphasis on maintenance and I defer to the operators of the system as to how to achieve that goal. ” I think that maintenance is an issue considering some of the recent derailments. Commuters have to have confidence that the system will work before ridership will increase.

  45. Sen Brownsberger, I read your article in Commonwealth Magazine and was quite disappointed by the misguided lines of thinking running through all of it. First of all, “congestion” and “traffic” are not some inexorable force of nature, they’re the result of the actions of individuals responding to incentives and disincentives, and people have plenty of flexibility, especially in the long run, to respond to various incentives. Second, car-based transportation is fundamentally different from public transit. In general, cars get worse the more people use them (at least past the point where you have enough drivers to get roads paved), while public transit tends to get better as more people use it, with more frequent and more convenient service (at least until the limits of subway capacity are reached, which Boston is quite far from still). The problem is that a) Boston is a crowded city, and this concentration is what makes our economy strong, and b) not everyone is able to drive and not everyone can afford to drive and not everyone should be driving. This means that a functional public transit system is crucial even if cars ran on magical pollution-free pixie dust.

    I do agree that the MBTA needs to address core capacity, and to some extent they are already doing so, by expanding the Red Line and Orange Line fleets and improving the signal systems to add capacity, and by buying a larger bus fleet and cramming it into existing maintenance facilities. But it’s important to remember that off-peak ridership is MUCH MORE cost-effective for the MBTA. This is most clearly visible on the commuter rail system, where the biggest trainsets in the system all make just one single round trip per day, and spend the midday sitting idle in yards near Downtown. Likewise, the heavily peak-oriented service means that train crews end up working split shifts, and getting paid to sit and do nothing for the middle part of the day. Providing a new peak train means buying a new trainset, and hiring a new train crew, but with off peak trains the train is already there, and the crews are already there getting paid half-time to do nothing, and the cost of extra service is quite low, to the point where the revenue from extra ridership can more than offset it, as is the case for the CapeFlyer. And of course off peak service provides people with more flexibility, encouraging more people to ride the CR even during peak periods, because people have children whom they may need to pick up during the middle of the day. It may even encourage people to get rid of their cars entirely, and no car at all is better in terms of emissions than an electric car.

    Now, these days, the main cost of running an extra commuter rail train is in paying the train crew, which consists of some 3-5 people: one engineer driving the train, and a number of conductors who have a variety of jobs. Currently, these jobs include selling and checking tickets, a role which will be much diminished if and when we get an Automated Fare Collection system on the commuter rail. But the other main job of the conductors is much more important: opening and closing the trap doors to let passengers on and off the trains at low-level platforms. The only way to reduce the staffing on trains is to build high level platforms at all stations and use automatic doors. As a bonus, this will improve safety and travel times, as passengers won’t have to clamber up and down steep stairs to get in and out of the train, and everyone on the train won’t have to wait as passengers board single file at only half of the train’s doors. As anyone who rides the Fitchburg Line can tell you, the boarding process at Porter can take as long as 3 minutes on busy peak trains, and would MUCH faster with level boarding.

    As for electrification, it really does have massive benefits in terms of travel time due to the hugely better acceleration. Having a train that goes faster makes it that much more of an attractive option compared to driving, and encourages more people to take the train. Plus, a train that goes faster can complete more trips during the rush hour and serve more passengers. Here’s a video of such a train accelerating from a stop, note how it hits 75 mph just a minute after starting:

  46. Thanks, Arcady, I certainly agree with this statement — a functional public transit system is crucial even if cars ran on magical pollution-free pixie dust and with most of what you said. We need transit to make the city function. I think my request that MassDOT show how their transit investments will get cars off the road through mode shift is entirely consistent with your strong endorsement of the role of transit.

  47. Please continue to advocate for and support Public Transportation. It needs to be more dependable, frequent and connected, and yes connected means there must be parking, for cars and bikes at connections. Riding the bus from Watertown to Boston is good, when schedules and seating availability align. I just wish it was better and thank you for advocating for us on this topic.

  48. I’d like to see housing considered as a solution to traffic congestion. I read in the Globe about all the new office space coming available in the next few years. What if the State tied office space construction to housing construction. Suppose that construction of each new office desk/locker would require construction of a new bedroom within a 20 minute commute by affordable non-automotive transportation . If such a requirement were implemented, I believe that the state could make real progress not only in reducing traffic but also in reducing carbon emissions and making available affordable housing.

      1. I think the converse should be explored, because parts of the inner core are already packed. Cambridge has the fourth highest population density of the cities in the country with at least 100,000 people and/or 5 sq. miles. Instead of forcing housing to match job growth, I’d rather see us restrict commercial development unless the infrastructure can handle it. By infrastructure I mean housing, transportation, energy supply, flood resilience, urban heat island mitigation, stormwater sewer capacity, etc. Because we are trying to add infrastructure to places that are already built up, we are not keeping up with the new infrastructure requirements of the new development.

        It is much easier to plan and build sustainably when you have a cleaner slate from which to work, that is, suburban cities about 1/2 hour from the inner core with an express (non-stop) transit method (e.g. rail, bus on rail lines or other dedicated lanes the whole length of the connection). Suburban doesn’t need to mean sprawl. We can build the suburbs to be functional mid-density cities that have half-hour, car-free access to the urban core. But I think we’ve about hit the limit of what our inner core can handle.

        And the three denser cities? New York City, Paterson, NJ and San Francisco. Paterson was ranked 3rd worst city to live in by 24/7 Wall St, and San Francisco and New York were ranked top and 2nd most expensive American cities by Inc. Which direction are we heading?

    1. I fully agree with John. The challenge is in the implementation: the new housing pricing/rents should be paired with the jobs that are created. If the new offices pay an average salary of $60k/yr and the new housing rents are $10,000/month, then obviously these are not good matches for each other. Moreover, if new housing units become available, how do we protect these from being purchased in bulk by super rich investors (foreign or domestic)?

      To Will’s point: I think that a reasonable solution is found and voted in the State legislature this year, people will move into these new units within the next 3-4 years, so this is not really that far in the future. Perhaps, sooner than the time when MBTA improves… Moreover, this will be a structural solution to the transportation issues rather than keep patching and expanding the transportation system.

  49. I’m a little worried that people underestimate how much shiftable demand there is — that is, there are people driving who if things got just a hair worse, might choose not to drive, but there are also people using the T, who if things got just a hair worse there, or if driving were a hair better, would decide to drive instead.

    At the same time, we very much prefer “carrot” incentives to “stick” incentives because nobody wants to be worse off, which means that we’d better have some really nice carrots, otherwise as some people shift to transit or bicycle or whatever and make traffic flow better, others currently not driving will be attracted back into their cars. We’re going to need to spend a lot of money for nice carrots, and we ought to get used to that idea.

    Otherwise, we’ll need sticks. It would be great to have better bicycle and pedestrian access to suburban train stations, but if that parking is also free and abundant, people with the option to walk or bike will drive instead, leaving less for other people without a non-driving choice. We could charge more for parking, but that’s a stick, people hate that.

    I’d also like for people to think more seriously about bicycles. At rush hour in Cambridge, quite a few people are on bikes; on some routes, right around the rush hour peak, it looks like 50% or more outside of winter months. (How does this work? It’s because bikes use street space very efficiently and are unaffected by car traffic jams, so you can go whenever you want to, and for not-long distances, wherever you want to. And so people do.) This is good news for bikes, but it is also a lot of potential shift back to other modes if somehow we screw things up for bikes.

    I’m also a little worried about where the next bottleneck is; at rush hour, the red line is pretty darn full. If we run a really nice shuttle bus between South Station and Seaport and another really nice shuttle bus to a new garage at 128 and 2, that will only make the red line even more full. This is one reason to be interested in running more frequent commuter rail and expanding access to suburban stations — there’s nothing physically preventing us from running a lot more trains on those rails, unlike the red line, which is at (rush hour) capacity now.

  50. What a thoughtful conversation. One story: we recently visited the Chapel Hill/Carrboro NC area where ALL buses are FREE. And guess what? They have a huge ridership and it’s made a big difference in traffic. In addition, bus pickups and drop-offs are quick, because no one is digging into a wallet for fare cards or money. Win win situation.
    About electric vehicles: as I recently wrote in a LTE: we need decent infrastructure for EVs. It took us 18 months just to get condo approval for a simple 110 plug at our garage parking spot and there are too few charging stations around the state. It’s great to have the newt incentives again, but cities and towns (and the state) need to make charging an EV as easy as buying gas.

  51. Is there any research that supports increasing commuter rail station parking as a way to attract new riders? Would free, or very low cost parking, get the same results that free buses did in Lawrence? How long would it take to build the facilities, or could open air lots and on-street parking suffice, at least at first? While the T has the legal authority to override local opposition, would it do so given the political consequences?

    Let me add my support to the suggestion above, that working hours be staggered to ease the rush hour crush. Maybe start with state and local government.

    1. To add to my comments:

      Can the current system handle a significant increase in ridership, one that would reflect a noticeable shift of commuters from roads to rail? Can commuters check parking availability at lots via an app?

      I’m all for trying different approaches. Recently I used Logan’s new system for Lyft/Uber rides, and it was fine. I mention it because there was lots of criticism when it was first proposed, here in the comments and on the Globe’s editorial page.

      There is a need for solutions that can be implemented quickly. Personally I favor more dedicated bus lanes, maybe combined with free fares. Free bus transit would make the new fare collection system less expensive.

      1. I think it’s all of the above at the end of the day. My argument is that we need to focus on the low hanging fruit — the existing trips, especially on times of day and on routes where they are concentrated — and make mode-shift happen.

  52. 1) public-private partnerships to build and significantly increase parking capacity at commuter stations; 2) complete reorganization of the T; 3) massive investment in electrified and autonomous buses for the 21st century T, that are smaller, networked and provide much more frequent trips (see e.g. ); 4) increased gas tax to support the complete revamp of the T; 5) connecting North and South stations; 6) congestion pricing of vehicles during rush hour (particularly for Uber/Lyft and food delivery services); and, 7) demanding that employers provide flex-time hours.

  53. For short term question, I’m on board with your approach Will.
    For longer term – couple thoughts:
    A model city does exist. Stockholm. Their weather is similar (maybe even worse) than ours, but their urban center thrives because of incredibly efficient street level trolleys and well-designed bike lanes.
    We do need our urban center alive and kicking. It won’t help to pull business back out to bedroom communities, as some have mentioned.
    If our downtown decays, it creates an expanding ring of subsequent decay – as the 60s and 70s showed us.
    BUT, to keep downtown alive, we have to lose cars in a MAJOR way. (I have ideas, but for another comment thread.)
    Also wanted to say how impressed I am with the thoughtfulness of so many commentators.

  54. I live in Watertown and commute into Boston for work. I both drive and take the T, depending. Taking the T to work usually means a one-and-a-half hour commute versus 30-45 minutes driving, both during rush hour. So, in my case, driving makes much more sense. The downside to driving is how terrible the roads are from Watertown into Boston. I was talking to my mechanic, and subjective observation indicates that the struts and shocks of the cars belonging to residents living in and around Boston are wearing out at a higher right than is necessary because of how bad the roads are. Back to the T – Watertown/Cambridge have added bus lanes to speed up public transit during rush hour. The problem is that cars are forced to weave from one lane to another at odd points. At rush hour, I’ve seen some pretty scary near misses that were created by the introduction of these lanes. If there is one suggestion I can offer with regard to traffic, it would have to do with the timing of traffic lights. I have noticed frequently that traffic lights at various intersections in Cambridge and especially in and around Boston are poorly timed, so that it is the traffic lights that create gridlock when heavy traffic otherwise could be flowing smoothly. The introduction of lights for bike lane traffic also has created some confusion in Boston. I have reported this a few times to the appropriate people. I definitely think that an audit of the timing of traffic lights at all intersections could be an opportunity to significantly improve the flow of traffic for everyone. The timing of the lights seems quite illogical during high traffic periods.

    1. The timing of traffic lights is definitely critical. A complete re-audit of light settings is probably cost-prohibited. But, I’m eager to know of bad timing locations and pass them on to the right people.

  55. No, I don’t think the focus on rush hour alone is adequate. If climate is one of the reasons for transit, then what hours would one choose to exclude? We could start a program of off-peak free boarding of buses and the Red Line, say in Cambridge, Watertown, Arlington, and Belmont. Such would acclimate more people to transit. Develop municipal, major educational, health, and business funding. (Pay the T for lost revenue of existing riders, not lost revenue of incremental riders. The capacity is rolling down the street. Incremental riders may pay for trips not boarded in the 4 municipalities—more revenue for the T.)

    On peak inducements must include more capacity (time and capital), more predictable, cleaner transit and stations. Further, should congestion tolls or gas taxes or carbon-multi state carbon fees be applied, transit may be more attractive. One should also consider “parking leakage”. There are multiple places in our towns where people park to avoid the down town cost of parking, taking transit the last mile.

    Electrify commuter rail, the first route in five (5) years or less. Utilize value capture. Lots of value was left with developers and property owners as the GLX was built. (Lots of pain was left with renters too. What’s the policy for renter pain/eviction?)

      1. Many people have to commute during rush hour one way, which means they don’t the other way. Example, get kid to school then leave for work and stay late, or get in early and head back during rush hour to pick up kid from daycare. If you only address rush hour, you haven’t fixed the problem for those who need a solution to the other half of their commute.

  56. Hi all,
    First, hats off to Senator Brownsberger and the folks who have commented so far, this is a much more nuanced and informed forum than I am accustomed to.
    I do a limited amount of traveling in Boston, so I mostly come to this issue from a climate change/air pollution angle. One item that is frequently left out of these conversations is that tailpipe emissions are low-level toxins that are especially dangerous to young children and the elderly, and anything that we can do to reduce emissions will likely pay for itself in terms of the healthcare costs associated with removing these toxins from our atmosphere.
    This is a very thorny issue everywhere- everyone wants the system to change, but no one actually wants to change their behavior. But transportation in Boston is becoming unmanageable, and our planet is literally burning. I just hope that politics and pettiness don’t derail finding real solutions.

  57. A multi-county fleet of electric vehicles (ideally autonomous) could be used as a portion of a mass transit ride to get people to and from a bus/T stop used for the bulk of the trip. This could keep a much more expensive Uber and Lyft out of downtown neighborhoods.

  58. Happy New Year Will,
    Interesting WGBH (or WBUR) report from Paris, France today. As you may know, they have a monthlong massive transit strike and yet people still have to get to work etc. in a big city. The response of the French public has focused on ride-sharing courtesy of a European ride share app called BlaBlaCar, and the key is that it uses modern app to join drivers and riders who are all heading in the same direction, sharing costs.
    It’s pan-Europe and hundreds of millions of registered users per Wiki:

    * To incentivize such a system really taking off in Boston you may have to do couple things:
    A. Congestion pricing in the Boston-Cambridge-Allston core, which can be avoided by having at least two passengers in a car/van
    B. Large, reasonably priced parking lots on perimeter such as out by Weston 95/pike jct and Allston etc. to incentivize people to park and avoid congestion pricing.
    C. Use billboards and catchy promotions to get the people to help solve our congestion “one ride at a time” whether it be T rides, ride-shares, ferries up the Charles, e-biking, walking, etc.

    And then to get more alternatives going, I still go back to my comment I posted last summer to you on this issue Will: Get the MBTA to procure smaller electric vans criss-crossing the metro area: they eliminate exhaust, don’t clog up the streets like big buses, and go down more streets where people can more readily get them, perhaps with apps and technology helping to connect riders with the vans, just like other ride-share technologies like BlaBlaCars does.

    So, summarizing these threads: Technology, Ride-Sharing, Congestion Pricing, and Electrification should be imbedded in the mix of solutions.

  59. Hi Senator,
    Thanks for your continued support of mass transit. My comment is a bit late to the discussion, but I think the bigger issue related to the commuter rail (at all times of day, including rush hour), is the freuqency of a train. From where I live, I could take the 57 bus or the commuter rail to my job near Kenmore Square. While the commuter rail is only scheduled to take 8- 10 min vs the 35-45 minutes on the bus, I end up taking the 57 or biking because the commuter rail comes once an hour. I am willing to bet that increasing the freuqency of the commuter rail could provide the elusive doubling or tripling of ridership that you talk about. I also think your rush-hour vs non-rush hour dichotomy is a bit forced. We should definitely purchase more trains to run more service at rush hour, but we can also then run those trains more frequently throughout the day. It’s not an either-or deal, since we have already purchased the trains, we might as well run them and get our money’s worth rather than letting them rot in some layover yard somewhere.

  60. You mention the problem of inadequate parking. There is also a problem, at least at Alewife, with inadequate passenger drop-off and pick up space. This morning when I dropped my husband off at Alewife around 9 am, the entire drop-off area was full of busses with no room for cars. This then has a domino effect where the cars were parked in the space reserved for taxies. Even at that, the congestion was spilling out onto and blocking the road in front of the station. This is not an unusual situation.

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