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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

Comments are closed.