The exciting frontier of transportation planning is in information technology: car sharing, ride sharing, on-demand shuttles. We can’t expect public transportation agencies to lead in creating these evolving business models. The public role will be to run high-volume bus and rail trunk routes and to find ways to assure that persons with limited income can find “last mile” solutions — connections from their origin to the trunk lines and from the trunk lines to their final destination.
Private railroad companies ran urban trolleys and subways in the later part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Park Street — our first subway — was originally built for the West End Street Railway. When private automobiles became common in the 30s and 40s, all the urban private railway companies collapsed and were taken over and subsidized by new public entities. In the Boston area, the Metropolitan Transit Authority was created in 1947 to take over the Boston Elevated Railway.
In a legal sense, what happened in the 30s and 40s was a movement from private to public, but really it was the opposite. The private street railway companies were a shared mode of transportation that required public cooperation to build and operate. They existed only at the sufferance of public entities — Park Street was built by the Boston Transit Commission, a legislatively created entity. The railways were legally private and able to make a profit, but heavily regulated. The automobile allowed a movement to truly private transportation — each person owning their own vehicle and coming and going entirely on their own schedule (of course, on publicly built roads).
The real challenge of 21st century transportation is to find ways to combine the overwhelming convenience of private vehicles with the efficiency of shared transportation. The mass production model of shared transportation — subways, trolleys and buses — is financially viable and environmentally desirable only in very dense areas, where there is enough demand to keep them full. There is nothing efficient or green about a 40-foot bus with 3 people on it.
Because we favored highway construction through much of the last century, our homes and businesses are now sprawled across the region and, for most trips in the region, mass-produced shared transportation simply does not work. To entice people out of their automobiles, we need to create financially-viable shared transportation modes by using technology to connect people with resources when they need them. Bridj, Uber, Zip Car, Lyft, Via are some of the newest models. Private Transit Demand Management Associations are a more seasoned alternative to public transit.
The new models will keep coming over the next few decades. Some of them will work. Some will fail like the ride-sharing company, GoLoco. We need to experiment. The public sector is risk-averse and process-intensive. It simply cannot do the multiple experiments needed to develop nimble new models of transportation. Most of the exciting ideas are emerging in the private sector.
The new models will never replace services like the Red Line or the Dudley Bus — trunk lines that cost-effectively serve thousands of riders every day along heavily-travelled routes. But they will sometimes do a better job at meeting niche needs — very late nights and less heavily-travelled routes.
When transportation innovators offer to meet niche needs, the MBTA needs to be able to say yes. Saying yes means allowing access to bus stops and interior bus stations, sharing data to support improved connections and finding ways to subsidize the new models for people of limited means. In some instances, saying yes will mean abandoning low-efficiency routes to private new-model providers.
People of means are the first to adopt the new models because the new models are more expensive than subsidized public transportation and that’s what we see today — lots of affluent people using Uber. If the new models are to be available to everyone, the MBTA needs to be able to partner with them and make subsidy arrangements for people with lower income.
To allow the MBTA to say yes and form those partnerships easily, the MBTA needs to be at least partially freed from the restraints of the Pacheco law, which was passed in response to the privatization scandals of the last century and requires exhaustive process and pre-approval from the state auditor for any transaction which might move jobs from the public sector to the private sector.