Raising Fares on Boston’s Subway for Safety and Reliability

Posted: December 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, Transit | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Boston’s subway plays a critical role for the city. Despite a fare increase in 2007 and receiving a dedicated portion of the state’s sales tax, in recent years the agency’s tight budget (driven partly by labor, health care, and energy costs) has prevented needed maintenance and upgrades. With many of the system’s cars nearing the end of their operating lives, it is only a matter of time before service reliability and safety are impacted even more. For these reasons, the MBTA is expected to begin the process of raising fares in January.

In my view, political unwillingness to raise fares has resulted in a situation where the safety, comfort, and convenience of riders are threatened. Fares should be raised, and the additional revenue used for maintenance and upgrades to tracks and train cars. Many of the T’s riders are middle and upper class — and can afford fares that are closer to the true cost of the service. However, I also support creating discounted fares and passes for low-income residents.

To be clear, this is a second-best solution to creating new broad-based taxes that are less sensitive to economic cycles than the sales tax (such as those used in Paris). However the political resistance to raising or increasing any taxes, as well as a widespread “user pay” principle in U.S. transportation means fares will remain a significant source of revenue. As described below, my analysis suggests increasing fares in Boston may reduce ridership slightly, but not result in a “death spiral” of declining ridership and revenue sometimes seen in other cities.

A common objection to raising fares is that it will encourage more people to drive to work. According to an analysis I completed for a class project last spring, the system’s relatively low price elasticity means this effect will be muted for most of the core subway system. This low elasticity is probably due to the high cost of parking in most of Boston and the low existing fares (compared to the price of other transportation options).

In a class paper, I investigated what the effect of increasing the MBTA fare to a new flat rate of either $2.00 or $2.25, or implementing the distance-based or peak fare structure used by Washington, D.C.’s WMATA Metrorail. Below are links to a presentation summary and the original paper.

To do the study, I applied elasticities estimated by the state’s Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) after a 2007 fare restructuring. Using the Automated Fare Collection system data, I made assumptions about where passengers traveled to using the pattern of morning and evening boardings. I found current riders pay different prices based on the fare type:

  • CharlieCard fare: $1.70
  • Monthly LinkPass average: $1.13
  • Systemwide average: $1.26

An important finding is the very low average price being paid by owners of the LinkPass for each trip. Because of the relatively low elasticity for subway trips and popularity of passes resulting in low effective fares, increasing fares would generate substantial additional revenue but also possibly decrease ridership. Note I assume all riders would pay the new fare, if there remains a subsidy for pass holders the magnitudes would be smaller.

New Fare Revenue Change Ridership Change
Peak-of-peak only ($0.20 surcharge) 3% -1.5%
$2.00 44% -10%
$2.25 58% -12%
WMATA Distance-Based Fares 52% -10%

I did consider equity considerations in the paper, however it is difficult to analyze without rider-level data. Distance-based fares would result in dramatic increases in total fares for outlying stations.

For comparison, I completed a quick survey of the cash fare for large, center-city subway and light rail systems (as of August 2011). The results are uniformly higher than the average price paid by MBTA riders, and all except Los Angeles are higher than the $1.70 paid by most per-trip riders in Boston.

  • New York City – $2.25
  • Chicago – $2.25
  • Salt Lake City (LR) – $2.25
  • Denver (LR) – $2.25 – $5
  • Miami – $2
  • Philadelphia – $2.00
  • Washington, D.C. – $1.95 – $5
  • Dallas (LR) – $1.75 – $5
  • Los Angeles – $1.50

Interestingly I may have been too conservative in my analysis, as some of the flat fares discussed here are even higher than those I tested. I hope the results of the analysis mentioned in this article are made public, and compromise options such as low-income subsidies are put on the table for consideration.


Could the Big Dig Have Cost Less?

Posted: July 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, Public Policy, Transportation | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

As the parks it created finally fill with activity and the project fades from newspaper headlines, Boston’s Big Dig is subtly slipping into the city’s history.

Officially known as the Central Artery Bridge/Tunnel Project, the Big Dig buried an elevated freeway in downtown Boston and added a new freeway tunnel under Boston Harbor connecting Logan Airport to the city’s urban core.

Most of all, the project is known for its delays (over 15 years of construction) and huge price tag: over $14.6 billion, a total of roughly $22 billion with interest. The cost overruns were so severe it was responsible for temporarily cutting off the state’s Federal highway funding, dozens of lawsuits, and was even featured multiple times on NBC Nightly News’ regular feature “The Fleecing of America.”

Commonwealth politicians are content to put it the project behind them, trying to distance themselves from any involvement. Urbanists, meanwhile, are eager to point out the project’s many accomplishments. Downtown property values have increased, new parks have been created, and developers are beginning the work of re-knitting urban neighborhoods long divided by the unsightly highway. Reduced gridlock has improved urban air quality, and the harbor tunnel has improved access to the airport for transit riders (through the Silver Line) and motorists alike.

However, one unanswered question lurks in the air: could the Big Dig have cost less?

Like any historical counterfactual, a definitive answer is impossible. However, much could be revealed through a detailed case study. What delays were avoidable? What complications did the engineers overlook? Is there any evidence cost estimates were deliberately manipulated? Should the partnership between the Turnpike Authority and Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff been differently designed to improve accountability? Could the project’s 144 separate construction contracts have been written differently? Were Federal highway standards or environmental laws responsible for excessive costs? In short, could changes to the underlying public policy structure have resulted in different costs and construction time? To my knowledge, these questions have not been deeply examined by scholars. If any readers are aware of studies, please post them below.

The result may not be nefarious scheming by greedy contractors. In fact, scholar Bent Flyvbjerg has argued major causes of cost overruns are systematic under-estimation of costs due to political pressure, and a failure to properly account for the inevitable risks that occur as a result of the complexity of megaprojects.

Interstate I-93 Tunnel in Boston, part of the ...

Image via Wikipedia

Far from a matter of historical interest, the high cost of transportation infrastructure is a pressing policy issue in a state currently spending $3 billion re-build bridges and planning an extension of the city’s Green Line, among other proposed projects. The high cost of transportation projects was raised recently on an email list operated by the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, in a thread grousing about the $600,000 price for a bike cage and high cost estimates for the Green Line extension. The issue provoked a rare response from the Commonwealth’s Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey Mullan himself, who denied the costs were inflated or the bidding process is faulty. Although the message concedes “things cost a lot; unacceptably so sometimes,” the post omits any speculation as to why.

Perhaps one day the question will be subject to the scrutiny it deserves.

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Nostalgia is Not Urban Planning

Posted: March 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, Pedestrian Space, Urban Development | 1 Comment »

A cover story in yesterday’s Boston Globe asked “Would car traffic bring back the crowds?” for Boston’s historic retail district Downtown Crossing. A partial pedestrian mall since 1978 (commercial traffic is allowed), the Globe pondered whether the “solution” to the neighborhood’s woes would be a return of automobile traffic. The story quotes business owners who recall busier days in the 60s and 70s:

“There was a constant flow of cars, stopping and going; it was very active, very busy, like a typical city street,” said Steve Centamore, co-owner since 1965 of Bromfield Camera Co., on Bromfield Street, part of which is open only to commercial traffic. “There were people coming and going. It didn’t seem to impede any pedestrians. It was a lot busier. People could just pull up and get what they needed. Now, it takes an act of Congress to even get through here.”

Formerly the home to two large department stores (Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, today Macy’s remains at the Jordan Marsh site) the neighborhood has long been a major retail hub, home to hundreds of retail stores. However the district has lost its historic luster. The redevelopment of the huge old Filene’s building fell through last fall, leaving a literal gaping hole in the neighborhood after construction work stopped abruptly. A number of storefronts are vacant, and a stabbing and shooting last fall remains fresh in people’s minds. Nevertheless the area remains busy by day with thousands of people crowding city streets.

The problem with the Globe’s proposal is that it completely ignores the massive transformation in the region that explain the changes in Downtown Crossing. In 1970, 23% of the metropolitan area’s population lived in the City of Boston. Today, barely 10% of the region’s population live within the city limits. Since 1976 dozens of shopping centers, malls, and other retail space has opened outside of downtown Boston. As an example, just across the Charles River and several T Stops from Downtown Crossing the Cambridgeside Galleria opened in 1990. Its 120 stores include a 44,837 square foot Best Buy, 23,767 square foot Borders, 122,445 square foot Macy’s, 22,419 square foot Macy’s Home Store, and 120,570 square foot Sears. The point is that the city’s population has dispersed and there has been an explosion in competition for Downtown Crossing, even within the city itself.

The Filene’s building should be rehabbed, storefronts should be filled, and the area can and should be spruced up. However, Downtown Crossing will never again regain its historic role as a regional shopping hub. With or without re-opening the streets to cars.

> Boston Globe: Would Car Traffic Bring Back the Crowds?

  1970   2007   Change, 2007-1970
Boston   641,071   608,352   -32,719
Metro Area (MSA)   2,753,700   5,977,504   3,223,804
Boston population as percent of MSA   23%   10%   -13%

Data sources: 1970 Census, Census 2007 Population Estimates

Flickr photos by Wallyg, and deafredbear.

Where the (Brick) Sidewalk Ends

Posted: January 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, District of Columbia, Pedestrian Space, Urban Development | 12 Comments »

I was in Harvard Square one evening last fall when I light rain began falling. A girl dashed out of a convenience store doorway, hurrying for an unknown reason. Turning the corner she abruptly slipped and fell on the brick sidewalk. No quicker than she had fallen she jumped up, unhurt, to continue on her way. Yesterday in Downtown Crossing, a man using crutches slipped on wet and snowy brick just as I left my office. These incident are repeated thousands of times in Boston and around the nation, at times resulting in injury. Sidewalk slips are commonplace, yet illustrates the complex ethics of contemporary urban planning. The material that contributed to these falls, brick, has many well-known flaws including a low friction coefficient when wet. However in the convoluted calculus of sidewalk materials, the grip of material surface inevitably falls behind a host of other factors.

From the point of view of pedestrians, there’s not much to like about brick sidewalks. When wet they’re often slippery. Bricks easily become uneven or loose due to tree roots or uneven soil, complicating shoveling and leading to tripping. The uneven surface can be treacherous for bikers, strollers, or the impaired. Some even point out they can easily become projectiles in the hands of miscreants. Yet brick remains a common material throughout many cities. Boston’s tourist meccas, Faneuil Hall’s plazas, Downtown Crossing’s streets, and even the Freedom Trail itself are made from brick. In Washington, D.C., miles of new brick sidewalks have been installed in the past few years in some of the city’s busiest pedestrian corridors.

P Street StreetscapingNot everyone agrees with the brick critics. Commenting on a neighborhood newspaper’s story, titled “bricks bring worries for some pedestrians,” the Washington City Paper‘s sharp-tongued editor Erik Wemple rejects the complaints of a scooter-bound disability rights advocate quoted in the story and declares, “Brick sidewalks are one of the greatest ever streetscape accomplishments of the District government.” He neglects to mention that for recent streetscape projects, city contractors lay bricks on top of a solid pored slab of concrete, essentially building two complete sidewalk surfaces on top of each other. This approach combines the stability of cement with the aesthetics of brick, perhaps by sacrificing cost. (Government waste is another City Paper favorite topic)

Rubbersidewalks - Before and After

Arguing they save money, trees, help recycle automobile tires, and create a superior walking surface, one California company is marketing rubber sidewalks. (Illustrated above) Despite a flurry of interest in 2006 (including here in Boston), the concept doesn’t have seemed to catch on in a big way, with local installations limited to a smattering across the country. The company’s own comparison chart may suggest the reason: it costs over $19 a square foot, versus an estimated $15 for concrete or $5-$8 for asphalt. I suspect other reasons are to blame, including the slow pace of change by municipal officials that make material decisions. The perceived pertinence and durability of cement may trump the actual durability, to say nothing about the demand for bricks based solely on aesthetics. Just the term “rubber sidewalk” conjures up images of a tactile, bouncy surface inappropriate for a city street.

figure432sidewalksThe Federal Highway Administration’s report on designing sidewalks and trails orders sidewalk surfaces should be slip resistant under dry conditions (illustrated by this diagram), concluding “most asphalt and concrete surfaces are fairly slip resistant.” A Canadian report (Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Sidewalk Design, Construction and Maintenance) advises municipalities:

In choosing the material for the sidewalk, consideration should also be given to materials that are non-slip and provide adequate drainage, as well as the requirements of users with strollers, inline skates and also the visually and mobility impaired.

The report doesn’t even mention brick, but includes this list of factors for material selection conspicuously omitting safety: life cycle cost (initial construction cost, maintenance cost), durability, service life, location, maintenance, color (concrete reflects more light), vandalism during curing (pre-cast pavers), runoff potential. Just about the only people I can find considering safety in a serious way is the website of a odd advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia, who complain about the rough surfaces create by bricks, cobblestones, course aggregate, and other materials.

Slippery sidewalks have become a problem, sparking legal action in that very pedestrian city, New York. A 1981 story in the New York Times describes how “new” materials like travertine and terazzo were slippery and resulting in lawsuits from people who fell on them breaking bones and suffering other serious injuries. According to the story, lawyers “in negligence suits, such cases are on the rise as a result of the wider use of a variety of materials for sidewalks to obtain a more esthetic effect than concrete provides.” A “noted” negligence attorney quoted in the story describes how he usually sues the property owner, not the architect or city, for putting down a defective sidewalk, noting adding the city to lawsuits “complicates” them.

With so many complex factors influencing sidewalk materials floating around, we should add the factor of local control. During a walking tour of Washington, D.C.’s H Street neighborhood last year, our guide told us how the most important factor in sidewalk materials was how well it resisted unsightly stains caused by chewing gum. They opted for a cement aggregate, rather than a plain concrete face or brick. Like in many issues, given the uncertain ethical calculus for sidewalks (how should professionals weigh aesthetics, cost, safety, vandalism potential, tree health effects, etc?) city planners defer to the preferences of active local residents. And if those who prefer a higher friction coefficient on wet days aren’t present, so be it.

In Harvard Square near where I witnessed the fall this fall, another person fell in October and was transported to the hospital for stitches. Maryan Amaral, a wheelchair user who frequents the area and witnessed the accident, convinced the City of Cambridge to re-build the sidewalk and crosswalk on the street after collecting 125 signatures on a petition. Happy with the new crosswalk ramps, she’s concerned about the material the city chose, however, pointing out that brick sidewalks often come loose. A lone comment on the online version of the news article about the case begs, “Please, let’s get rid of the brick sidewalks. I know some like their historic charm, but they’re just terrible in the ice and snow, both because they’re difficult to clear and because they tend ice over more readily than concrete. They’re also terrible for the handicapped.” Maybe the next petition will take up the issue.

> Federal Highway Administration: Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access
> Cambridge Chronicle: Complaint Triggers Appian Way Rehab
> Book: Slip and Fall Prevention

Thanks to my friend Katie Mencarini with the Toole Design Group for help doing research for this post. Photos from Flickr users Lodigs and Supergiball

Mass. Survey Finds Nearly One-Quarter of Distressed Homeowners Obtain Loan Modifications

Posted: November 16th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, Housing, Massachusetts, Mortgages | Comments Off

An intriguing new survey by the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations finds that nearly one-quarter of homeowners facing foreclosure who sought counseling were able to obtain a loan modification from their mortgage lender. Drawing from 1,143 people who have sought assistance from non-profit agencies providing housing counseling, the survey also contains information about the percentage of successful resolutions, an overall satisfaction rating by counselors, and a letter grade.

Mass. Mortgage Scorecard

An interesting study would compare these results with people who have not sought assistance from a counselor to measure the role of this assistance. I’m also curious about the nature of the loan modifications. Nonetheless it presents a window to what’s happening at the local level – thousands of homeowners facing hard choices and negotiating with lenders to find solutions.

> Boston Globe: “Lenders graded on response to troubled homeowners”

Boston Work

Posted: September 7th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, Regional Planning, Site Announcements | 6 Comments »

I thought I would note here that I recently moved to Boston, and last week started work as a Research Analyst at the Boston Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a planning agency that represents 101 cities and towns in the metropolitan Boston region. I’ll be working in the agency’s Data Center, as well as on the interactive mapping website MetroBoston DataCommon they operate with several partner organizations.

Moving to Boston

Posted: July 14th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, Site Announcements | 6 Comments »

I thought I would announce here I will be moving to Boston in September, as Saturday I signed a lease on a Cambridge apartment. My girlfriend Libby will be starting Harvard Law School and I am looking for planning work. Any assistance or advice regarding either endeavor is welcome.

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