Improving MBTA Bus Service without Privatization 

TransitMatters supports efforts to improve Boston’s transit network by making targeted investments to increase capacity on the busiest and most useful MBTA services. If the goal of the Financial Management & Control Board (“FMCB”) is to reallocate existing vehicles while also contracting for additional vehicles to run on low-ridership routes – representing a net increase in MBTA bus service – we strongly support increased service. However, all available evidence indicates privatization is neither necessary nor helpful, and we believe that service should be publicly operated in order to remain accountable and responsible to the public interest. Many solutions exist for improving service without changing the operator. 

Existing Conditions

Most of the busiest MBTA bus routes fail to meet the needs of residents, employees and visitors, as they are slow, arrive irregularly and can be severely overcrowded. Service levels have not kept pace with rapid ridership increases as population and employment soar, yet worsening traffic congestion has increased bus travel times.

At the same time, the MBTA operates several routes that are predictably low-ridership services and/or do not meet the needs of the community well. The design of low-density environments makes transit service - or any public infrastructure, from sewer lines to fire protection to bus networks - expensive to provide and difficult to maintain high service standards. However, because public transportation provides critical basic mobility, we subsidize a comprehensive transit network and do not expect it to operate like a private business.

Improving Low-Ridership & Express Services

We support experimenting with flexible services, pulse point hubs, shuttles, community circulators, social service partnerships and other non-traditional service delivery methods which may be more efficient and effective, but there are more important changes we can make now even with traditional fixed routes. Many suburban MBTA services have significant room for improvement, such as long trip times, long waits, low on-time performance and the need for a second fare. Many towns lack proper waiting areas, sidewalks and safe street crossings. All routes lack coordinated connections with other lines, requiring long waits and making these pieces of the transit network minimally useful and largely unreliable.

Express routes suffer from many of the same issues, notably the inconvenient and dangerous major stop in Newton Corner. They also lack dedicated street and highway lanes that would make them faster and encourage car drivers to shift to buses. A private carrier could operate the service with nicer “coach” buses – which the T could do also – but it could not eliminate these challenges.

Late Night Service

Much like lightly used daytime routes, late night service is by definition a low-ridership service designed specifically to support those whose lifestyles require them to be traveling overnight. It is a critical component of a transit network that supports unlimited mobility and the ability to live or work in the city without a car. Research shows that bus passengers rely on having transit available all day, even at times they don’t plan to travel, so they are not left stranded if their plans change. Late night service is an example of service that is important to many people who seldom or never use it, representing a comprehensive network of mobility options.

We advocate for a limited system of specially designed overnight routes – similar to Philadelphia’s Night Owl, Toronto’s Blue Night Network or San Francisco’s All Nighter – to operate from approximately midnight to 6am. With a special focus on geographic coverage and time-based passenger demand, overnight routes will not necessarily be the same as daytime key routes, but will be efficient and effective and incorporate existing late night and early bird routes. Overnight service will never be profitable but, like other low-ridership service, there are compelling environmental, safety, social justice and equity reasons to support all night service.

Addressing Core System Challenges Without New Revenue

On many corridors, buses move more people than all other vehicles, yet service quality has declined as increasing traffic congestion and overcrowding strain the MBTA’s ability to keep services frequent and reliable. Many trips require indirect routing with multiple transfers and can often be long and unpredictable. Not only is local and regional travel challenging for passengers; it is very expensive to provide.

A study of bus service in the UK showed that a 1 percent change in travel time is associated with approximately 0.8 percent change in costs. Strategies like off-board fare collection, signal priority and dedicated bus lanes have been shown to reduce travel times by as much as 30 percent in New York City, requiring fewer buses per route. A collaborative effort to systematically reduce travel times, improve on-time performance, implement transit priority measures on streets and highways and implement off-board fare collection on all buses and trolleys would dramatically reduce operating costs, increase ridership and free many vehicles to increase frequency on overcrowded lines. Compared to these potential improvements, changing the operator is essentially picking at the margins.

While privatization does not stop rising costs, increasing congestion or declining ridership, we can provide faster and more efficient service by focusing instead on service quality issues.