The Boston mass transit system and government user fees in general

Last year, the Boston subway and bus system (MBTA) used tokens and cost $1.25 per ride. Today, with my car as frozen solid as a JetBlue Airbus at JFK, I decided to take the subway up to Davis Square. They have bought fancy new magnetic debit card machines. You don’t have to carry metal tokens anymore. The cost of a ride, however, has gone up to $2. This illustrates nicely one of the problems with user fees for government services. The government agency starts out by being spectacularly inefficient (MBTA bus drivers, for example, got paid an average of $55,000 in 2004, plus free health insurance and a pension plan vastly superior to anything in private industry). Then they decide that they need to collect user fees of $X. Then they come up with a system for collecting those user fees that turns out to be surprisingly expensive. Then the usage of the system falls due to the higher price. So it turns out that the fee collected per use ends up needing to be double what was originally planned, just to yield the same net revenue.

The deeper question for me is why the subway and bus system in congested Boston charges riders at all. Anyone who rides the subway instead of driving is doing the rest of society a huge favor by reducing pollution, global warming, and traffic congestion. The total revenues from bus and subway riders in FY2005 was roughly $240 million. We have at least 1 million cars that operate in Boston for 250 working days per year. If we charged drivers $5 per day per car as a congestion reduction fee, or about 1/4 the fee charged in London, that would yield revenue roughly 3X the MBTA token/card sales (assuming that the congestion fee and free MBTA reduced car usage by 40 percent).

If we paid the true costs of our transportation lifestyle, car owners would pay at least $5 per day for driving in the city and T riders would get free coffee and donuts as a thank-you.

22 thoughts on “The Boston mass transit system and government user fees in general

  1. Careful what you wish for when you cite London as an example! Single fair on the subway for a typical 2.5 mile journey is $7.80, though if you use an electronic card rather than cash it is half that.

  2. A small correction regarding the subway fare–if you use the plastic RFID card, it’s only $1.70. (That’s also the most convenient way to pay–you don’t even have to take it out of your wallet).

    The plastic card also issues automatic transfers between subway and bus. As a result, the round-trip fare between Central Square and Hanscom Field has actually declined under the new system (from $5.60 to $3.40).

  3. And add to that $5 per day if you park at Alewife. (One) problem is that subsidized user fees for mass transit and the like are unpopular in many of the same circles who don’t consider all the money we spend on roads as a subsidy. To be fair, much of the highway construction comes out of gas taxes. However, I agree with your basic point.

  4. It’s a great idea! One problem might be the 40% decrease in auto usage could mean a similar increase in transit usage. Would that make the train system more expensive? Would city entrance fees cover the cost?

    I guess my main question is: does public transit get cheaper with more ridership? I’m sure someone’s researched this, but I don’t know the answer. I do know that the cost of cars and highways seems to increase in proportion, or more, to usage. When you consider long-term environmental impact, costs of the auto lifestyle might increase exponentially with usage. This seems like an interesting mathematical relationship to study, but I can’t find much on Google.

  5. The standard, liberal, political line against congestion fees is that the rich won’t notice, but it will really hurt the poor.

    I think the fee to come into Manhattan across any bridge or tunnel should be twenty-five dollars. I think you would get a much nicer traffic pattern in the city itself this way. The same should be true of Boston, but since it isn’t an island it is harder to police.

    London’s fees are circumvented all the time by people who know where the cameras are, or where they are blocked by vegetation.

  6. It gets even worse out in the suburbs. From downtown Waltham inbound, your T options are a $4.75 commuter-rail ride, a $4 express bus, or an endless $1.25 local bus. While the CharlieCard system eliminates the need for exact coin-based change on the express bus ($8 in quarters each day!), you’re right on regarding the counterproductivity of mass-transit fares. I’m curious, though — do any cities have free mass transit?

    Oh, and the swipe at T drivers seems out of place. $55k/year is not too far out of whack for someone with a CDL and the proper endorsements for bus driving in a high-stress driving environment. Generous, yes, but not insane.

  7. An influential nonpartisan planning group here in SF called SPUR just proposed studying free bus/subway service (Muni) on at least some routes, pointing out the savings from fare collection and, more importantly, the fact that buses would complete their routes faster without the ‘fare collection/pass verification’ step for reach rider (this is where the real money lies apprently). This also grows ridership, of course.

    I just went looking for their report but could not find it.

    The main downside raised is the theory that this could result in a lot of (possibly mentally unstable or drug addicted) people riding the bus lines all day, so the report recommended (iirc) that any study consider limiting the free policy to relatively busy lines, though this has downsides of its own.

    Car fees are already under serious consideration by the city (immediate revenue opportunities being more readily attractive apparently than short term revenue losses!)

  8. Hi Philip,

    Just wanted to say one thing: awesome idea.

    Never having been in Boston, I don’t know if the transit system would be ready for the massive influx of people… (okay, that was 2 things…)

  9. Spot on! Here someone observes whatwe run transportation with the re

    Spot on! Here someone observes what would happen if restaurants were run like the transportation system.

    In addition to the costs of roads and stuff, most of the cost of using a car is considered to be capitalized, fixed, or recurrent rather than per-use. So people think of a trip in the car as “free,” but a subway hits them with $4 in fares. Of course, parking is usually more than $4 in a city.

    Another angle is the whole drinking and driving issue: both the social costs associated with drunk driving accidents and the lost tax revenues from people like me who frequently avoid ordering alcohol due to having to drive.

  10. I don’t see why this isn’t the future. I’ve been ranting about this for years and posted on it here and here among other places. When I testified at the T hearing at the BPL, the reaction was similar…much applause and some whiner saying it would never happen as I left.

    It’s right. It’s reasonable. We heavily subsidize road building and billions a year in automobile-related costs, not counting the health damages. A free T by contrast would be an incredible bargain.

    We crackpots need to advocate on this. I’m trying to find academics who are researching the full costs of using cars and trucks. Nearly all of that is hidden and would be the basis for calls to action.

    If we truly want move livable, healthy cities, we need free mass transit.

  11. To Colin’s comment… I read someplace (maybe NYT) that Manhattan has become the new suburb. Much of the traffic on the island now comes from people living there, often transplanted suburbanites. A have your cake and eat it too phenomenon. Obviously tons of people still come across the bridges and $25 is very reasonable for what is becoming the worlds largest amusement park. I mean, Disney World must be well over $75 by now…

  12. Philip, why not just accept the truth that almost any government run enterprise will be inherently poorly managed, and instead advocate “dollar vans” (see: ) which require no government involvement or expenditure. All that would be required would be the passing of a few ordinances. The electricity needed to move the large rail cars and the energy expended on excavation and massive amounts of concrete surely outweigh the impact that dollar vans would have on the road.

  13. Portland, Oregon has a system of light rail transit. MAX operates like a streetcar in the downtown core, stopping to let passengers off at short intervals. When it gets to the edge of the city, it becomes more like a regional commuter train service, running express between widely-spaced stations.

    When I visited in ’98, there was a chunk of the downtown core of Portland where MAX was fare-free, and I gather this is still the case. This policy can’t be displacing much commuter traffic, because it’d be easy to walk from one end of the fare-free zone to the other. It’s more likely that vehicular commuters are diverted to light rail by the lack of parking and the cramped streets in downtown Portland.

  14. Great idea until you realize that public transportation covers less than 1% (my estimate, probably less than even that) of the places people need to go. Also taxes paid by the “car riders” already substantially subsidize the public transportation system in Boston. If you were able to drive everyone to public transportation, that great source of tax revenue would dry up forcing riders to pay their way anyway, thru fares or taxes. There is no free ride, nor is anyone entitled to one, contrary to what Hillary, Ted and Kerry say.

  15. Anon: The Boston public transit system could handle quite a few more people. In any case, even though the MBTA pays about the highest salaries in the U.S. for public sector workers, it is still comparatively cheap to buy some more cars and hire drivers if you look at the cost of laying down track.

    Patrick: I don’t think Alex would like riding in a dollar van compared to spreading out on the Red Line (Boston has one of the only dog-friendly public transit systems in the U.S.). We’re a rich enough city that we don’t have to do everything at minimum cost. And I don’t want a dollar van blocking my path any more than a private car. We’ve got the tunnels and the rails. I want to see more cars added to those rails until the streets are cleared out.

    Paul: Your 1% estimate doesn’t seem accurate. New York City has more than 2% of the nation’s population, for example, and every neighborhood is served by public transit. No New Yorker ever needs to go anywhere not served by public transit. Here in Boston the T carries more than 1 million riders per day, which is 0.3% of the American population. Chicago’s core transit system delivers about 2.5 million rides every weekday. When you talk about “free rides” and people “paying their way”, you’ve missed my point. This isn’t a scheme to benefit the poor by saving them $2. This is a scheme to benefit the rich, whose time is precious to them, by unclogging the roads. It would be sort of nice to have a $400,000 Maybach car and a driver, for example, but I would rather have a Honda Accord and a guarantee that it will never take more than 15 minutes to get anywhere within Route 128 (our ring highway) and never more than 5 minutes to get from point to point within central Boston.

  16. I remember reading about an online service somewhere (back in the bbs era). It had, at one point, been free, and then overuse forced the operator to begin charging. The story is that the user community immediate increased in quality.
    I had also heard that a significant part of Guiliani’s “broken windows” clean-up of new york was a crackdown on turnstyle jumping. From what I gather from a New Yorker, the simple act of charging for and enforcing a modest fee signifcantly improved the utility of the transit system for riders by removing a number of people that used the effectively-free transit system for a number of other purposes. I’m not familiar with the geography of boston, but I can tell you that the S.F. Bay Area’s transit system, “BART” generally has fees that make $2 look very reasonable. That’s not to say that it’s not something of a boondoggle, as it’s signifcantly subsidised.
    I’ve never bought that “true costs” argument. People seem to drive as much in places with higher gas taxes and toll roads as they do in places with lower costs.

  17. Here in Colorado, we have had a system for the past few years that comes as close as I’ve seen to free transit. Employers (including several very large ones, such as the University of Colorado) pay the transit system for a full transit pass for all employees (and all students in the case of universities). Even some neighborhoods and employment districts are involved in the program, which means that all residents/employees have transit passes whether they want them or not: they have to buy it for everyone or no one. Riding transit in Boulder, I’d estimate that 90% of the passengers are not paying directly for the ride. Having moved from NYC (and lived in Chicago and Boston), it’s a real paradigm shift: hopping on the bus versus not has no cost at all so the psychological barrier is reduced to near zero.

    So, has it sent droves of people to transit? Well, for a medium-sized Western city we have quite high transit ridership. But the problem is that the transit system consists exclusively of buses operating on city streets (with the exception of the express service to Denver, which uses an HOV lane much of the way), so the bus is guaranteed to be slower than driving. On the university campus, where parking is scarce and incompentently managed, the transit system has a high share of commuter traffic (probably in the 25% range, maybe more), as does bicycling and walking. Downtown workers probably arrive by bus in similar numbers, once again mostly because of managed parking.

    But all other employment and shopping centers (especially those in the growing sprawl belt beyond Boulder’s greenbelt) have abundant free parking, and hence buildings are far apart and nearly everyone drives. The Catch-22 is that if most people rode transit, everyone could get where they’re going faster — but a free bus alone isn’t a big incentive for a middle-class individual to switch since the bus is going to get stuck in the same traffic as a car, and then get delayed further by stopping for other passengers: the extra time is worth more than the two bucks for most people anyway.

    I don’t see a large-scale solution without the following three improvements: 1) Get most riders onto passes (as here) or just make the ride free so people don’t have the inconvenience and annoyance of paying per ride, 2) give transit its own right-of-way (like a rail system, which is supposed to be built here in the next few years), and 3) get rid of “free” parking almost everywhere, make parking lots smaller, and cluster buildings better so pedestrian access to and from the transit station is more attractive. Fat chance on number 3: highway interchange developments separated by oceans of free parking are going up all over the place.

  18. I lived in Brighton for a few years off the B line. I routinely drove instead of the T because while getting into the office in the morning was fine, getting home in the afternoon was horrible. The reason, we passed by the BU stops on the line, and the B-line is free outbound once you get above ground. As a result, people that took the BU shuttle-busses to get to class (free for BU students), took the MBTA on the way back (free for everyone), so the trains filled and ground to a halt in the afternoon/evening.

    Of course, a doubling of B-line trains would have no double solved this problem, as would careful expressing of trains. However, since the B-line catered to students and young 20-somethings that hadn’t established themselves as voters, it was basically abandoned. The Orange line was similarly treated poorly.

    The only reason you think that “free T” would solve problems in Boston is if the only times you take the T are the Red-line and the Green line between Government Center and Copley (or maybe Kenmore if being generous). The MBTA does a wonderful job of getting wealthy people to cambridge, in from the suburbs to downtown (Alewife -> red-line), and those same people to Red Sox games, but for everyone else, it’s sweaty barely AC’d cars, standing room only, etc.

  19. An unlimited bus and subway pass costs $59/mo. My employer pays for part of this (close to 50%), then the rest comes out of my pretax income. It’s a great deal.

    Dollar vans don’t sound like a good idea. If I wanted to ride a vehicle on surface streets with other people, I’d take the bus. I don’t understand why we have to accept that government run enterprises will be horrible. Privatization sure didn’t help the tube (

  20. Phil,

    You’re right, I guess I totally missed your point and to be honest I like the idea. My 1% number is probably way off, but I was thinking more in terms of mass transit’s convenience to where people need to go, versus population access. Another thing we must consider here is that during the work week a large part of the traffic in Boston (and other large cities) is non-residents who commute long distances to get to Boston. Most of them are not conveniently served by Mass Transit.
    My belief is that for any transit system (I include automobiles here) to be a success it must be convenient and affordable. By convenient I mean easy access from home, quick and reliable and within a reasonable distance of where you wish to go. While present mass transit systems meet these requirements for some people, the car overwhelmingly beats mass transit for most other people.
    Being the free market capitalist that I am, I think when someone or some company develops a Jetson style system things will change. The system would have a “pod” that can be summoned to your home, you enter the pod, tell it your destination, it automatically transports you to a super high speed pathway which delivers the pod close to your destination, the pod exits the pathway and continues to the door of your destination where you exit. All this would be done without human control. When something like this is developed and implemented the car will be destined to the same fate as the horse and buggy, until then I think we’re stuck.

  21. i love the idea! in miami traffic is getting worse and worse but the developers who profit live on the water!

    tax the cars! ride for free! i LOVE it.

  22. Man… I live in the bay area in california and I gotta say, Id be so happy to have a system that only charged 1.70 or even 2.00 per ride.
    BART over here costs 1.50 for the shortest trip and incrementally goes up to 6.90 for the longest one way trip.
    Personally it costs me 6.60 roundtrip to go 10 miles out, and 10 miles back. I pay twice as much as I would out in MA.
    Be happy its only 2.00, it could be a lot worse.

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