Chart of the Day: Operating Subsidies for Boston Area Transit

OK, so Boston isn’t in Minnesota. But I found this chart on a fascinating discussion of “social stratification in transit” a while ago on the Itinerant Urbanist blog, and thought I’d share it.

Heres’ the chart showing the per-passenger trip subsidies for the different subsets of Metro Boston transit system:

fy15-operating-subsidy philly

Note: If you look at the ridership numbers at the bottom of the chart, you see that the main transit system components are the subway (old-school light rail and heavy rail), bus, and commuter rail. For comparison’s sake, the entire Twin Cities transit system has about 85 million rides, less than a third of the size of Boston’s.

Anyway, the discussion on the Itinerant Urbanist blog revolves around the different rates of subsidy for commuter and “high speed” rail lines in suburban Philadelphia.  Here’s what the author, Sandy Johnston, has to say about the connection between transit modes and social stratification:

Indeed, what Americans call commuter rail is, arguably, a fundamentally inequitable mode reliant on social exclusion.  It’s a high-cost service whose fares are frequently unintegrated with other forms of transit and that runs only frequently enough to be useful to those who have significant flexibility in their schedule, or the privilege to define their own time management. But it has a powerful constituency that keeps it going–and just functional enough to suit their needs.

The fundamental inequity of American transportation policy is the privileging of automobile use and abuse over everything else, but too much of the inegalitarian stratification that defined transit before World War II still persists. Indeed, in some ways it may have gotten worse. And that’s something planners and transit advocates need to address.

Locally, while transit is still a largely marginal activity, this kind of stratification plays out in a few ways. Most obviously there are the “opt-out” buses going to the Southwestern suburbs. These buses are more expensive and segregated both geographically and symbolically from the rest of the system. You also have the “express vs. local” transit infrastructure landscape that, at least until some key stops were finally improved, made it clear in downtown Minneapolis who which kind of rider was a more valued customer.

And though they haven’t been built yet, there are a kind of stratification in the area’s light rail and BRT design and route priorities for the planned Blue, Green, and Gold lines.

PS: Blue, Green and Gold are the colors of the flag of Gabon.

5 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Operating Subsidies for Boston Area Transit

  1. Cameron Slick

    I love we are talking about this, but to be very fair to commuter rail we must recognize that a huge portion of the cost of operating commuter rail is in the transfer from transit coffers of funds to the the privately-owned, for-profit railroads.

    Were the railroads brought under federal or state ownership we could decide democratically the priority of trains, safety investments, and the creation or expansion of an intercity and suburban rail system. With the greatest sunk costs already made (right-of-way, grading, trackage, and signals) and maintained over the last 150 years, major expansion in commuter rail could be made. Is it pie-in-the-sky thinking? A little bit. But to fairly criticize commuter rail we must see that far too much of the cost in operating is enriching the railroads, not merely servicing suburbanites.

  2. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    The chart is interesting, but the social commentary is both unfounded and misdirected. Both Boston’s and Philadelphia’s public transit systems inherited networks of deteriorated privately owned commuter railroads that required a great deal of public financing to restore to a state of good repair. They haul huge numbers of people and without them those metro areas would grind to a halt. They are accessible to all residents, not just some sort of suburban elite. In Philly, they serve numerous center city neighborhoods and three of the lines never leave the city limits. The transit authorities have been breaking down the operational and fare barriers from their days of private ownership that historically isolated them from the city buses and trains.

    You don’t get to wish them away and simultaneously decry the construction of freeways. These railroads are the alternative to more roads. They have made Boston and Philly much more livable.

    1. Nathanael

      Boston’s commuter rail is kind of mismanaged.

      First: it was inherited by MBTA from the private railroads in an exceptionally deteriorated condition — as you note — and thanks to underfunding, they still haven’t brought it back to the state it was in in the 1930s. They’re getting close. Philadelphia (SEPTA) has the same problem to a greater degree.

      Second: MBTA are running diesel locomotives with poor acceleration. This means all the lines are slower than they should be, which increases costs and reduces ridership. Many people have advised that they electrify the lines but they haven’t. SEPTA has electrified lines, which gives their “commuter rail” a huge advantage, and it does have a lower cost structure than the MBTA does.

      Third: There are simply too many employees on the commuter rail. The subway runs trains with one operator; the commuter rail can have four or five ticket-takers per train, and this ratchets the operations cost way up. This is a problem with all “commuter rail” in the US. There are ways to improve this but they have not been seriously tried, thanks to a very old-fashioned stance by the “railroad” unions.

  3. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Interesting, the relatively low subsidies for heavy rail. I suppose you might classify our Blue Line as “new school LRT” while our Green Line resembles the very old Boston Lines built long ago, before Boston wisely went to heavy rail.

    1. Nathanael

      What’s most interesting to me is the low operations cost per rider for the ferries. Boston has the only ferry system in the nation with such efficient ferries. Usually ferries are way up there with higher costs than commuter rail (they are in Seattle, they are in New York).

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