Transportation in Metro Boston: few topics generate as much frustration, conversation, and prognostication. No matter how they get around, many residents of the region feel a growing concern that our transportation system is on the “wrong track.” Everyone agrees that getting the system back on track is essential to creating a prosperous, sustainable, and equitable region. We’ll never be able to grow our economy, protect our environment, or ensure access to opportunity for all our neighbors without a strong transportation system. MAPC’s regional plan MetroFuture: Making a Greater Boston Region, adopted in 2008, established a strategic framework for how to do that: coordinate land use and transportation planning, create more choices for how people get around, invest strategically and deliver services efficiently, and ensure that the system is safe and reliable for all users. Implementing these strategies requires action at a variety of levels: state, regional, local, and personal. MetroFuture also set forth ambitious and specific objectives that the region should aim to achieve, with the intention of measuring whether the region is “on-track” to meet the plan’s goals, and to determine whether more needs to be done in the way of a course correction.
Some changes in the transportation system can be measured on a day-to-day basis, including the on-time reliability of transit service, or the level of congestion on the region’s highways. But the monumental change that our transportation system needs to undergo in order to be truly sustainable will take decades to achieve, through strategies such as reoriented land use patterns, sustained infrastructure investment, and changes in the way people interact with the system. Even though these processes may occur slowly, they can be measured. Sustainable Transportation Indicators—a collaborative effort of MAPC and the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy—seek to do just that. These indicators serve as high-level measures of the region’s transportation performance. In conjunction with other short-term measures of performance and user experience, they can let us know whether we are on track to meet the region’s transportation goals for the year 2030.
The results, as documented below, are decidedly mixed. Surging transit ridership, an explosion in bicycle commuting, and robust housing and job growth in transportation-efficient locations all point to the clear preference for more sustainable transportation options in the region. Yet we face challenges. Our transit systems struggle to meet ridership demands, our pedestrian and bike infrastructure does not provide the safety and convenience that people deserve, and the costs of getting around—in terms of time and money—are borne disproportionately by the region’s low-income residents. While state and regional transportation spending has become more strategic and targeted in recent years, it remains insufficient to maintain current assets, much less build the system we need for the future.
Public transit, which includes buses, the subway, ferries, and the commuter railroad, is a crucial part of Metro Boston’s transportation network. The region’s transit system - one of the oldest and largest in the country - provides residents, commuters, and visitors a viable alternative to driving. The presence of an extensive transit network benefits the region and its residents in many ways beyond basic mobility and access. Public transportation is an environmentally friendly way to travel, especially compared to private vehicles. Public transit vehicles carry many passengers at the same time which reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and congestion by moving drivers out of their cars. Taking public transit is also considerably cheaper than driving; therefore a strong transit system can translate into cost savings for those who have access to it. Both of these topics, reduced congestion and gas emissions and cost savings, are explored in greater detail in subsequent sections.
Transit ridership in the Greater Boston region has experienced slow but consistent growth. Ridership in Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has grown by nearly 16% annually since 2002. This is despite a particularly harsh 2014/2015 winter which caused drastic reductions in service and ridership and exposed major deficiencies in system resiliency. The Boston region ranks fourth among major metropolitan areas in the country in terms of number of transit rides per capita. Transit comprises a significant share of commute miles in the major employment centers within the Inner Core, and paratransit service is meeting agency expectations in terms of on-time service performance. Ridership in other Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) in the Commonwealth, which together provide service to many municipalities outside of the MBTA service area, is also growing. In fact, most RTA’s appear to be increasing their service hours to handle the increased demand.
Despite increased ridership, the MBTA has not increased its service hours by any significant amount since 2007. This suggests a looming capacity problem in the system, particularly as development is increasingly targeted to transit-oriented areas. Particularly on lines that are already crowded, the T will ultimately run up against the limits of what its existing lines can carry. Planning for strategic expansion, both on new lines and in new capacity on existing routes is crucial before we reach our limit.
Public transit is a vital resource not just for those who use and depend on it for mobility and access, but for the health and resiliency of the region. Transit system ridership measures how many people use transit services, and can be an indicator of how well riders are able to access the system and how confident riders are that the system can safely, conveniently, and reliably meet their travel needs. Ridership is thus an indicator both of initial access to the system as well as overall transit system performance. Ridership gains not only generate additional revenue for systems, but also carry economic, environmental, and other tangential benefits. For example, there is evidence of a strong relationship between increased ridership and decreases in traffic congestion, fuel costs, and greenhouse gas emissions. As such, increased ridership is a fundamental goal of Metro Boston.
Across all modes of MBTA service (excluding the demand response paratransit service known as The Ride), the system currently averages over 32 million unlinked passenger trips per month. Despite hitting record highs for ridership in 2014, MBTA average weekday ridership fell to a low in the early months of 2015, when historic snowfall forced the closure of the transit system for two full days - one of which was a weekday. Inconsistent and infrequent commuter rail trains during Winter 2014/2015 also contributed to the dip in ridership, as commuters working in downtown Boston were left without a convenient or reliable means to get into the city. Ridership mostly recovered to comparable 2014 levels by April 2015, although ridership was lower this year than in April of the previous two years.
Despite recent weather and fiscal-related vulnerabilities, the MBTA remains one of the largest and most-used transit systems in the United States. Of the country’s ten largest urbanized regions, the Boston region ranks fourth in terms of ridership per capita (per FY2014 data), behind New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.
Revenue service hours (i.e. total number of hours transit service vehicles are revenue-generating) is a measure of how often transit service is made available. Revenue service hours reflect both operating hours and the number of vehicles that are in service; more vehicles in service for longer periods of time generate the most increases in revenue service hours, but increases in either service hours or vehicles alone can also drive up the level of service agencies provide.
There are approximately 2,300 vehicles in the entire MBTA fleet (including subway cars, commuter rail coaches and locomotives, traditional buses and Silver Line buses) that move through the network over 5 million collective hours per year. In terms of the amount of service provided in revenue-generating hours, the MBTA has been providing a more or less consistent level of regular service since 2007. In 2013, the MBTA provided 5.2 million hours’ worth of fixed route service. Although this is down from a 2012 high of 5.4 million hours, it still represents a significant increase over a low of 5.07 million service hours in 2008. The MBTA experimented with additional late-night service beginning in March 2014, but made the decision to end the program in March 2016.
The MBTA maintains 790 vehicles for paratransit services known as ‘The Ride’. ‘The Ride’ provides door-to-door service to those who would have difficulty accessing fixed-route services due to physical disabilities or ailments, and the elderly. Despite the downward trend in the number of riders served by its paratransit services, the MBTA has added more revenue hours to this fleet in recent years. 2013 saw a 38% increase in the hours of service since 2007: in 2013, The Ride vehicles logged 1,415,266 hours of revenue service, up from 1,024,579 hours in 2007.
Outside Greater Boston, public transit service is provided by 15 Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs). Although households living in suburban and rural areas tend to be less transit dependent, households outside the Inner Core that do not have access to a car are likely to be reliant on mass transit for mobility and access. The lower density of retail and commercial activities in areas outside the Inner Core often means that people must travel outside of their immediate neighborhood to a greater degree to access the amenities and services they seek or require. Thus, the access to the service that RTA’s provide is invaluable to those who use it.
Besides the MBTA, there are 15 additional Regional Transit Authorities providing public transit service in 231 cities and towns across the Commonwealth: Berkshire RTA, Brockton Area RTA, Cape Ann Transit Authority, Cape Cod RTA, Franklin RTA, Greater Attleboro & Taunton RTA, Lowell RTA, Martha's Vineyard RTA, Merrimack Valley RTA, Metrowest RTA, Montachusett RTA, Nantucket RTA, Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, Southeastern RTA, and Worcester RTA. Twelve of these RTA’s are big enough in size to report agency statistics to the National Transit Database (all but the Franklin, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket RTA’s).
Given RTA services, all but 22 cities and towns in the Commonwealth are served by some kind of public transit service. Between 2001 and 2013, ridership across reporting agencies has risen 24%, from 21.5 to 26.7 million riders per year. These ridership gains parallel additional revenue service hours that many RTA’s added in that time. In 2001, 944,901 RSH were provided in RTA transit sheds, compared to 1,221,240 in 2013, an increase of 29%.
There are many ways to measure the share of commuting that takes place on transit. Perhaps the most common metric looks at the percent of trips made via transit, but there are other aspects of commuting behavior that also tell us useful information. ‘Commute miles via transit’ represents the share of total transit miles travelled out of all miles travelled on transit by commuters in the region based on workplace location. ‘Transit person miles’ is another indicator of how much transit mileage is consumed in daily commutes.
In the Metro Boston region overall, just under 13% of commuters use transit, and their bus or train rides comprise about 10% of total commute miles. The low share of transit commute miles suggests that the average transit commute is shorter than the average auto commute and the decline since the year 2000 in the share of commute miles that are on transit means that the average transit commute is getting shorter by the year. Not surprisingly, the share of commute miles via transit is highest for workplaces in the Inner Core, where transit comprises one quarter of commute miles. However, most Inner Core employment is concentrated in Boston and Cambridge. In these cities, 33% of total commute miles are via transit; in the rest of the Inner Core, the transit commute mile share is only 6%. Outside the Inner Core, which holds about 70% of total employment and almost 65% of total commute miles, transit carries less than 2% of commute miles.
This pattern makes sense given the relatively compact pattern of growth in the Inner Core, where jobs and homes are more likely to be close together, and the relatively more distributed patterns in the Regional Urban Centers and suburbs.
The RIDE is the MBTA’s paratransit servicer, which provides on-demand transit services to the region’s residents who are unable to take transit due to physical or mental disabilities. Its door-to-door services provide an essential service to those who otherwise might not be able to get to the grocery store, doctors’ appointments, or social gatherings. In FY 2015, the RIDE made over two million trips.
Performance on the RIDE is fairly reliable, with nearly 90% of all completed rides arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. 7% of all completed rides were within 15-30 minutes of their scheduled time, and only 3% of rides were more than half an hour late. Of the rides that were requested but not completed, most were cancelled by the requestor; the remaining uncompleted rides were no-shows by the requestor. While the RIDE is an expensive service, it is an essential lifeline to many of the region’s residents. Riders rely on it to provide them with consistent and reliable service, and it seems for the most part, that the needs of the riders are met.
The share of commuters who choose to take public transit is a good indicator of, among many things, how riders perceive the utility and effectiveness of the system. But commuters can only use transit when it is a) made available to them, and b) connects them to the places they need to go.
Current rates of transit use for commuting both in Metro Boston as a whole and outside the Inner Core hold promise for increased transit ridership. Although transit service is concentrated in Boston and its adjacent communities, many riders outside of the Inner Core are relying on transit to get them to work on a daily basis. Across Metro Boston, nearly 13% of commuters rely on some form of mass transit provided by the MBTA or a local RTA. Inner Core residents, who are likely riding the MBTA, are the most likely to be transit commuters (26.7%). The lower shares of transit commuters in Regional Urban Centers and Metro Boston’s suburbs are reflective of the less frequent transit service offered in these communities. While rates of transit use are especially low in developing suburbs (3.8%), these communities are key places to target for emerging and experimental mass transit services.
Driving remains the most common way the region’s residents get from place to place, particularly in the suburbs. Given the sprawling nature of many of the region’s homes and jobs, driving will likely continue to play an important role in the region’s transportation network, even as other modes of transit rise in popularity. Recently, however, data has been suggesting there may be a declining interest in cars as a primary mode of transportation in the region. Over the last fifteen years, there has been a slight decrease in the reception of driver’s licenses compared to the number of residents eligible to receive them, meaning not everyone who can drive is choosing to. Additionally, car ownership has been relatively stagnant since the year 2000. Finally, the .6 to 1 ratio of cars to residents is slightly lower than the national average, currently at .72 to 1.
While Massachusetts remains below the national average in terms of car ownership and eligible drivers receiving drivers’ licenses, it still lags behind the country in carpooling. More troublingly, these already low rates are on the decline. Overall, driving data paints a picture of a region that is making progress in encouraging the use of alternative forms of transportation, but that must expand the scope of its efforts to cultivate a sustainable region.
Data regarding the proportion of residents eligible for a license to how many actually hold one indicates the propensity or tendency to drive. The chart below shows the percent of licensed drivers out of the total driving age population in Massachusetts, compared to populations in peer states (Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington), the populations in U.S. between 2000 and 2013. The data indicates that while the number of eligible drivers obtaining licenses has been steadily falling on a national level, the decline in licensure rates has been less consistent within Massachusetts and its peer states.
Although consistently around 88%, the licensure rate in the Commonwealth has been volatile since 2005. Not all age-eligible residents choose to drive for a number of reasons: disability, ineligibility (due to previous driving offenses, or some other reason), or a lack of desire. We cannot parse out specific influences that drive the licensure rate either up or down given the data provided, but we can look at trends in the resident population, and the driving-age and driver population to understand where declines might be originating. For example, since 2000, the resident population in Massachusetts has increased by 5.4%, while the number of age-eligible drivers has increased by 9.16% over the same period. However, the number of drivers increased by just 6.14%, suggesting that a significant share of residents becoming age-eligible to drive are choosing not to. Comparatively, in peer states, the total driving age population has increased by 12.6% since 2000, while the number of total drivers increased by 12.4%. Nationally, 15.56% of additional people have become eligible to drive since 2000, but total drivers increased just 11.3%. This data is thus consistent with existing research showing a decline in the share of recently age-eligible drivers obtaining a drivers’ license, and suggests that Massachusetts – to a greater degree than our peer states – is mirroring national trends.
Increasingly, evidence collected elsewhere suggests that younger generations, Millennials, in particular, are choosing to forego obtaining a drivers’ license in favor of alternative modes of transportation like bicycling and using public transit. While an encouraging cultural hypothesis, attitudinal shifts among a subset of the population cannot be depended on to harness systematic or large-scale change in transportation habits and behaviors on its own. At the very least, alternative transportation options could be scaled-up and expanded to promote and possibly maintain this ‘anything-but-cars’ attitude.
Vehicle ownership is an important indicator of the auto-dependency of the region. Vehicle ownership is a function of the density of residential and commercial development and the maturity of its transit network. While an increasing vehicle ownership rate may be considered a sign of increasing affluence in the region, it also means added ownership costs, congestion, and increased green-house gas emissions due to travel .
Vehicle ownership in the region has gone up marginally, but not uniformly, since 2000. Currently, there are 0.6 vehicles available for every person and 1.55 cars per household in the Metro Boston region. Vehicle ownership has gone down slightly in the Inner Core communities, from 0.47 vehicles per resident in 2000 to 0.45 in 2010. Across all other community types, vehicle ownership has increased: 3% in Regional Urban Centers and Maturing Suburbs, and 5% in Developing Suburbs. The difference is likely because households in the Inner Core have better access to destinations within short distances via a robust transit and pedestrian network serving these communities. Inner Core communities like Boston, Cambridge and Chelsea have an average of less than one car per household, while households in the suburban communities have almost 2 cars per household.
Land-use orientations, demographic characteristics, and tendencies towards various transportation behaviors vary greatly by community type. For example, residents of suburban communities are far more likely to use cars for travel than residents of central cities, who have more proximate access to public transit systems.
When we compare land use and population characteristics between, the Boston metropolitan region (MSA), the 164 city-and-town Metro Boston region, and the Inner Core, we see striking differences in density and household composition. In the MSA, household density registers at about .6 households per acre; in the Metro Boston region, density increases to 0.95 households per acre. In the Inner Core, where land use trends are decidedly more urban, household density is 6 households per acre. Just under 40% of households are renter-occupied in the MSA and the Metro Boston region, but nearly 60% of households are renters in the transit shed. The share of transit commuters, and bicycle and pedestrian commuters, as well as the percentage of households that do not have access to a vehicle within the Inner Core is nearly double that of the other regions.
From an administrative and engineering perspective, the cheapest way to reduce congestion on roadways is to increase the number of commuters who ride in the same vehicle. An increase in carpooling does not require the expansion of roadways or investment in additional transportation infrastructure, yet it reduces the number of cars traversing a roadway while maintaining or increasing the number of people on the roads. Carpooling has been informally organized for decades, and tends to increase when gas prices are high or when an area designates special lanes on congested highways for high-occupancy vehicles (HOV lanes).
Currently, just under 10% of the region’s workers carpool to work. The community type with the highest proportion of carpoolers, 10%, is the Regional Urban Center. The large carpool mode share in these communities is likely motivated by two factors: first, the longer distance, which increases the cost of driving via gas and tolls; second, the relatively dense residential land use patterns of these areas allow a greater ability to locate commuters with similar travel needs. In the Inner Core, 8% of workers commute by carpooling, while in the suburbs, only nearly 7% of workers do.
Unfortunately, national carpooling trends have been declining in recent decades, and data from the region mirrors them . Since 1980, national carpooling rates have fallen by more than half, and have been showing no sign of abatement. The factors driving this decline are not yet fully understood, but potential carpooling disincentives include: an increasingly spread out geography of population and jobs, increases in car ownership, increased “trip chaining” (where workers tie commutes to other household errands); and increased workplace schedule flexibility. In recent years, the development of car sharing mobile apps to facilitate matching solo drivers to willing passengers, has given some hope to the reversal of this trend. Whether the increased access to real time commute and scheduling data that these apps provide will be enough to reverse the decades-long trend in carpooling rates remains to be seen.
There are many reasons why a household might forego vehicle ownership. On one hand, not owning a car may be a reflection of the costs of ownership, which are unaffordable to many households in the Metro Boston region. On the other hand, eschewing a car may be personal preference, or an indicator of the lack of need with respect to owning a car. A 2011 report by the Brookings Institution found that the vast majority of zero-vehicle households in large metro regions live in neighborhoods that are well-served by transit service (Tomer 2011), which also tend to be self-sufficient in terms of being served by a wide variety of services and amenities.
Currently, 13.2% of all households in Metro-Boston are ‘zero-vehicle’. By and large, the vast majority of residents have access to a private vehicle. However, when we disaggregate this number by location and tenure, we see stark contrasts in terms of who is going without vehicle access and who is vehicle-dependent. Both owner and renter households in the Inner Core have higher shares of zero-vehicle households than their counterparts in other communities and in Metro Boston as a whole. The difference between the Inner Core and Developing Suburbs is especially extreme, with over 38% of renter households in the Inner Core that do not own a car versus 12.2% of renters in Developing Suburbs.
As with public transit, walking and biking are important modes of transportation for all of the region’s residents. However, these modes are far more prolific in the region’s denser areas, such as the Inner Core and Regional Urban Centers. Walking and biking offer similar commute-related benefits to taking public transportation (particularly in contrast to driving), but their impact is even broader. Walking and biking are commonly referred to as “active” modes, meaning that they have strong personal and public health benefits. They also have a virtually zero environmental impact, and are therefore the most sustainable form of transportation available.
Walking and biking rates have increased in the region, making Greater Boston one of the nation’s leaders. Over 6% of the region’s commuters now walk or bike to work, and the rate is more than doubled when just looking at workers in the Inner Core. The regional bike-ped rate is more than 50% higher than the national rate of walking and biking; this places the region in the top third of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. The rollout of the Hubway bikeshare program has also been a boost to biking rates in the communities it serves. Since its adoption in 2011, the number of trips taken on Hubway has grown by more than 700%.
While the number of people in the region biking and walking has increased, there is still room for improvement. Changes in policy and infrastructure that make biking and walking safer and more convenient should be prioritized in order to encourage travel via these modes.
The United States is experiencing a spike in interest in walking and biking - not just as a recreational activity, but as a healthy and increasingly convenient means of mobility. An increase in people riding their bikes and walking to nearby destinations also means a decrease in people driving to these destinations, which has subsequent impacts on traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions. The most widely available statistics on walking and biking pertain to their usage as a means of getting to work.
In the Boston region in 2009-2013, just over 6% of the workforce commuted to work on foot or by bike, which represents a 1% increase from 2000. The Boston region currently ranks 13th in the rate of bike and pedestrian commuting among the top 70 metro areas in the country with a population over 200,0001.
Within the region, the areas with the largest proportion of commuters getting to work via biking or walking are Inner Core communities. Here, pedestrians and cyclists make up over 13% of all commuters. Cambridge is dominant in its share of bike and pedestrian commuters, with 31% (±1%) of its workers walking or biking to work. It is not surprising that the proportion of bike-ped commuters would be smaller in communities outside the Inner Core, but the numbers are not insignificant: over 4% of Regional Urban Center commuters and over 2% of suburban commuters travel to work by foot or bike.
In recent years, several Inner Core communities have undertaken significant efforts to specify a network of dedicated bike lanes, provide secure bike parking, and offer bike sharing programs. Current efforts to implement “Complete Streets” (a land use design perspective that calls for roadways that equally serve pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and drivers) throughout the state will likely raise rates of bike-ped commuting. An increased emphasis on making biking and walking safe and convenient may especially benefit workers in the suburbs, who are more likely to face longer distances and/or less robust non-automobile infrastructure.
Hubway is the Metro Boston region’s bike share program, and operates similarly to carsharing services like Zipcar. Hubway members purchase annual memberships or short term passes to rent bikes for short periods of time. Trips under 30 minutes are included in membership fees, and longer trips are charged an additional usage fee.
Hubway was first introduced in Boston in the summer of 2011, but has seen rapid growth in terms of its infrastructure, service area, and ridership. Since Hubway first began operations, it has grown from 61 stations and 610 bicycles to 130 stations and 1300 bicycles. In addition to Boston, Hubway stations can now be found in Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville.
Usage of Hubway bikes has also increased substantially since 2011. Hubway became operational in July 2011. During 2012, the first full year of operation, 533,874 total trips were taken. 2014 saw nearly 1.2 million Hubway trips – an increase of nearly 123%. Hubway membership has also grown substantially, with a more than fourfold increase in the number of annual members and a nearly threefold increase in the number of people who purchase 1 or 3 day passes. Average trip length has increased as well, nearly doubling from an average of 1 mile per trip in 2012 to an average of 1.8 miles per trip in 2014.
For riders, Bikeshare provides a convenient form of active transportation, but it is also an increasingly integral link in the regional transportation network for both commuters and recreational users. Specifically, Hubway offers another transportation option for commuters and other users who do not want to drive for short trips.
Thousands of schools across the country have initiatives known as Safe Routes to School (SRTS) to encourage students and their parents to choose walking, biking, and other non-auto modes for commutes to and from school. These programs generally seek to achieve a host of objectives: health benefits of active transportation for students, air quality improvements, and reduced congestion. Reduced congestion is an especially important objective as auto school commutes account for 10-14% of all vehicles on the road during the morning peak period.
In partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), MAPC has developed an online survey tool to track school commutes for the Commonwealth. Schools in 36 municipalities across the state have participated in the survey so far. Since proximity to school is a critical factor in the decision about how to get there, this analysis focuses on the approximately 55% of surveyed students who live within 1 mile of the school they attend. On average, about 33% of the kids who live within 1 mile of their school currently walk or bike to school. The chart summarizes the mode choice of surveyed students based on how far from their schools they live.
Clearly, proximity matters a great deal, as students who live within half a mile of their school walk or bike there at nearly three times the rate of students who live between half a mile and a mile away, and 7 times the rate of students who live more than a mile and a half from school.
Across all schools, more students are found to walk or bike when going home after school than when on their way to school in the morning. This trend can be attributed to trip-chaining, as parents are likely to drop off their children to school as part of their daily commute to work.
Land use often shapes transportation patterns, as transportation networks form to connect the region’s residents to each other and to the places they work and want or need to go. Simultaneously, the region’s transportation network shapes development, as people prefer to live near convenient transportation options and access to transportation is an important factor in land development decisions. An increased focus on transit-oriented development should lead to increased transit ridership, given that the transit system is robust enough to meet need. As we would expect, the area served by the MBTA is far denser than the region as a whole, and residents are generally more likely to use transit as their primary mode of transportation. Most of the areas in the Inner Core, and many in the closer-in suburbs and Regional Urban Centers, are considered “transit-connected,” and nearly three-quarters of trips taken within these areas are on transit. Looking at whether areas that are dense enough to support transit are served by it, we find that a similarly high number – 83% - are served by some sort of transit. These findings show a region that has grown up in conjunction with a relatively mature transit system. Many of the region’s denser areas are already served by transit, but the quality of the service still varies dramatically, and many areas are dense enough to support a higher level of transit. Similarly, there is still work to be done ensuring that residents of transit-served areas take full advantage of the transit they have access to. This may be a question of increasing transit convenience by increasing frequency of service or density of coverage, or it may be a question of transit capacity, as some lines are already filled near capacity at peak times.
There is a clear economic benefit in being located near public transit, as employers and retailers have reliable access to transportation networks that connect them with workers and customers. Similarly, living close to transit increases the travel options available to residents. But transit proximity is also associated with other desirable urban land use characteristics like high densities, high levels of walkability, and close proximity to a variety of services and amenities that is often not found in suburban communities that are far from transit.
Transit station areas, here defined as the area within a ¼ mile buffer of a subway or bus stop, comprise a minimal share of the total land area in Metro Boston. In fact, the vast majority of land in the Metro Boston region is not near a public transit stop. However, these areas are significant communities from both a residential and economic perspective. Nearly 28% of all Metro Boston residents and 30% of all Metro Boston households are located within close proximity of transit stops, and about 40% of jobs in Metro Boston are in these transit-served neighborhoods.
In order to create more opportunities for people to live and work in and around transit station areas, land use and development policies need to align with transit agency plans and priorities and target these areas for investment and expansion. The success of the recently opened Assembly Square station, which has introduced new retail stores, jobs, and residences in Somerville, is but one example of transit oriented development that has potential to transform Metro Boston. Developing the land around key and underserved routes (like the Seaport District) is an action item that will not only bring more people into close proximity to transit, but will have immediate impacts on economic and residential communities at-large.
An important test of effectiveness of the current transit system is by looking at how competitive it is in areas where there are other options for commuters. This tells us how well-used the existing transit network is. In order to determine what percentage of commute trips that could be on transit are actually taken on transit, researchers have to look not only at the accessibility of an origin point (i.e. does any given commuter live close enough to transit to use it), but also at whether it is possible to use the transit network to reach a given destination point. Since many parts of the region are not used as transit origin or destination points, a smaller geography of the region can be called “transit connected.” This sub-set of census tracts is made up of those tracts that have a minimum of 50 daily transit commuters either arriving or departing, an admittedly high bar in terms of transit usage. The map shows the tracts that were selected as part of this metric.
Nearly 75% of commute trips in these areas are made using public transit. In almost all commute trips studied, the destination was somewhere in the Inner Core, reflecting the hub-and-spoke nature of the region’s transit network. An additional 6.1% of commute trips within the transit connected geography that end in the Inner Core are made by bike or on foot, and about 15% of these commute trips are made by a single commuter driving his or her car to work.
In the transit connected areas of the region’s Regional Urban Centers and Maturing Suburbs, roughly 50% of all trips are made on transit. In these communities, about 40% of the commute trips that could be made by transit are made by driving instead. There are very few identified transit connected areas in the Developing Suburbs.
The relatively low percentage of trips in transit connected areas outside of the Inner Core that are taken on transit shows that there are other underlying issues beyond transit connectivity that impact commuter mode choice. These factors can include the convenience of driving; “trip chaining,” (which is when errands such as picking up or dropping off a child, grocery shopping, or other non-commute-related activities are added onto a commute), or transit schedules that do not meet a commuter’s needs. This also opens up the possibility of policy and programmatic interventions to help outlying transit connected areas to maximize the use of their existing transit infrastructure.
As any commuter will tell you, the locations of home and work, and mode of transportation used, play large roles in determining commute length and quality. How long workers spend on the road, or on a train, or on a bike, or however they get to and from their job, determines how much time they have to spend doing the other important things in their lives, like seeing friends and family, pursuing hobbies, or completing schoolwork. The quality of their commute matters, too, as a half hour driving on open roads is a very different experience than a half hour sitting in a traffic jam. They both involve the same amount of time in a car, but have very different psychological and physiological impacts.
While commute quality is still extremely difficult to measure, commute length and mode are readily available metrics that show us how long the region’s residents are spending getting to and from work. Unsurprisingly, workers who live in the outer suburbs and work in the Inner Core have commutes of nearly an hour each way, the longest of any group. Looking at commute mode, workers who drive have shorter commutes than those who take transit, and workers who walk or bike to work have even shorter commutes still.
Commute quality and duration have major impacts on quality of life, and commutes in the region should be as short and predictable as possible. There are a variety of strategies for accomplishing this, from changes in land use patterns that determine where people live and work to changes in commute modes and strategies to minimize time in stress-inducing traffic. No single change will bring about reduction of the region’s commute times, but advancing a variety at the same time may achieve the desired impacts.
Commute time is primarily influenced by residential proximity to workplace locations. Across Metro Boston, the average commute time is 27 minutes. But when we disaggregate the overall Metro Boston region according to community type, we can begin to understand how different kinds of communities with different degrees of urbanization and density experience daily commuting. Of those workers whose jobs are located in the Inner Core, those that also live in Inner Core communities benefit from close proximity. These workers have the shortest mean travel time at 28 minutes each way.
Conversely, Inner Core workers who live in the suburbs have the longest travel times to work in the region, averaging 55 minutes each way. Despite the shorter average travel time associated with car commuting, the distance plus congestion facing suburban-to-Inner Core workers on their daily commute costs them nearly two hours on a daily basis. Suburban commuters are also likely to be car commuters who drive solo.
Travel time is traditionally used as a measure of congestion. Increases in average daily travel time to work signals increased volume on roadways or on transit vehicles that slows the speed of travel. As the time spent commuting reduces the ‘disposable’ time people have available for leisure and recreation activities, the amount of time people spend on their daily commute has a measureable impact on their quality of life. In fact, a recent study found that long commutes are associated with lower sense of life satisfaction and an increased sense of stress because of pressures on commuters’ time.
Car commuters have an advantage over transit commuters when it comes to travel time to work. Over half of all car commuters living either across Metro Boston (55.1%) or within the central city (54%) have travel times of under 30 minutes. Commute times on transit are significantly longer. Over 31.6% of Metro Boston’s transit commuters have commute times over one hour, and nearly half of them have commute times over 30 minutes. Although Boston-based transit commuters are advantaged compared to their counterparts outside the city, their travel times are still significantly longer than Boston-based car commuters. The longer commute times on transit in Metro Boston versus Boston proper is likely the result of differences in local proximity to transit service, particularly high-frequency service as provided on the MBTA.
One of the crucial elements driving the efficiency of BRT systems is the separated lanes that segregate buses from the rest of traffic. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems are characterized by such features as pre-boarding fare payment, same-level bus boarding, and dedicated bus shelters. Several miles of roadway in the MBTA transit shed exist as “Exclusive Fixed Guideways” for the exclusive use of buses. In addition to this, “Controlled Access” miles are those to which access is sometimes restricted to transit vehicles, but at other times is open to all vehicles.
There has been no change to the current 7.8 miles in 2013 of dedicated bus lanes in the MBTA system compared to 2010. Since the MBTA introduced Silver Line service in 2000, no new additional dedicated bus right-of-way miles have been added to the network.
The region’s transportation infrastructure is funded primarily through federal and state programs. These programs are usually designed for a particular use, but are often then “flexed” for other uses. Transportation projects can also take a broad-scope approach: e.g. a project that is ostensibly a roadway project may also incorporate bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements. Because of the vast array of transportation funding sources and the oft-complicated nature of financing procedures, it can be very difficult to track where money is being spent in the region.
Despite this, it is essential to monitor the allocation of transportation dollars because funding patterns tend to reflect the prerogatives of the region’s decision makers. The investment choices that regional leaders make impact the convenience and appeal of different modes, which can have major health, environmental, and equity impacts on the region and its residents.
An analysis of transportation spending in the region over the last five years has shown that there are some major discrepancies between the region’s stated priorities, as shown by the Metro Boston plan, and how transportation dollars are being spent. For example, the last five years have seen the majority of non-bridge related transportation funding going towards highways, with their share ranging from half to over three quarters of all transportation dollars. However, future transportation funding suggests a shift in priorities, with the vast majority of transportation funding allocated for alternative transportation, with the overwhelming majority going to uses other than highway expansion.
How the region and the Commonwealth spend their transportation dollars is a major indicator of the values and expectations of policymakers and elected officials. Is Massachusetts investing heavily in transit or in building the infrastructure to make it easier and safer to walk and bike? Or is it doubling down on highways and roads, reinforcing old car-dependent patterns? The difference between the two could be the difference between a thriving region that is well-equipped for its future and one that is not. In Metro Boston, the region’s residents spelled out that the future they want for Metro Boston is one where transit, bike, and pedestrian options are as robust as possible, and there is a decreasing need to rely on their cars to get around. This indicator tells us how well the region’s leadership has followed that vision.
Unfortunately, transportation spending in the last five years has not been in line with the Metro Boston priorities, and has been heavily skewed towards spending on highways. While this analysis relies solely on the high-level categorizations, and allows no way to differentiate between a highway project that adds lane capacity and one that maintains existing roadway or improves safety, it still shows that funding is markedly tilted towards highways. In federal fiscal year 2015, 77% or $135 million of the region’s transportation dollars were spent on highways, while only 23% or $49.6 million was spent on local roadways, transit expansion, and dedicated bicycle and pedestrian investments. In the last five years, that number has ranged from over a third of spending to less than 5%. This analysis excludes spending on the Accelerated Bridge Program, which was a major initiative to update the Commonwealth‘s structurally deficient bridges.
Spending over the last five years was out of line with regional priorities. While there is no way to undo historical spending priorities, it means that future spending priorities must be closely examined to make sure that they do not fall into the same car-centric trap.
How the region sets its transportation priorities for the future is also an important indicator of what is prioritized in our transportation system right now. Are millions of dollars of federal and state money being spent on highway capacity expansion? Or is this money being allocated to transit, bike-ped infrastructure, and maintaining the existing system? This question does not concern the operating budgets of the MBTA or MassDOT, the money that these agencies use to pay their employees’ salaries, utility bills, and other service delivery costs. Rather, this analysis is concerned with capital investments – money that comes in to build new infrastructure or improve existing resources.
To conduct this analysis, the region’s 2016-2020 Transportation Improvement Plan, which includes all projects planned for the immediate future, was analyzed to determine what goals its projects were designed to serve. Projects that included highway or roadway capacity expansion were placed in one category, while projects that accomplished other goals, including transit expansion and maintenance, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements, and roadway safety improvements, were placed in another. Merely looking at “project type” classifications was not enough to determine with certainty which category a project fell into, because, for example, many projects in the “major highway” and “arterial and intersection” categories actually focused on safety or bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
The findings were heartening, as a mere 5.2% of all planned transportation investment dollars were allocated on projects designed to expand roadway capacity, meaning 94.8% of funding was allocated to multimodel transit. Only 8 of 95 projects were in this category. This means that while the region’s transportation infrastructure is far more car-focused than these numbers would indicate, the trend in investments is moving towards correcting that imbalance.
Transportation is a major expense for most American households. This is also true in the Commonwealth. While some transportation expenses like transit fares or highway tolls tend to be stable over long periods of time, other expenses, especially those associated with cars, such as gas prices and vehicle maintenance costs, are more volatile. High transportation costs can sometimes hinder mobility, limiting the places and opportunities people can travel to. Vulnerable social groups might be more affected, and choose to live in transit-served areas, but struggle to afford the high costs of housing in those areas.
Average transportation costs are rising in the Commonwealth, much like they are across the country. In the Boston metropolitan region, transportation costs have risen by nearly $4,000 since the year 2000. Fortunately, increases in average annual household incomes have risen faster than average transportation costs. This means that, as compared to fifteen years ago, households are paying less for travel as a share of their annual income.
While this news is positive, we must take care to ensure that increases in transportation costs are equitably distributed. MassDOT has authorized the MBTA to initiate fare increases, but they cannot exceed more than 5% every two years. As part of its plan to close next year’s impending budget shortfall, the MassDOT-appointed Fiscal and Management Control Board is considering recommending a fare hike to take place in the Summer of 2016. While transit fares have historically remained well below the rate of inflation, fare hikes disproportionately impact low-income households, who are among the MBTA’s core riders. Furthermore, raising fares as perceptions of service quality go down is a risky move that may cost the MBTA ridership and credibility with users.
Transportation costs vary widely by metro area. Transportation infrastructure and networks reflect the density, land-use, and cultural orientations that are specific to different cities and regions. Lower density regions are far less likely to have extensive or even existing public transit systems, while some metro areas, like New York, have anomalistic rates of transit usage and very low vehicle ownership rates. The extent, reliance, convenience, and quality of transportation systems have direct implications on cost: more ‘connected’ regions are better able to efficiently move people around, with lower vehicle miles traveled and lower associated fuel and vehicle maintenance costs. Differences in transportation costs across metro areas indicate differences in the premiums that households pay for their transportation needs.
On average, residents of the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy spent $9,997 on transportation costs in 2014. This puts the Boston region on par with other metro areas, as the 2014 average amount spent on transportation across 18 major metropolitan areas is just slightly lower at $9,980. To a limited degree, Consumer Expenditure Survey (CEX) data can be broken out by vehicle or transit-related costs. Data shows that while differences in terms of share of income spent on transit are negligible, Boston-area residents benefit from lower-than-average vehicle costs. In 2014, Boston MSA residents spent 10.3% of their pre-tax income on transit, compared to the 18-metro average of 11.8%. Although metro-area transportation costs are, on average, slightly lower than in Boston, the percent of pre-tax income is higher because Greater Boston residents maintain higher average incomes than the metro-area averages.
Transportation costs are largely reflective of the transportation choices made by travelers. For example, travel costs are heavily influenced by vehicle costs, which are then affected by vehicle type and associated fuel costs. Likewise, the type of transit pass purchased, or the decision to ride a bicycle or walk also affects how much people spend on travel. For the average household, transportation is the second-largest expense after housing. High transportation costs can hinder mobility and access, especially for transit-dependent populations like low-income households and renters. In a 2013 report, researchers from the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and the local community group Neighbor-to-Neighbor conducted a door-to-door survey in several communities throughout Massachusetts. Respondents indicated that expense was the most troublesome aspect of car ownership and the second-most troublesome aspect of public transit ridership.
In the Boston region, average pre-tax household income in the 2013-2014 fiscal year was $88,900, and total household expenditures averaged $66,000. Of this amount, an average of $22,000 was spent on housing and roughly $10,000 on transportation; meaning that households in the region are dedicating approximately 11.2% of their pre-tax income to transportation costs. Transportation expenses can be disaggregated even further, down to differences in costs going toward vehicle purchase and maintenance versus costs going towards public transportation expenses. Data shows that since 2001, the share of both household income spent on both vehicles and public transit has declined. In FY 2013/14, households spent just over 10% of income on vehicles and just under 1% on public transit. While the share of income spent on transit has remained relatively stable over that time, vehicle expenses have been more volatile. These trends show that regional transportation spending is significantly influenced by costs associated with the ownership and use of private vehicles.
Transportation affordability is both an issue of equity and accountability. Cost changes associated with personal transportation in the form of fare increases and rising user fees like tolls often reflect the anticipated costs of system-wide transportation maintenance and expansion. While changes in these costs must be fair, it is also important that the additional costs are justified through improvements in service quality or reductions in congestion or travel times.
The Consumer Price Index (CPI) tracks changes in the cost of consumer goods and services nationwide. Comparing changes in vehicle and public transit expenses to changes in the CPI allows us to understand how expenses associated with transportation fluctuate relative to broad changes in the cost of living. Between 2003 and 2014, the price of gasoline rose by 200% (from $1.59/gallon in 2003 to $3.40/gallon in 2014) before a long decline in late 2015. As of November 2015, New England gas prices averaged closer to 2003 levels than 2014 levels.
Over the same 2003-2014 period, one-way MBTA fares have increased by 260% (from $1.00 in 2003 to $2.65), but there is little to no chance that fares will see the change in affordability that gas prices have. In fact, proposals being evaluated by MassDOT administrators are currently calling for a fare increase of between 5 and 10% on one-way fares and up to 30% increases in the cost of monthly and special passes. These fare increases are expected to go into effect in July 2016.
The convergence and reversal of gas prices and transit fares with respect to expense and affordability is striking, and is cause for concern among both transit and social justice stakeholders. Fare increases are regressive and particularly burdensome for low-income riders dependent on the T for mobility. Fare increases are already associated with lost ridership, but are potentially disastrous when coupled with the declining gas prices that are incentivizing driving. Before any permanent decisions are made concerning fare increases, MassDOT and MBTA administrators must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of a revenue raising initiative that jeopardizes the very mission of public transit systems.
Transportation equity refers to the social distribution of benefits and burdens associated with transportation infrastructure and networks, which include variation in access to destinations, decisions over where a highway should be built, and parking and zoning policies. Academic
research has shown evidence
suggesting households of color, specifically Black, and Latino households, are disproportionately burdened by higher transportation costs, longer commute times, and less access to private vehicles.
Pursuing social equity – especially with respect to the distribution of public goods and services – is not only a social justice imperative, it is also crucial for the cultivation of urban resilience and improvements in quality of life for all people. Understanding transportation patterns and trends across social groups is an important consideration for planners and equity stakeholders alike. As in other metropolitan regions, Greater Boston households of color tend to own fewer vehicles than white households. This may explain the higher rate with which commuters of color ride transit when compared to white commuters, but it does not explain why Black and Latino transit-commuters experience longer average travel times than their white counterparts. A possible reason for this phenomenon is the high degree of residential segregation in the region coupled with educational attainment inequality, resulting in black and white residents relying on different parts of the regional transportation network. Travel time disparities may also be vestiges of historical patterns of discrimination that results in lower-quality service being provided to minority neighborhoods.
As the MBTA updates its service plans and makes adjustments to routes and fare policies, special consideration must be given to impacts on commuters and households of color. Efforts should be undertaken to maximize the share of opportunities accessible via transit and to bring parity to travel times between social groups.
Commute modes chosen is a reflection of access to the regional portfolio of transportation options. While the overwhelming majority of people in the United States rely on private vehicles to get to work and other destinations, there are slight variations by race. Analysis of the 2001 National Household Transportation Survey, a federally-funded research project investigating travel behaviors, found that Black and Latino residents have significantly higher tendencies towards riding transit than White residents. Travel diary data collected through the Massachusetts Department of Transportation also confirms that households of color, including Latino households, are disproportionately represented among the transit user population as compared to their share of the general public. This may indicate better access to the transit system or lower access to private vehicles, but as noted earlier, the travel time penalty associated with riding public transportation can be a significant burden on people’s daily lives. We believe that any disparity between mode use by social group (i.e. as differences in shares of mode use move away from zero) reflects inequity in commute mode, and encourage strategies that maximize the number of transportation options made available to all communities, social groups, and urban residents.
Data collected semi-annually through the U.S. Census and the National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS) show that, while most American households own personal vehicles, there are distinct patterns by race and class. Low-income and households of color are less likely to own or have access to a private vehicle. In Greater Boston, vehicle ownership patterns by race are consistent with the national pattern. While the regional average number of vehicles per household is 1.57, Black and Latino households have an average of 1.11 and 1.05 cars per household, respectively. Asian households tend to own slightly more cars (1.37), while White households tend to have more vehicles available to them (1.67) than the regional average.
While the lower rate of vehicle ownership within households of color is not, in and of itself, a negative finding, the disparity with respect to the availability of options may signal equity issues. Not owning a vehicle may be a conscious choice made for environmental, economic, or lifestyle reasons, but it is critical to ensure that those who need or want access to a private car are able to have one.
Average travel time to work is the product of a number of factors, not least of which is the chosen travel mode of the commuter. The tendency to ride transit is stronger among workers of color, and public transit is associated with longer travel times than driving. In light of these considerations, an analysis into commute times by racial/ethnic group is most valid when travel times are analyzed by commute mode. The equity implications of commute time differences are also most pronounced when travel time is considered on a yearly rather than daily basis; although an two additional minutes of daily commuting seems innocuous, annually this adds up to an extra 8 hours per year (given a twice-daily commute, commuting five times per week and fifty weeks per year). When looking at commute times inclusive of all modes by race and ethnicity, Latino commuters have the shortest average travel time (35 minutes), followed by White commuters (36 minutes) and finally Black commuters (40 minutes). Rolling up the data to reflect the total time spent commuting each year similarly reveals marked differences in travel time pattern by race/ethnicity. Compared to White commuters (who spend 237 hours per year commuting by car and 320 hours per year commuting by bus), Latino commuters have much shorter commute times when traveling by automobiles (27 hours) but much longer commute times when traveling by public bus (10 hours). Black commuters spend more time traveling than both White and Latino commuters overall. While there is a small difference when traveling by automobiles (1 hour per year) the largest difference is the commute time when traveling by public bus (64 hours per year) compared to White bus riders. Surprisingly, while Black subway commuters spend an additional 31 hours per year commuting as compared to their White subway-riding counterparts (354/year), Latino subway commuters spend 7 less hours than White subway commuters traveling to and from work.
Public safety is a central concern for transportation administrators and planners. Safety measures are put in place to minimize risks associated with mobility and access. These measures are incorporated into each segment of the overall transportation network, from bicycle helmets, to speed limits, to mandatory break times for bus drivers. While traffic safety has improved over recent decades, auto crashes still claim hundreds of lives and cost millions of dollars each year. Safety concerns are also a major disincentive to walking and biking. As a growing number of residents are choosing to commute by walking and biking, cities and towns around the Commonwealth have been taking steps to ensure that the proper safety accommodations around these nontraditional modes of transportation are integrated into the overall network. Addressing safety concerns is a prerequisite to substantial mode shift.
Massachusetts routinely fares better than the national average in terms of motor vehicle fatalities. For every 100 million miles that vehicles in the state travel, less than one person is involved in a fatal accident. This has been consistent since at least the year 2000 and has remained the case through 2012. While the 69 pedestrians and bicyclists killed in 2013 represent a decline from the 89 bike & pedestrian deaths logged in 2012, the 2013 fatality count is higher than it was in either 2009, 2010, and 2011. Despite the relatively low commute share of bicycling and walking today, the movement towards bicycling and walking is gaining momentum and appears to be a long-term trend that officials should plan for.
One of the most visible and significant transportation safety features is sidewalks. While most major arterial streets with pedestrian access maintain full sidewalk coverage, less than half of all street in regional urban centers have sidewalk features. Small but meaningful additions to the transportation network in the name of safety are low-hanging fruit that improve the quality and efficiency of the system as a whole.
Vehicle fatalities are always unfortunate, but, nationwide, have been on the decline for several years. Across the country, 32,719 people died in traffic-related accidents in 2013. This represents a 3.1 percent decline since 2012 and a 25 percent drop over the previous ten years . In Massachusetts, there were 326 deaths, the lowest recorded number of fatalities since at least 1994. The overall vehicle fatality rate in the Commonwealth fell sharply between 1994 and 2013, from 0.9 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 1994 to 0.6 in 2013. This represents a decline of .38 fatalities per each 100 million miles of travel. In 2013, the 0.58 fatalities per 100 million VMT crash rate places Massachusetts as the second-safest state in terms of vehicle fatalities nationwide, ranking just after DC (0.57 fatalities per 100 million VMT). Trends in Massachusetts mirror national trends during the same period, with 1.73 fatalities per 100M VMT in 1994 compared to 1.09 fatalities per 100M VMT in 2013.
Safety is a particularly important issue with regard to bicyclists and pedestrians. Bike and pedestrian safety is a growing concern, especially as non-motorized travel and active transportations, as a part of public health and environmental initiatives are encouraged by the state, individual cities, and towns. Although only a handful of bike lane miles in the Greater Boston region are protected by barriers that separate vehicular traffic, the Boston Bike Network Plan calls for a substantial increase in the number of separated bike lanes and dedicated bicycle and pedestrian pathways over the next 30 years.
In 2013, 69 bicyclists and pedestrians were killed in collisions with motor vehicles in the Commonwealth. Most fatalities involved trucks (either light or large), followed by crashes involving passenger cars.
There isn’t a consistent trend with respect to bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities between 2000 and 2013, but the 5-year average fatality rate between 2000 and 2004 (84.6) is significantly higher than the 5-year average spanning 2009 through 2014 (68.2). This is good news for bike/ped stakeholders, but much work remains to be done to integrate bicyclists and pedestrians into the transportation network and realize active travel goals.
Overall, with respect to the types of vehicles involved in fatalities, passenger cars are consistently responsible for more bicyclist and pedestrian deaths than any other vehicle type. On average, passenger cars were responsible for 46% of all fatalities over this 13-year period. However, trucks were responsible for nearly the entire remainder of fatalities – 45.3%. Breaking this percentage down further, it can be seen that light trucks - trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) under 10,000 lbs such as garbage trucks and small moving vans - are significantly more problematic than large trucks. Light trucks have been involved in 38.3% of fatalities since 2000, while large trucks accounted for just 7% of fatal bike/ped accidents.
Increasing sidewalk availability is an important way to promote walking throughout the region. Sidewalks encourage active living, as residents are 65% more likely to walk to their destination in a neighborhood with sidewalks. This in large part because of the additional safety they provide: FHWA analysis shows that pedestrian involvement in car crashes decreases 88% when sidewalks are added to a community. Moving trips out of cars and onto sidewalks also has environmental benefits as well, because fewer vehicle miles travelled mean fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The map shows sidewalk coverage by communities in the Metro Boston region by their community type. Currently, 35% of Metro Boston’s roadways are lined with sidewalks on at least one side of the road. These roadways constitute 8,170 of Metro Boston’s 23,300 miles of streets and roads, excluding limited access highways such as I-90 or I-95.
Sidewalk coverage is highest in the Inner Core communities, with almost 70% of the roads having sidewalk on least on one side. Regional Urban Centers have 40% coverage, while Maturing and Developing Suburbs have 32% and 19% coverage, respectively. This means that the region has plenty of room to implement Complete Streets policies - like adding sidewalks - as the thousands of miles of roads are maintained and overhauled.
The Metro Boston region is doing well in terms of environmental sustainability, but more can be done to promote sustainability goals across all of the region’s communities. The average household drives less than the national average, but in some low-density suburbs households are driving an astounding amount - up to 90 miles per day. This high level of driving has profound effects on household budgets, congestion, and the environment. Promoting land use and transportation policies that encourage access to public transit and other forms of transportation across community types is crucial for the success of regional sustainability initiatives and meeting Metro Boston goals. The effect of the built environment on the environmental health of our cities, regions, and the globe is a growing concern among local, state, and federal policymakers. Efforts to reduce the environmental impact of urban populations while maintaining a high quality of life can be a delicate balancing act. Vehicle ownership data shows that Metro Boston households that are able to afford to own a car generally do, but nearly one-third of Metro Boston households that are less able to afford a car do so as well. This is presumably because of the perceived benefits of ownership as compared to other forms of travel. Investing in public transportation networks and encouraging the use of other travel modes that minimize carbon emissions is a significant step towards environmental sustainability that can also have positive repercussions for local communities and households. Transit-oriented development projects, for example, typically incorporate high-density land uses with pedestrian, bike, and mass transit facilities. These projects promote opportunities for civic and social engagement while offering a wide range of environmentally-friendly ways to access them.
Vehicle miles travelled (VMT) per household is a simple and fundamentally important indicator of the sustainability of the region's transportation system. It corresponds to congestion, transportation costs, and GHG emissions. Measuring VMT is also an indicator of the region's car dependence, or how much households rely on car travel for mobility.
Based on odomoeter readings from annual safety inspections, we estimate that households in Metro Boston drive an average of 41 miles per day, or nearly 15,000 miles per year. While a precisely comparable estimate is not available for other states, many sources indicate that the national average is 54 miles per day. Thus, VMT data suggests that households in the Metro Boston region don’t have to drive to drive as far, or as frequently, to reach work and other destinations.
The daily VMT numbers vary considerably across community types- with households in the Developing Suburbs driving more than twice as much for day-to-day activities when compared to those in the Inner Core. Inner Core households drive an average of 24 miles daily, while those in the Regional Urban Centers drive around 40 miles per day. Average households drive 49 and 61 miles in the Maturing and Developing Suburbs respectively. Inner Core communities account for 30% of the households in the region, and under 20% of the total household VMT in the region. The numbers are reversed for the suburban municipalities, which account for little over 40% of the total households and almost 60% of the regional VMT.
While it will likely always be the case that households in the suburbs drive more miles per day than do urban households, getting more cars off the roads is an important strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Suburban VMT and its impacts may be reduced through land use policies that cluster housing and jobs near existing town and village centers and around transportation nodes; or by making alternatives to driving like transit, walking, and biking more convenient.
Transportation related GHG emissions are a significant contributor to the region's carbon footprint. In 2013, the transportation sector, which includes passenger cars and trucks, as well as trucks, trains, airplanes, and so on, accounted for 27% of all GHG emissions, the second highest category of emissions after electricity generation1. Households’ GHG emissions from transportation depend on a number of factors, most principally total miles but also fuel type and fuel efficiency age of the household’s vehicle or vehicles.
The average Metro Boston household region produces 7,600 kilograms (kgs) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents due to driving each year. Suburban households' transportation emissions are higher at over 10,000 kgs CO2 equivalents annually, compared to 4,300 kgs for Inner Core communities and 7,500 kgs for Regional Urban Centers. Inner Core communities contribute about 20% to the region's total passenger VMT but only 13% to the annual CO2 emissions, compared to the 30% VMT share by Developing Suburbs contributing 35% to the region's household transportation emissions.
While owning a car is often considered part of “The American Dream”, it nevertheless incurs a variety of congestion-related and environmental impacts. The increasing availability of transit, car-share, and other transportation alternatives, may render it less attractive, even for those who can afford it. The city of Boston has the third-highest rate of zero-car households and is one of only six in the country where over a third of its households do not own vehicles. Not owning a vehicle, however, should be a choice for households rather than a financial constraint, and households’ mobility and access to opportunities and other common destinations should not be reduced should they choose not to own a vehicle. MetroFuture aims to lower the number of vehicles owned across all income categories.
This indicator measures the number of car-free households of moderate or high incomes (defined as more than 80% of the region's area median income, approximately $78,000 for a family of four). About 5% of such households in the region do not own a car. All most all such households are in the urban municipalities (Inner Core and Regional Urban Centers). In suburban communities, only 1% of moderate or high-income households are car-free, versus 19-26% of lower-income households.
Data also show that the percent of car-free mid and high-income households has not changed since 2000. Distressingly, the share of extremely low income (ELI) households that own one or more cars has increased 3% since 2000, indicating that more ELI households feel having a car (and the expense it entails) is a necessity. Clearly, more is needed to provide more mobility options – such as transit, car share, shared ride, or other services - to help reduce the burden on these households.
Maintaining the physical quality and capabilities of our transportation infrastructure is critical for many reasons beyond mobility and access. Poorly maintained infrastructure is hazardous for public safety; is fiscally irresponsible in terms of both initial investment and continued upkeep; and can be detrimental to the economic stability of the region. One need not be reminded of the Winter of 2015, when multiple MBTA shutdowns and dangerous driving conditions left the Boston metropolitan region paralyzed. Massachusetts and Metro Boston are doing moderatley well in terms of keeping road conditions consistent, but much could be done in the way of improving the quality and capacity of the transportation network. Bridges and roads are generally in good condition, and the vast majority of MassDOT maintained facilities are meeting performance goals. Unfortunately, mass transit infrastructure is in a very different situation, and the signs are not good for rapid improvement. Currently, the majority of the MBTA’s fleet of subway cars, buses, and commuter trains are past their useful service life. The Massachusetts legislature and state transportation officials have committed some funds for the purposes of upgrading transit vehicles, but not enough to remedy years of underfunding and mismanagement. More revenue and reforms are needed to reduce a growing MBTA fiscal capital backlog and bring our public transportation system into reliable, working condition.
The worsening condition of the nation’s roads and bridges is an important issue for stakeholders across many interest groups, including transportation administrators and planners, freight engineers, and safety advocates. Transportation 4 America recently noted that three times as many bridges were repaired between 1992 and 1996 as were repaired between 2008 and 2012 (2013). The 2007 collapse of an I-35W bridge in Minneapolis demonstrated that deferred maintenance does not only result in potholes and flat tires, it can have acute and even deadly impacts with far-reaching repercussions. As the belts have tightened around federal, state and local maintenance budgets, administrators are often faced with a difficult challenge when it comes to improving bridge conditions: how to pay for it. Despite funding challenges, maintaining safe and secure bridge structures is imperative for the stability and growth of cities and regions.
Tracking the number and share of bridges with structural flaws or inconsistencies is important from infrastructure, safety, and maintenance perspectives. When it comes to bridges with serious structural deficiencies, Massachusetts is doing well. In fact, the Commonwealth has a comparable share (8.9%) of bridges with significant deteriorations as within peer states (8%), and a lower share than the nation as a whole (10%). There has been progress in terms of the restoration and maintenance of Massachusetts bridges considered structurally deficient since 1992, when almost 19% of bridges were considered deficient.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) defines ‘functionally obsolete’ bridges as those that “(do) not meet current design standards (for criteria such as lane width), either because the volume of traffic carried by the bridge exceeds the level anticipated when the bridge was constructed and/or the relevant design standards have been revised”. Functionally obsolete bridges are not necessarily unsafe, but may be outdated in terms of efficiency and traffic flow. Due in part to the historic character of the state, the Commonwealth significantly trails behind both peer states and the U.S. in terms of the share of bridges that are up-to-date from a materials-and-design perspective: 45% of bridges in the state are outdated, compared to 23% of bridges in peer states and 14% of bridges nationally. Progress has been made since 1992, but the share of obsolete bridges in the state has remained above 40%, while nationally this figure has consistently been under 20%.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is responsible for approximatley 13% of the roadway miles across the state that carry approximatley 58% of annual vehicle miles travelled in the entire Commonwealth. To track the quality of MassDOT roads, the Department includes “Pavement Serviceability” as an indicator in its annual performance management report. The PSI, or Pavement Serviceability Index, rates roadway conditions on a five-point scale: a score of 0 indicates ‘impassable’ and a score of 5 indicates ‘perfectly smooth’. As of 2013 (the most recent year for which data are available), 66% of state-maintained pavement in good or excellent condition. This is an improvement when comprared to the years immediatley prior, but down somewhat since 2009, when 69.2% of state roads were in good or excellent condition. 2013 marked the first year since 2009 in which performance targets were met. While the current value exceeds the MassDOT performance target, it should be noted that MassDOT reduced their performance targets from 80% of pavement in good to excellent condition to 65% in 2012.
The condition of MBTA vehicles is critically important for the safety and convenience of the riders making 32 million trips per month. Vehicles that continue to be active past their recommended retirement age likely cost more to maintain and are less reliable than vehicles within their useful life. More than 2/3 of the MBTA fleet is old enough to be considered ‘beyond useful life’ as of January 2015. While many of these vehicles have been upgraded or rebuilt during their tenure in the MBTA fleet, outdated vehicles are at a greater risk of mechanical failure, overconsumption of resources, and having a negative environmental impact. Concerns over the age of MBTA vehicles are well-documented. The condition of transit vehicles has been at the forefront of transit advocates’ agendas since the Winter of 2015 shuttered the MBTA system for several days.
Useful life standards vary according to vehicle type. All 120 cars in the Orange Line fleet, are well over 25 years old, and past the recommended retirement age of these types of cars. Over 60% of Red Line cars and nearly 50% of Green Line trolleys are operating past their recommended active life. Blue Line cars, the entireties of which were built between 2005 and 2009, are among the newest vehicles in MBTA service.
The situation is just as bad – if not worse – when it comes to commuter rail locomotives and coaches. As of January 2015, 82.5% of locomotives and 81% of coaches were older than their recommended service life. The MBTA Capital Investment Plan includes the recently-acquired Hyundai Rotem coaches as being in active use, but not the 40 new locomotives that were delivered but found to have defective. Buses have a recommended useable life of 12 years. Out of the 1124 total buses in the MBTA fleet (including 1069 traditional and 55 Silver Line vehicles), 77% of traditional buses and 38% of Silver Line buses continue to be in operations despite being older than their useful life.
The MBTA is over a century old, and it is showing its age on top of years of underfunding and poor management. MBTA officials have identified a list of necessary repairs to vehicles, tracks, signals, and other essential parts of the system to bring them up to a state of good repair. The funds needed to make these repairs now total $7.3 billion dollars, not including adjustments for inflation over the many years it will take the MBTA to work through the repairs. Identifying the list of backlogged projects, the MBTA set a goal of spending $472 million dollars annually, the lowest amount it could spend to prevent the backlog from increasing.
Unfortunately the MBTA has not reached this spending target in any of the last seven years. It spends an average of $389 million, well below the level needed to keep the state of good repair backlog from increasing. The backlog is drawing renewed attention after the winter storms of 2015 hit the MBTA. Spending in fiscal year 2015 was $463 million, less than ten million dollars shy of the target number. However, as the MBTA falls behind its goal each year, the total amount of the backlog increases, and the annual spending needed to maintain but not add to the list increases that much more.
Transportation funding has been a controversial issue in Massachusetts for the past several years. As the largest component of the state’s overall investment portfolio, transportation infrastructure, facilities and initiatives are significant assets to the state. The transportation program requires stable sources of financing to ensure the maintenance, efficiency, and growth of the overall network. But beyond the utility of the network itself, a stable transportation finance package is necessary in the context of fiscal accountability and meeting responsibilities to taxpayers, residents, and other stakeholders.
The allocation of transportation expenses at the state and agency levels have been relatively stable over time. Both MassDOT at-large and the MBTA prioritize operating over debt-service expenses to about the same degree. However, while changes to the breakdown of the allocations vary slightly, the actual amount being spent on operations and debt servicing has risen significantly due to increases in general MassDOT employee compensation and to the MBTA financing structure as adopted under Forward Funding.
In order to put the state’s transportation network, including the MBTA on firm financial ground, reforms with respect to the way in which transportation and especially transit operations are funded are desperately needed. Several proposals to improve the financial outlook of the MBTA have been floated, and the recently convened Fiscal and Management Control Board has assumed responsibility for evaluating and implementing a plan.
In FY2014, MassDOT spent just shy of $1 billion on total operating expenses, inclusive of daily operating costs and requisite debt servicing payments. This is a 27% increase in overall operating costs from the previous year, and a 60% increase from FY2012. The rise in the costs associated with daily operations is driving the increase in total operating expenditures. Compared with one year previous, operating costs rose 33%, and compared with two years previous, costs rose over 78%. As a share of the total operating budget, the percent consumed by daily operating costs has risen from 76% in FY2012 to 85% in FY2014. On the other hand, debt service payments are accounting for less and less of total operating expenses each year, despite the dollar amount earmarked for debt payments remaining relatively stable. In FY2014, MassDOT spent less on debt service as a share of overall operating costs than the previous year, but the dollar amount increased 0.5%.
Overall MBTA expenses, including the amount spent on both operating costs and loan repayment (aka debt servicing), have grown significantly since 1991. According to projections made through the end of FY2016, operating expenses have risen 183.6% over the most recent five year period, while the amount spent on loan principal and interest has grown 168.7%. In terms of cost, operating expenses consistently account for the lion’s share of spending – 73%, on average - with debt service accounting for the remaining 27% of expenses.
Although the enactment of Forward Funding shifted the debt burden for planned future major infrastructure projects as well as transferred existing prior obligation debts from the state to the MBTA, the MBTA has been consistent before, during, and since Forward Funding in terms of the share of expenses going towards loan repayment. Since 1991, the T has spent between 22% and 23% of its annual budget on debt servicing, peaking at 33% in 1999 and generally declining since then. Unfortunately, the magnitude of the T's debt burden continues to increase.
It is no secret that MassDOT, and to a greater degree the MBTA, is in the throes of a fiscal crisis. Keeping on top of the details of the MBTA’s finances is important not just for the future of MBTA services, but for maintaining efficiency in day-to-day MBTA operations. In particular, the projected operating shortfall is an immediate indicator of how well the MBTA is able to cover its own service expenses. Projected operating shortfall is calculated as the difference between operating income - including fare, advertising and concession, and real estate operations income – and operating expenses - including employee wages, benefits, contributions to the health and welfare fund, payroll taxes, materials, supplies and services, casualty and liability payments, purchased commuter rail services, purchased local services expenses, and financial services charges. Thus, the pattern of MBTA operating deficit presented in the chart below represents the annual difference between revenue generated through active service operations and the expenses incurred due to those services. In short, this indicator is a measure of how well the MBTA is able to provide for its own expenses.
Since 1991 – or the era of what might be called ‘backwards funding’ - the MBTA operating gap has grown significantly. Between 1991 and 2001 – when Forward Funding was enacted – trends in the operating deficit lack any identifiable pattern. Despite a significant dip between 1994 and 1996 that closed the operating gap a little, by 2001 the deficit had increased by just over 8% over the decade, a growth that largely kept pace with the rate of inflation.
In providing the MBTA with a dedicated revenue stream in the form of 20% of the state sales taxes, Forward Funding was intended to bring fiscal stability to the MBTA. However, the economic downturn that depressed anticipated sales tax contributions coupled with rising operating expenses has widened the gap in MBTA finances. Since Forward Funding was enacted in 2001, the upward trend in the agency’s operating deficit has been strong and steady. In contrast to the trends before Forward Funding, between 2001 and 2011- the ten years immediately following Forward Funding – the operating gap grew by 92.7% and is projected to widen through 2016. In fact, the estimated $900 million gap is twice what the operating deficit was in the last year before Forward Funding was enacted ($451.3 million in 2000). Efforts to maximize revenue and improve efficiency are fundamental to slowing the growth in this operating cap, but it is not likely to be closed in the immediate future. As a result, increased and predictable state commitments are needed to cover the T's expenses.