Two Keys To Getting Bus Riders

The other day, I was at a meeting in Springfield, MA and a city planner asked me the question, “What are you [the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority] doing to attract new bus riders?”

His question was spurred on by a lot of things happening in Springfield that would benefit from having more people ride the bus – the development of the MGM Casino in downtown, bringing thousands of more people in the congested city daily; the recent adoption of the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan; increased interest in transit from the local Pedestrian and Bicycle Committee; the pain of the last round of cuts to the bus system, and the looming threat of yet more.

ghg reduction targets
Springfield GHG Emissions Reduction Targets. Source: PVPC

As I formulated an answer, I was reminded of something that David Block-Schachter, Chief Technology Officer at the MBTA said on a panel a few months ago. In response to the question of, “How do you improve the customer experience for bus riders?”, he responded with something like (I’m paraphrasing):

“You know, riding the bus is pretty unpleasant. You get to the bus stop and maybe it’s too hot or too cold out, or raining. You stand there waiting for the bus to come and hope it’s not locked in standing traffic. You get on the bus and you’re shoulder to shoulder with strangers, some of whom might be coughing or sneezing or smelly.”

Since then, Elon Musk has raised the ire of many transit professionals for voicing largely the same points. At a tech conference earlier this month, he said (via Wired):

“I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? And it doesn’t go all the time.”

“It’s a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

While Elon Musk was using this criticism as a basis for dismantling public transportation, Block-Schachter used it as a launching pad for ways to improve the customer experience. He explained ways that transit agencies can reduce the bad parts about transit and enhance those reasons why, despite the “pain in the ass” of doing so, millions of Americans take transit every day.

Toward Better Buses

Despite the obvious problems and annoyances that come with riding transit, people still do so, and indeed do so every day. Why? Well, here is why I ride the bus:

  1. I save a bunch of money by taking the bus or biking (I wrote about that here – roughly $5,000 per year)
  2. I help the environment by not driving.
  3. I get to read on the way to work.
  4. Occasionally I get to chat with a coworker who also rides the bus.
  5. I hate driving.
  6. I hate parking.

I’d like to think that those reasons are enough to convince most people to bike, walk, or take the bus to get where they’re going, but alas, 88% of workers drive to work in the Pioneer Valley. So how can we make the bus more attractive?

The Livable Streets Alliance out of Boston has a campaign called the “Better Buses” initiative, which states that a better bus:

  • Provides consistent, reliable service on a network of streets where buses are given dedicated right of way.
  • Improves safety for bicyclists and pedestrians by traveling in specific, predictable lanes with platform-level boarding.
  • Stops at enclosed bus stations that welcome riders with real-time data and device-charging stations.
  • Appeals to all commuters because of its reliability, speed, comfort, and cost.

These are all great suggestions. But I have two other thoughts.

Transit Needs Density (and Vice Versa)

The way we build our cities dictates the level of transit use. Elon Musk is right that most people will always choose to drive themselves because of all the annoying things about using transit. Cities should be designed, from the building density to the roadway layout, to encourage transit if you want people to use it.

Cars are fundamentally incompatible with cities due to simple geometry: cities exist so that people can be closer together to share ideas, and pool resources for things like infrastructure, stores, workplaces, etc. Cars, on the other hand, require that things be spread out so that they can easily navigate at high speeds, and will have a place to be stored (i.e. parking). Cars and people have fundamentally opposite needs, and it’s a simple matter of geometry, not values or opinions.

A chart showing transit mode share correlated to population density. Source: Greater Greater Washington

Transit Must Be Sexy


It’s no coincidence that car companies have ads all over the place showing rugged men in trucks, or attractive Millennials in crossovers, or whatever. Car companies have invested a huge amount of money selling cars as a lifestyle, not just a way to get where you’re going.

I’ve always thought that things like T: The MBTA Musical, or the Twitter account @OptimistMBTA are doing a great marketing job of normalizing the MBTA as the default way of getting around Boston. Sadly, the PVTA doesn’t have any similar level of cultural presence, though could benefit greatly from that kind of media exposure. People need to be reminded of why they should ride transit, because otherwise they’re being hit over the head constantly of why they should be driving.

optimist mbta
@OptimistMBTA Tweets

Of course, cultural cache and urban design aren’t really within the control of a transit agency. I at least have hope for Springfield, however, that some of the issues that are within their control can be engineered to the benefit of the bus service. So many goals, from the economic to the environmental, will be furthered by doing so.


**Note: These views are my own and in no way reflect the opinions of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.


Building Highways, Cutting Transit

As you might have read, the FY18 state budget reduced funding for transit (resulting in service cuts) and cut the Springfield-to-Boston rail study entirely. Adding insult to injury, the legislature decided in the same budget to fund a study on building a new exit on the Mass. Pike somewhere between Westfield and Lee, probably around Blandford. As the MassLive article puts it, “[State Representative] Pignatelli argued that a turnpike exit could spark economic development in the hill towns, as well as provide convenience to residents who must currently travel to Lee or Westfield to access I-90.”

blandford exit
Proposed area for a new exit

Cutting funding to transit and rail while funding a study for a new highway exit is a terrible move by the commonwealth for the following reasons:

  1. Environmental Goals: It runs totally counter to well-established state goals. For example, MassDOT went through an intensive process to create a sustainability plan (“GreenDOT”) and established mode shift goals of tripling the amount of biking, walking and transit by 2030. Also, the state has passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Adding a Mass. Pike exit promotes driving and undermines both goals. 
  2. Land Use Goals: Just like building the highways in the first place resulted in the suburban boom that dominates our metro areas, building this new exit in the Hill Towns is indeed going to “spark economic development.” Land values will go up near the exit, farmers will subdivide and develop new single-family housing, and businesses will follow that new growth into what was once green fields. This runs totally contrary to the land use program goals of the state, which seeks to encourage Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development. 

    suburban development
    Big box stores, chain restaurants, and post-war suburban housing around Mass. Pike Exit 7
  3. Economic Goals: The same processes that sucked the Springfield and Holyoke economies dry in the post-war period will still be at work today if an exit is built. When our “Gateway Cities” (smaller regional hubs like Springfield, Holyoke, Fitchburg, etc., that have struggled economically over the past few decades) are finally starting to see a turnaround, it makes no sense for the state to facilitate businesses locating into rural areas.
  4. Equity Goals: And perhaps the most egregious of all, this highway exit is going to overwhelmingly benefit relatively well-to-do white families living in the Hill Towns, while the cuts to transit service disproportionately impacts low-income people of color. This is counter to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to multiple programs run by the MassDOT Office of Diversity and Civil Rights.
Poverty map
Map of poverty in Hampden and Hampshire Counties by Block Group. Note the dark blue of Springfield and Holyoke, and the light blue of Blandford. 

The political argument for the exit is that it will better serve people who live in Blandford, Chester, Russell, etc. And that’s true, it will (at least those who drive). But the people who live in these communities moved there knowing that highway access is not very good. And while their convenience would probably increase, their private benefit is outweighed by the cost to the public.

Not only would the new exit promote more driving, more destruction of farmland and open space, and the relocation of business activity from Springfield to Blandford, but there is also the opportunity cost of building the exit – what else could that money have been used for? (I have a suggestion – fully funding PVTA.)

If the state and the region are serious about climate change, about downtown revitalization, about smart growth, then PVPC and MassDOT must make crystal clear in this legislatively mandated study that the project hurts the public and conflicts with myriad state policy goals.

They say that actions speak louder than words. Massachusetts has some excellent policies on the books regarding climate change, active living, equity, and urban revitalization. Building this new exit would show that those policies are nothing more than just words.

The Boring, Crucial Topic of Transit Governance

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Transportation Camp New England, a transportation unconference. Basically, the idea is you get a whole lot of smart people into the same place and let them lead the workshops, round tables, breakout sessions, etc. Leave lots of time between the sessions for exchanging ideas, challenging conventional wisdom, and otherwise generating the kind of valuable interaction that breeds innovation.

The Transit Governance Session at Transportation Camp NE

One of the sessions that I attended had to do with transit governance, and how to design effective systems for high-quality, reliable, efficient service. The discussion was good, if a bit meandering, and there were several interesting take-aways. For me, though, the part focusing on funding stuck the most.

What is Transit Governance, and Why Should I Care?

To start with, let me admit that transit governance is not exciting. It ranks up there with procedural votes in the senate, or the US Tax Code. But governance is really important. At its core, governance structure outlines who has authority to decide how money gets spent, and that’s something we all care about.

For example, transit governance is going to impact whether the Green Line Extension gets built or shelved. It’s going to determine if South Coast Rail is ever going to move forward. Closer to home, it will decide if the State Street BRT project in Springfield gets implemented, or ends up just being another report collecting dust.

Governance dictates who has the final word on project, or a particular service, or whether you can even appeal a decision if your pet project or service is cut. Governance dictates who builds the project list to begin with.

eno report
Eno Report: Getting to the Route of It

There are a lot of governance arrangements used around the country, and the Eno Foundation produced a series of case studies about transit governance called Getting to the Route of It: The Role of Governance in Regional Transit. The report compares the MBTA quite favorably to other transit governance systems around the country. This is for a couple of reasons:


  1. The MBTA is a unified system, in contrast to the San Francisco Bay Area for example, which has 27 distinct transit providers in the region.
  2. Because of the economic and political importance of Boston, the state has a vested interest in keeping the MBTA solvent and operational.

Anyway, this is an interesting report and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read through it.

How Massachusetts Transit is Funded

Getting back to the Transportation Camp session on transit governance, the main issue that stood out for me was the discussion on funding. Over half of all MBTA operating revenue comes from the state, and the numbers aren’t that different for the other regional transit authorities (like PVTA).

MBTA revenue sources
Source: MBTA FY15 Budget

We discussed at length the challenges of relying so much on state funding. The biggest problem is that it disconnects who pays and who benefits. In economics, there is the principle of user pays/user benefits. This means that people who use a service should pay for that service, either directly through user fees (think electric bill) or indirectly through taxes (think municipal taxes for garbage collection).

However, the MBTA is given 20% of statewide sales taxes through the system called “Forward Funding.” This means that sales tax revenue from Pittsfield is subsidizing transit service in Cambridge. This is one of many reasons why the politics of funding the MBTA have been so fraught. The people who are paying for the service aren’t the ones benefiting (at least directly*).

A much smaller share of revenue comes from local assessments, which are paid by member communities based on a formula (I’m not sure what the formula is, but I think it’s a combination of population, ridership, route miles, and probably other factors as well). It should be noted that state-originated funding comprises 55-60% of MBTA revenue, while local assessments are just 8%.

Regional transit authorities (RTAs), such as the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, have more or less the same financial arrangement as the MBTA, though less of their funding comes from the state. Some RTAs also use federal funding for operations, typically for paratransit. Here is the FY13 PVTA budget breakdown as a comparison:

PVTA Revenue sources
Source: 2013 PVTA Annual Report

The MBTA and RTAs do differ in how their oversight boards are constituted. While the MBTA has a governor-appointed oversight board, RTA boards are composed of elected officials from the member communities. On the one hand, that probably makes RTAs more responsive to the needs and concerns of their constituents; on the other hand, it means that the governing entity (municipalities) has little control over the bulk of their funding (from the state).


March 2016 PVTA Advisory Board Meeting

Connecting Money to Decisions

A key point that came out of the discussion at Transportation Camp was the funding sources should be connected to the governing body. And, furthermore, that the governing body should be representative of the people benefiting from the service. The Massachusetts model of transit funding, with so much support from and/or control by the state, doesn’t quite hit the mark.

To provide a contrast, transit agencies in Oregon are funded through a regional payroll tax. This adheres more closely to the user pays/user benefits principle, by creating a regional revenue source for a service that benefits the region. There was a lot of speculating on whether the MBTA could transition to a funding model more like that – phase out some state funding and replace it with regional funding, like a small payroll tax or a regional sales tax, for example.

Given that the MBTA and RTAs only recently went through transportation reform in 2009 which bound them more closely to MassDOT, I find it unlikely that any transit governance devolution is coming soon. But if we have another winter like 2014, or some other major transit failure, it is entirely possible that the state may want to rethink how it supports transit. Such an effort would be tedious, boring, and, of course, crucially important.


*There is a lot of argument about this point. Those who support Forward Funding argue that the economic engine of Massachusetts is Boston, and so people around the state benefit from the city having functional transportation. I’ll let people continue to argue about it, and just make the point that this funding mechanism severely complicates the politics of “fully funding” the MBTA.