The Price of Public Transit

The Problem

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) is $5.2 billion in debt. A couple days ago the MBTA unveiled its plan for survival over the next year. It involves a 23% fare increase and some service cuts. But this isn't near enough; they stress that this is only a one-year fix, and that they'll be in the same position next year, looking at more cuts and fare hikes.

Many people are outraged at the situation, myself included. This problem didn't exist ten years ago. The MBTA's funding structure was fundamentally changed on June 1st, 2000. Before then, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts paid for any deficits the MBTA might incur. Beginning on that date, the MBTA was instead given a fixed percentage of state revenue, and asked to live within this new "forward funding" budget. In addition, the authority was saddled with around $1.8 billion in debt from some renovations that were conducted as part of the Big Dig. This debt has only increased since then, and the MBTA no longer has any money for expansion.[1]

"So surely the T cuts are unfair!" I thought. Surely the problem can be solved by having the state reassume all debt. It's in the state's interest to do so, or else the lack of good quality transit will surely strangle our city!

I recently made my first trip to Europe, and like most first-time American visitors was thoroughly impressed and jealous at their transit systems. As far as I'm aware, transit there is subsidized by the government. As soon as I saw how well it operated, this became an obvious solution to me. Clearly if the government supports road infrastructure, they should support all transportation infrastructure. Like insurance, or the power grid, public transit is one of those things that only work well when everyone buys in at once. It operates as a network. Facebook would not be successful if it weren't for the fact that all your friends already use it. If only some of your friends used it, you might not have joined in the first place. And Facebook would be a weaker service for it. Something clicked. It all made sense; all we had to do was fund the T with taxes!

But after I returned home, I realized something. I actually paid more for a subway ride in Berlin than I did in Boston. Granted, the trains ran much faster and came much more often and ran later, but I paid a lot more for it (about $4 to our $1.70). The European systems also seemed to cover more ground than the Boston system, but then I learned that the MBTA has in fact beenĀ the fastest-expanding transit system in the nation for about 20 years. Maybe the new T fare isn't as unfair as I originally thought. So I decided to a bit more investigating.

Some Price Comparisons

I chose to look at Munich, as its size probably makes it comparable to Boston. Our prices are comparable to Munich's, except for single rides. A single ride under the new MBTA prices will cost up to $2.00. People in Munich already pay $3.33 for a single ride. However, the weekly and monthly passes in Munich are exactly the same as ours. This makes sense. We should encourage people to buy into the pass. Currently, for the Boston pass to be worth it, a person has to make at least 5 round-trips per week. Basically, you would only buy the pass if you rode the T every day. This doesn't encourage people to buy into the program, and thereby become reliant on it.

However, Berlin is much more expensive (which is odd, because you'd think a larger city would be able to take advantage of economies of scale). Our 7-day pass is currently less than half the price of Berlin's 7-day pass, $15 to their $36. (The Germans are smart to hike this price, because this is the de facto tourist ticket. No one who lives there would buy a weekly pass. On the other hand, in Basel, all hotel rooms come with a free tram pass for the duration of your stay, which made for a great tourist experience. But Basel is a lot smaller than Boston.) The Berlin monthly pass is also much pricier, and even their special, year-long pass isn't as cheap as 12 monthly MBTA passes. So it would seem that the Europeans pay as much or more than we do for transit, although I would say that their systems are a lot more efficient than ours.

Buying Into It

I think another obstacle is that gas here is too cheap. Gasoline (and diesel) in Europe is at least twice what it is here, and up to 4 times as much, or more. In addition, we're individualists, and we want to be able to come and go as we please, and where we please, and not be beholden to someone else's schedule. Instead, we'd rather be beholden to our insurance companies, oil futures, and the interest on our car loans. And so we don't buy into the system the same way the Europeans do. Seems like we have more freedom, but do we really?

So, it would seem (from my cursory, unscientific examination) the Europeans pay as much or more than we do. But they have a much nicer system, that is faster, more convenient, and covers more area. They get a lot more bang for their buck, because they buy into it. Can the government force people to buy in by subsidizing the T with tax money? I don't know. Cultural habits are not normally broken so easily. Bad public transit has become a part of our culture, in many ways. We love to make fun of the bad transit, to scoff at them for getting everything wrong, to blame them for our daily commute or our stressful job. People will never buy in as long as it's hip to ridicule the transit authority. Our whole attitude to public transit needs to change, or it will never improve. When I think about this, balancing the budget doesn't really scare me anymore. Getting people to respect the T is going to be a lot harder.

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