A Twitterer recently found a 1972 plan for transit-level service along many of Boston’s rail corridors and was floored that ridership on what we now know as Commuter Rail at that time was only 16,000 per day (it was 80,000 in the ’40s and now hovers around 70,000). It has indeed grown, especially the South Side lines: in 1972, only 600 people rode the Worcester Line daily (the then-speedy Mass Pike having recently opened); many single Worcester Line trains now carry that many; the line has grown more than 15-fold over the past 40 years.
But the time of impressive growth is even more impressive: in 1981, ridership on Commuter Rail still hovered around 17,000. And then it began to grow. By 1990, it had more than doubled. And during the 1990s, it more than doubled again, so that by 2000 there were more than four times as many riders as there had been two decades before. Some of this is attributable to extensions after service cuts in the ‘70s, and new service on the Old Colony Lines. But a lot is due to the revitalization of downtown Boston following the growth of the 128 corridor, worsening traffic, and higher parking costs.
For 22 years, from 1981 to 2003, Commuter Rail traffic grew every year but one: 1991, after the collapse of the “Massachusetts Miracle.” But it took off again thereafter, peaking at 74,000 daily riders in 2003.
It hasn’t been that high since.
At first, flat ridership could be blamed on the early-2000s recession. But in the past 15 years, ridership has stagnated. If ridership growth had continued, linearly, at the 1981-2003 rate, it would be poised to cross the 100,000 threshold this year. Instead, the numbers of riders has barely budged, fluctuating up and down as the economy, traffic, and the price of gas has ebbed and flowed, none of them seeming to dramatically affect ridership.
Except for fares. Take a look at the chart. It certainly seems that, once fares started to rise dramatically, ridership flattened out. In the last fifteen years, commuter rail fares have gone up 250%, while they didn’t rise that much in the 20 previous years (despite higher inflation). Subway fares have risen as well, but the nominal amount the fares have risen is very different.
In the ’80s and ’90s, a ride on the T cost 60 or 85 cents (that’s a token, by the way) while Commuter Rail fares ranged from $1.75 to $3, rising to $2.25 to $4. The ratios were similar to today (the highest Commuter Rail fare about five times a subway fare), but the difference only $3. Now? The difference between a tap of a Charlie Card and a punch of a ticket is $8, which is a much greater difference.
There are two salient bits here. First, subway ridership, despite the same relative rise in fares, has seen dramatic increase in passenger counts in recent years, despite the increases in fares. At issue here is the fact that Commuter Rail and urban rail are different populations: Commuter Rail passengers have more options. Most own cars. If the cost of driving and parking is not much more than commuter rail—and parking and driving costs haven’t more than doubled in the past 10 years—they are more likely to abandon the rails and head for the highways. If the MBTA provided excellent rail service, with fast speeds and reliability, this would be less of an push factor. But with old equipment and slow track, it is.
The second piece is that outside of peak travel times, the train generally can’t compete with vehicles on travel time, and on weekends, on ease or cost of parking. And while many trains at rush hour are near capacity, there is plenty of capacity on off-peak and weekend trains. It’s possible that if the T offered off-peak savings—say, $2 off all fares beyond zone 1A, or half off, or something—they could drive enough additional ridership to cover the lost fare revenue, all the while taking cars off the road, which is good for everyone. As would having sensible, clockface midday schedules. And it might even help ridership trends.
It’s rather obvious that Commuter Rail ridership is more elastic than subway ridership: when fares go up, ridership might not go down, but previous trends level off. Since urban riders would cry foul if local fares rose faster than Commuter Rail fares (the subsidy per ride is higher for Commuter Rail riders, although the subsidy per mile is about even), increasing Commuter Rail ridership would require better service. Given the recent performance of the Commuter Rail, this may be a tall order. But it should be a goal.
Another interesting piece of data would be the level of service on the lines. I feel like frequencies got better and then stagnated, but I'm not sure how or whether that correlated with the stagnation in ridership. There have been extensions, certainly, and lots of new parking, but not a whole lot of new service, or at least that's what it feels like. It's also possible that the Commuter Rail has managed to reach some kind of equilibrium in its mostly-9-5-commuter niche, and to expand they're going to have to look at other markets, like regional non-commuter travel. Anecdotally, there's some amount of demand for that, and it's not just Boston-centric. But there are also major obstacles: the expensive tickets, the infrequent and erratic weekend service, and the very Boston-centric nature of everything. You can't even buy a ticket from one branch to another. If I want to go from North Wilmington to Waverley (and I do), not only do I have to pay full-fare for Zone 3 to Boston and Boston to Zone 1, but I can't even do it in one go: I have to actually go to the ticket machine in North Station and wait in line to pay for the second leg of the trip.
Also, on the topic of fares, I recall that back in the day, they used to have both discounted multi-ride tickets (12 for the price of 10), and a "family fare" to encourage people to ride the train with their kids on weekends. The Caltrain equivalent is that monthly passes are good in all zones on weekends, which certainly encouraged me to ride a lot more on weekends back when I had one of those.
I'd argue it the other way, about the fares: commuter rail riders are much richer than subway riders. Higher fares could cause subway riders in Dorchester, Roxbury, and East Boston to cut their public transportation usage – perhaps to the commute trip and nothing else, perhaps bus rather than subway. In contrast, in Mansfield, people who can pay $5 fares can also pay $9.25 fares, and most likely mode choice is based on other factors, like traffic, ease of finding parking, and schedule convenience.
Using the 2010 and 2014 Blue Books, we can figure out where ridership has increased and where it has decreased since 2009. Presumably there's older information including ridership per station. Is there a clear pattern there? The only thing that sticks out in the 2010-14 comparison is that Providence hopped Mansfield and Salem and is now the busiest outlying station, but I didn't look too carefully.
Many commuter rail riders are wealthier, but by no means all. And at off-peak times, more commuter rail ridership comes from larger, outlying cities (Fitchburg Lowell Lawrence Worcester Haverhill Brockton Providence) which are certainly home to many less affluent communities. For travelers using subway or bus service, fares are still far less expensive than driving and parking ($4 round trip, vs $20 for driving and parking or a taxicab). Further out, however, the costs are closer: $17-20 round trip, vs $25 for driving and parking. Offering off-peak fares would make rail service more accessible at times when there is a lot of excess capacity, and make it more competitive with driving.
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