How much money could All Door Boarding save?

This is sort of a post-live blog from Transportation Camp NE. One of the first sessions was regarding all door boarding on the MBTA. There are a lot of ins and outs—notably, that you have to account for all scenarios where people could access the system, for example potentially without paying a fare (Silver Line airport) or having proof thereof (boarded with a friend who paid and parted ways)—but it was a good discussion, and something that is moving forwards, but needs to move faster. I pointed out that the discussion needs to not be pushed by the small minority who complains (loudly) about fare evasion, or really by fare evasion at all, but by vehicle speed and efficiency, since 95% or more of passengers already pay their fare: we need to improve service for the vast majority.

Often, when we talk about all door boarding, we talk about the real and potential time savings. Muni, in San Francisco, started experimenting with all door boarding, and it turned out it worked really well, and they went system-wide, and it has saved passengers time. According to their final report, it saves 1.5 seconds per passenger boarding or alighting, and speeds overall vehicle speed by 2%. 1.5 seconds does not seem like a large number, but it begins to get a lot bigger when aggregated over a large number of passengers.
SF Muni and the MBTA have a similar number of surface passengers: about 500,000. (The T has about 400,000 bus passengers and another 100,000 or so surface boardings of light rail; looking at only surface lines, the T and Muni are actually quite similar in terms of size.) So, if we can save 1.5 seconds per person—we’ll look only at boardings, since many trips either end at a terminal station where all doors are used or are surface Green Line boardings that end in a tunnel—we wind up with 750,000 seconds saved per day. This is, rounded down a bit, 200 hours saved. The cost of operating an MBTA bus is about $163 per hour, and for a light rail vehicle $250 per hour. Let’s assume that half of that is direct operating cost: operator wages and such. Assuming the lower bound, it would save $16,000 per day. Even if there were no savings on non-weekdays, in 250 weekdays it would equate to operational savings of $4 million
Savings add up, quick.
Let’s look at it a different way. A full, two-car Green Line train in the morning carries approximately 300 passengers. On the B or the D lines, the surface portion of the route takes 32 to 34 minutes to run at peak rush hour (according to the T’s scheduled time). Saving 1.5 seconds on each of these boardings, would equate to 450 seconds, or 7.5 minutes: more than a 20% savings for the above ground route. With the addition of signal priority on the B line, you could be looking at speeding the route by 30% or more—a game changer for one of the slowest—and most heavily-used—surface lines.
The transit planners will say “well, these savings will probably just be added in to headway recovery time.” First of all, if you actually do realize a 7 minute saving, you’re talking about an entire rush hour headway, so I doubt it will all disappear, unless you are going to be lining up multiple vehicles at rush hour. But second of all, if these wind up making headway recovery times much more even, that’s great. That means you’ll have the same capacity without having to dispatch a train as soon as it arrives, but rather on even headways. This is likely to reduce the number of vehicles that wind up bunching, overloading and slowing down.
But let’s run with the $4 million figure. There are, on buses and the Green Line, probably about 1500 doors that would need car readers. If a pole-mounted reader costs $4000, the system could be paid for in a year and a half. Or if the system were assumed to last five years, you’d have $20 million to put towards the cost of the readers ($6 million) and additional enforcement ($12 million, or $2.4 million per year).
Oh, and customers? They’d get a faster ride. It’s a win-win, for everyone. Except the few curmudgeons who are less concerned with how the vehicles run, and more about the anecdote about the person they once saw jump a fare gate.

MBTA ridership and demand elasticity

This spring, I wrote about how the MBTA’s fares are really not that high. Fares went up on the order of 20 to 25%, and the T apparently expected ridership to fall by 5% or so. The numbers are in for the first month and while ridership did fall (the first decline, year-over-year, in 14 months), it was off by less than 1/10 of 1%.

There’s a local company which builds pricing software which is not surprised. They studied the base transit fare and calculated as long as it stayed under about $2.75 there would not be a major impact on ridership. Demand for transit is rather inelastic—people have to get to work—and they’re willing to pay an extra 60¢ a day (or $11 per month) in order to get to a job which pays many dollars per hour. For the average subway commuter, it’s still far cheaper to pay $70 for a monthly pass than to pay gas, tolls and (especially downtown, or in Kendall or Harvard) parking.

What’s interesting is where ridership fell. I expected that the increases in the cost of Commuter Rail to be a detriment to ridership. While transit and bus rose by 17% and 20%, commuter rail fares rose by 25-30%. And with higher fares to start, the nominal increase was $1.25 to $2.25. For monthly passes, which now range from $173 to $314, the increase in fares ranges from $38 to $64, which is not chump change. Commuter Rail customers are more likely to own cars than bus and transit users, and there was a lot of hand-wringing that commuters would abandon the rails and drive instead.

But that hasn’t happened. Even with lighter summer traffic, commuter rail posted gains. So did buses and boat traffic. The only declines were on The Ride (where fares doubled*) and on the Subway. Commuter Rail ridership is up. But the subway, where fares rose by a quarter and a nickel, is down.

However, the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense. While the subway prices stayed well within a range where they won’t have a major impact on demand, there is enough elasticity in supply to allow people to utilize other options. For most Commuter Rail riders, the trip is more than 10 miles and their only other option is driving, which is more expensive and subject to the whims of traffic. The cost of driving might be somewhat less marginally more, but it’s still more. So the supply is quite inelastic—even with fare increases the train is still cheaper than driving.

For subway riders, it’s a different story. Except for the Riverside and Quincy lines, most of the T’s ridership is concentrated within about 6 miles of downtown. Many subway riders have a commute which is only three or four miles long. The supply here is not constrained to transit or driving, but adds walking and cycling to the mix. With a mild summer (June was 1 degree below average, July and August 2 above) and expansion of bike sharing, as well as at-capacity rush-hour trains, it’s quite possible that many commuters looked at the fare hike and tested the elasticity of the short-distance travel supply. And that people looked at a mile-and-a-half ride on the train and decided to save $2 and take a half-hour walk. The price for walking or biking is essentially zero, so commuters were able to overlook the inconveniences of these modes due to the price savings. In other words, they pumped up their tires or put on their shoes.

Come winter, when it’s cold and rainy (or, like in 2011, snowy) these new riders may stream back towards the turnstiles (or, uh, Charlie Card machines). In any case, I doubt the drop in subway ridership is due solely to the rise in prices as much as it is due to riders exploring other options.

* I am torn how to feel about The Ride fares. On the one hand, paratransit is a lifeline for many disabled and disadvantaged groups who would otherwise not be able to get around without it. On the other hand, it commands a subsidy on the order of $40 per ride (if that was the rate of subsidy for all MBTA riders, the annual subsidy would be on the order of $15 billion per year—the cost of one Big Dig), and its ridership is growing exponentially. Paratransit is an important government service, but because it is shouldered by the T, a service for a few thousand riders a day is subsidized heavily by over a million other riders. A good solution, perhaps, would be sequestering funding for The Ride and funding it separately from the T at large.

Charlie and the Clipper

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I found out that they were still giving away their new, integrated, cross-agency (and boy, with Muni, BART, Samtrans, Golden Gate, Caltrain and AC Transit in the city alone there are a lot of agencies to cross) smart card, called the Clipper Card. I stuck one in my pocket and tapped on to a ferry, a bus, a train, a subway, and a streetcar. Except, it wasn’t quite the tap-your-wallet convenience I’ve come to associate with my Charlie Card.

So I experimented. Clipper and LA TAP card worked fine. Clipper and Charlie? Not so much. And a week later in Boston, well, the Charlie Card didn’t work well here unless the Clipper was out of proximity. It’s too bad; proximity cards are very convenient, speed transactions and boarding, and can make a multi-agency hodgepodge like San Francisco (to say nothing of LA) somewhat more seamless. But, really, someone should assure that the cards’ frequencies don’t interfere with eachother.

(Or, perhaps, I can dream of a day when transit agencies nationwide are all on the same frequency, and system. Ha!)

(posted from iPhone; will clean up later)