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.
|Yelp-rated routes in Boston. Click to embiggen.|
I noticed a while ago—as did some other folks—that Yelp users have been, for some time, rating transit lines. I was intrigued. Here was really interesting data about how people felt about different transit lines, distilled in to a simple 1-to-5 rating. While not every line was ranked in Boston (my first search) there were plenty that were, and I compiled a list of routes, star-ratings and the number of Yelps.
In Boston, only some routes were rated, and they were, not surprisingly, centered in the more student- and hipster-centric part of the city. For instance, no bus line in Dorchester or Mattapan got Yelped, but most in Cambridge and Somerville have many reviews. I figured the best way to show these data was on a map, and after some machinations (especially in resorting the shapefile so the thinner lines would display on top of the thicker ones) I got the map above. It’s pretty cool—click it to enlarge. (Here’s the full MBTA system map if you’re not familiar with the lines; I left off route numbers for clarity.)
But I realized that pretty cool wasn’t cool enough. There was probably a much richer data set out there. Boston has about 750 Yelp reviews, 450 of those for rail lines. Was there city with a wired-in community, lots of bus and transit routes, and high transit ridership? Did I just describe San Francisco to a T? And, voila, there are nearly 2000 Yelp reviews of transit lines in San Francisco, at least one (and usually many more) for nearly every line Muni runs (see exceptions below). (Here’s the Muni system map.)
|Muni Lines, as reviewed by Yelp. Click to Embiggen.|
|San Francisco inset. Click to embiggen.|
That. Is. Sexy. The N-Judah has nearly 200 reviews. Wow. And in case the downtown area is too clustered for you, there’s an inset to the right.
I also realized that I had a pretty fun data set here, too. I went to a talk by Jarrett Walker the other day at MIT where he mentioned, amongst other things, that we should not focus on the technology used for transit, but whether if fulfills the mission of getting people from one place to another. In San Francisco, we have a jumble of buses, trolleybuses, streetcars and even cable cars and we have a pretty good way of quantifying whether they are accomplishing the job of transit. (In Boston, even though the B Line serves tens of thousands of passengers a day it manages a 1.36 Yelp rating—remarkable as the lowest possible rating is 1. None of its 34 raters give it a 4 or a 5. Still, it moves a lot of people marginally faster than they could walk.)
|Vehicle type||Routes||Avg Reviews||Avg Stars||Weighted Avg|
I am so interested in San Francisco’s Yelp bus ratings that I’ve tabled the whole of the network.
|Line||Vehicle||Stars||# Ratings||Line||Vehicle||Stars||# Ratings|
The only lines not Yelped are the 35-Eureka and 56-Rutland. These lines have 30-minute headways (as does the 17-Parkmerced, see this route service chart with headways for all lines) while most lines in San Francisco have service every 15 minutes or better.
Next up: New York’s subways. And beyond.
According to the news, Occupy Boston has a new target: the MBTA. This is wrongheaded. They should protest the crawl with which the legislature is able (or unable) to make changes to the T’s funding mechanism, the debt burden shouldered by the agency from the Big Dig and myriad other poor decisions by the state and by the T in the last ten or twenty years. But protesting a modest fare increase? Not helpful.
Back in January, when the draconian proposals came out, my reaction was “well it must not be as bad as last time—then they were threatening to shut down commuter rail at 7 p.m.” Because of intransigence on the part of the legislature, the T has to threaten huge cuts, and then make smaller ones, so it’s a better pill to swallow. This time, at least, people seem to realize it’s a problem. Whether the legislature will act is another question all together.
In any case, the T will be raising fares to $2. Monthly passes will rise to $70. This is what the Occupy folks are protesting. And, well, this is really not a big deal. Look at other cities fares:
Only two cities have lower fares than Boston, and neither of these has a comparable level of transit. San Francisco does sell a cheaper pass for non BART-users, but those are confined to MUNI lines which are, well, not particularly speedy (the longest MUNI lines are about the distance from South Station to Alewife, but they take more than 22 minutes to complete the route). If you look at the “Big Six” cities with MSA transit use over 10% and center city transit use over 20% (Boston, SF, Philly, Chicago, DC and New York), the average monthly pass is about $85. DC has no real monthly pass option. And New York tops out over $100. Of course, their trains do run all night.
Here is another way of showing that the MBTA fares aren’t that high—looking at fares for major transit systems through the last 100 years in nominal and current dollars.
I left out DC (which has distance-based fares) and SEPTA (I couldn’t find fare history data for Philly) and threw in gas prices for fun. Note that the T has generally been about the same price as MUNI in San Francisco, and cheaper than Chicago and New York. (Except from 1920 to 1950, when Boston fares were a dime, and New York was a nickel.) The transit agencies all raise their fares to cope with increasing prices. And while the T has never hit the two dollar mark before, unless there’s deflation this year (there won’t be) it’s likely that prices will, in real terms, regress below the $2 mark in the next couple of years. It’s also significantly cheaper than New York and Chicago—especially since Chicago doesn’t have free bus transfers on single fares. And lest we complain further, Boston has had the lowest fare around since MUNI raised fares to $2 a couple years back.
Oh, and unless gas prices tumble real soon (and we’ll need another proper recession for that; in other words, we really don’t want cheap gas) any transit system is still cheaper than a gallon of petrol.
A few notes:
- New York has slight discounts—10% from 1993 to 2009, 7% since 2009, when purchasing at least $10 of transit fare. Chicago has charged between 10¢ and 30¢ for bus-train transfers since the 1960s.
- Since most transit users (about 2/3 in Boston) use monthly passes—an advent of the last 30 years or so—their actual fare per ride, assuming 2.5 rides per day for a transit-dependent user, is significantly lower: under a dollar in Boston. In transit-heavy New York, assuming 3 rides per day yields a cost per trip of just over a dollar.
- DC’s higher fares and lack of monthly passes yield a higher farebox recovery rate compared with other systems of over 60%.
- Commuter rail fares are going up, too, but for a less sensitive population: 28% of bus riders have incomes over $75,000, while 72% of Commuter Rail riders do.
- Data sources for Boston (Note that this study has transit fare comparisons in it, but doesn’t use the most-frequently-purchased fares; for instance it shows a single ride in New York as $2.50 and in Boston as $2. Most users pay less.), New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Gas prices from the EIA. Inflation from the BLS.
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)