Event Summary of “Why Aren’t We Moving: An inside look at the MBTA
Written by Andrea Perrault
Civic Series Boston hosted its second event this fall, “Why Aren’t We Moving? An Inside Look at the MBTA”, on Thursday, November 8th at ALLEY in Cambridge. A packed room of over 100 people attended the session to gain insight about transportation challenges in Boston. While one might be skeptical about the likelihood that a speaker could address the myriad issues with the MBTA to the satisfaction of any audience, Matthew Ciborowski, Senior Planner for transportation at ARUP was definitely up to the task. Prior to joining the international design firm ARUP, Matthew attended MIT, worked at the MA Department of Transportation and the Mass Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) over several decades. His energy and enthusiastic delivery made it clear that he is totally immersed in transportation policy and service delivery; it is not just a career for him, it’s a lifelong mission. His remarks were his own responses to his years in the industry and did not reflect on current or past employers’ views.
Matthew promised an honest presentation with no sugar coating or secrets to be revealed. He delivered on that promise. While addressing a crowd that likely wanted to hear about improvements to accessibility and services, he wanted most of all to communicate about the realities of delivering effective, efficient, competent, and compassionate transportation services in the Boston area. The public needs to understand what challenges exist, and how they might better engage with an often besieged system that needs support.
Matthew cited three levels of conflict in delivering transportation, and identified fundamental truths related to each challenge:
- America vs. Everywhere
- Expansion vs. Maintenance
- Riders vs. Themselves
America vs. Everywhere: We must all recognize, accept, and deal with the uniqueness of our particular markets for transportation and our general history of development. It is a fundamental truth that Boston does not have the density of population or pattern of development on par with Europe or Asia. Land use planning in the United States is locally driven, with cities and towns dictating their own policy; in other countries, policies are addressed globally to allow for broader strategies for transportation planning. Another fundamental truth is that America is dominated by car culture and individuality. America loves the car, and individuality is a hallmark of American culture that supports our economic prosperity. A third fundamental truth is that geographic equity is a four-letter word in transit. Boston’s need is not the Berkshires need. And nationally, cities in the south and west are growing much faster than is Boston, giving their needs higher priority. A conundrum in the transportation world is the constant, but never resolved land use dilemma: does transit lead the way for development or does it follow/respond to it?
Expansion vs. Maintenance: In this conflict area, funding is a crucial factor. Transit does not pay for itself. MBTA fares account for 40% of transit costs. Ciborowski provided a chart that favorably compared MBTA fare increases to the MA Water Resources Authority (MWRA) increases from 1989 to 2016. Transit only makes money through ancillary funds, such as selling its property and these opportunities are limited. Comparing the MBTA to other public services in Boston, the system is likely more cost efficient. A significant challenge to funding is the political nature of accessing funds, especially considering that federal funding has decreased substantially – in the past, 80% of costs could come from federal funds; then that was cut to 50%, and now it is reduced to 20%. Political will is also a factor in the expansion vs. maintenance debate; politicians like to open new things (new stations, new community access); maintaining current operations is not as sexy. The central challenges here are these: Is transit a public service? What does that mean for the MBTA? If we make investments in maintenance, can we stay committed to that focus?
Riders vs. Themselves: This area of conflict centers on the individualistic natures of transit users. The reality/fundamental truth is that riders are the cause of most transit delays. Every transit system is a loop, not a straight line. Matthew provided a chart about how a delay at any one stop subverts the overall system, causing multiple delays throughout the route. Moving into the car automatically, taking a backpack off one’s back, not jamming the doors, observing the yellow line – these practices need to be inculcated into passenger regular practice. Can riders overcome their individual issues enough to care about how the system works for all?
How Do We Fix These Areas of Conflict? Matthew identified several ways to move forward:
- Accept the “Truths”
- Work within constraints
- Don’t stop thinking big
- Celebrate the small victories
- Hold leadership accountable
- Recognize the people working in the system and be positive!
- Ride transit with fellow passengers in mind
The overflowing crowd had many questions which Matthew patiently addressed, and even stayed over time to speak individually with attendees. Some of the highlights included:
Q: If you were in charge of the transit system, what three things would you address?
A: 1) Overhaul the dispatch system which now is old and manual; 2) Implement a world class asset management system (the MBTA needs to know where their assets are); 3) Have public relations and management focus on employee and passenger well-being.
Q: How do you make the issues of maintenance, expansion, and modernization comprehensible?
A: The way to maintain is to modernize; Build faith in public service!
Q: How can concerned citizens engage with the MBTA?
A: Contact your legislators; contact the new chief of customer relations for the MBTA; ALWAYS BE RESPECTFUL– there are people on the other line reading your messages and taking your calls!
Q: Do you have a favorite MBTA station?
A: In my youth, I used the Quincy Adams station, and I really am fond of it, especially it’s reference to history in its name.
– Andrea Perrault, Civic Series Volunteer